Labour leadership contest likely

17:00, Sep 21 2014
David Cunliffe
LEADER: David Cunliffe

The Labour Party is set to descend into another bitter leadership contest, and the caucus knives are out for David Cunliffe.

He said yesterday he would not resign, but will instead ask his parliamentary colleagues to trigger a party-wide vote. He wants that race to take place before Christmas.

He is gambling that he can maintain his support with the wider party, and particularly with the unions.

Labour slumped to 24.7 per cent support in Saturday's election, slipping from 27.5 per cent in 2011. It was its worst result since 1922.

It will return 32 MPs to Parliament, losing Maryan Street, Moana Mackey, Carol Beaumont and Raymond Huo. The future of former party president Andrew Little hangs in the balance - he stays in on the election night count, but special votes are yet to be counted.

The front bench held a emergency meeting yesterday behind closed doors, with MPs dialling in from around the country. A second conference call was held in the evening with all MPs. Beforehand, one said Cunliffe must go "and in any other Western democracy he would".

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Caucus colleagues were also lining up to publicly plunge the knife in. David Shearer, who was forced to step down last year when he lost the confidence of caucus, came out swinging. The result was tragic, he said. The Mt Albert MP expressed disappointment at quitting the leadership in August last year. The party polled in the 30s when he had the top job.

Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson did not deny his interest in the leadership, adding it was "a very, very disappointing result."

And list MP Clayton Cosgrove refused to offer support to Cunliffe, saying Labour had failed by concentrating on "too many peripheral, side and fringe issues".

Newly elected MP Kelvin Davis weighed in on the bitter post-mortem. Davis, who took Te Tai Tokerau off Mana leader Hone Harawira, said some "pretty hard-out, brutally honest conversations" were necessary.

Even the Green Party levelled blame at Cunliffe for the Left bloc's crushing defeat. Co-leader Metiria Turei said Labour spurned a proposed alliance earlier this year, which was a "big mistake".

However, Cunliffe refused to apologise for the trouncing yesterday, saying the blame did not solely lie at his door. He blamed the Dirty Politics saga and Kim Dotcom for drawing attention away from Opposition party policies.

"The feedback I've had is that people feel I've performed credibly on the campaign trail and that there is a strong case for unity and stability in the leadership while we undertake the programme of change that the party needs," he insisted. "While we have an awful lot to reflect upon the feedback I've been getting is it's not primarily a leadership issue."

Behind the scenes, the finger pointing began in earnest, with some in the caucus questioning Cunliffe's commitment to win the election.

One suggested he gave up on the election campaign weeks ago and shifted his attention to manoeuvring to launch a primary campaign as quickly as possible.

The swift proposal of the primary contest - before Christmas - was also questioned as it gave potential challengers little time to prepare.

Sources said his concession speech, delivered at the New Lynn Community centre, was written on Friday.

However, it's understood Cunliffe's camp were frustrated during the campaign by the notorious ABC [Anyone But Cunliffe] faction, including Robertson, Annette King and Phil Goff. Sources say chief of staff Matt McCarten was stymied by the faction doing just enough, but not too much.

MPs insisted on taking more control of the campaign after Cunliffe was forced to publicly apologise for taking a three day skiing holiday in August. McCarten snatched back control in the final two weeks, and Cunliffe's performance lifted.

In his speech on Saturday night, Cunliffe pointedly referenced poor fundraising efforts, which insiders said was a veiled dig at Shearer's legacy.

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