Power of old guard part of leadership tussle

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 21/11/2012
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MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ
WALK OF SHAME: David Cunliffe walks into the urgent Labour caucus meeting at 4pm.

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What would it take to quieten Camp Cunliffe after Labour's pro forma backing of David Shearer? An olive branch, and preferably with the heads of Trevor Mallard, Annette King and Phil Goff skewered on it.

OPINION: Because the tussle between Camp Cunliffe and Camp Shearer is not just over performance, or personality, though both are big factors behind the train wreck leading up to yesterday's 100 per cent backing of Mr Shearer.

It is also about direction and resentment within parts of Labour at the role played by the "old guard" in last year's leadership run-off.

Mr Shearer was perceived as having been anointed by the ABC - Anyone But Cunliffe - club, whose key members included Mr Mallard, Ms King and Mr Goff.

It is no coincidence that the loudest voices on the Labour Party conference floor at the weekend included former Alliance activist Len Richards, seen as someone who is fighting the battles of the 1980s and the Labour Party split over Rogernomics - a period which all three MPs are closely associated with.

The Cunliffe camp within caucus might be less reactionary in their view, but there is resentment all the same at the influence the "old guard" exerts.

Mr Shearer, of course, will balk at sacrificing his closest allies. But his leadership is at a fork in the road. He has stared down one challenge, and his leadership will look stronger for it.

Mr Cunliffe's body language yesterday implied he was not going to disappear quietly into the back benches for the rest of the term.

Another leadership vote is set in stone in February, thanks to the Labour Party constitution. Mr Shearer could punish Mr Cunliffe's allies one by one, and set the back benches against his leadership - or isolate his former economic development spokesman by drawing some of Mr Cunliffe's allies closer, rather than pushing them further away.

If the questions over his performance grow louder, that may still not be enough to see off the next challenge. But it makes it less likely to come from Mr Cunliffe.

LABOUR'S WOES

The Labour caucus row is about performance, rather than policy.

While David Cunliffe has become the poster boy for the Labour Left, there are no obvious policy differences between him and leader David Shearer.

They both agree on big-ticket policies like the retirement age, capital gains tax, and monetary policy.

But Mr Cunliffe is said to have outperformed Mr Shearer during last year's leadership runoff at a series of meetings with the Labour grassroots and there is simmering resentment that the caucus chose Mr Shearer instead.

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