Cunliffe faces balancing act

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 21/09/2013

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OPINION: If there was any remaining doubt that David Cunliffe was supremely confident about winning the Labour Party leadership, the last week dispelled it.

Cunliffe is a man with a plan. He has moved at breakneck pace to reshape the leader's office and rearrange caucus responsibilities around a series of "clusters" including the economy, social policy, economic development and sustainability, broken down into key areas like jobs, manufacturing and regional development.

The critical position of chief of staff was filled within days, and Cunliffe surprised many by reaching out of the party to appoint Auckland lawyer, Wendy Brandon, who he dealt with as minister of health.

Brandon also comes into the job with commercial experience and is a former director and deputy chairwoman of the state-owned enterprise Kordia, which suggests she will bring a very different focus to the job than usual.

Former leader David Shearer's chief of staff, for instance, was former journalist and spin doctor Fran Mold. Prime Minister John Key's chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, similarly came from the PR side of the corporate world and has been in and out of National Party jobs for years.

Cunliffe also moved swiftly to name his deputy, David Parker, and while even long-time Labour insiders admit they have been unable to cut through the spin surrounding why he got the job over Grant Robertson, nobody argues Parker was a bad choice.

The new leader did not waste any time either delivering his rank and file supporters a symbolic head on a stake.

Dumping veteran MP Trevor Mallard as Leader of the House meets the blood lust of the party's Left-wing activists for a figurehead from Labour's lurch to the Right in the 1980s.

Mallard was also cheerleader for the Anyone But Cunliffe club (renamed the All Behind Cunliffe club in light of the pasted-on grins of MPs who previously conspired against the new leader).

The calls for Mallard's head were particularly loud among the more rabid parts of the Left-wing bloggerati who backed Cunliffe and whose visceral dislike of Mallard seemed on a par with Mallard's apparent dislike of Cunliffe.

The other pivotal members of the ABC club - Phil Goff and Annette King - will not be so easy for Cunliffe to dismiss. Just a year out from the next election, Labour needs all the firepower it can muster and both MPs are among the party's best performers.

For the same reason, Cunliffe's new line-up on Monday may not represent the bloody purge many of the party's activists are expecting.

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The front bench will be "tweaked" - Robertson loyalist Clayton Cosgrove can probably expect a demotion for instance - but there won't be a wholesale clean-out.

Shane Jones, David Parker and Grant Robertson will form the nucleus of the front bench team, which will be heavily weighted toward the economy.

A key focus will be regional development, suggesting Labour's focus groups are reflecting back the same concern as National's - that the backlash to a perceived gap between the amount of government money being thrown at Auckland and Christchurch versus the rest of the county could quickly snowball.

In short, Cunliffe's first days on the job have been about maximising the mandate he received as result of his overwhelming backing from rank-and-file party members and Labour's union affiliates.

But the size of his mandate is no guarantee of a honeymoon period with the Labour caucus, where feelings against Cunliffe have always run deep.

It is telling that in his earlier walks of life Cunliffe stirred up the much the same antipathy among many of his former colleagues as he has among the Labour caucus.

He will need to draw on every reserve of humility and self-awareness that he says the last 12 months in the wilderness has taught him.

To make a fist of the leadership, Cunliffe will need to pull a united team around him.

But first he will have to overcome any lust for revenge among the group of MPs who blame him for the internecine warfare of recent years.

Cunliffe will be given a hero's welcome at the party's annual conference in November but the support of the rank and file won't be enough to carry him to election victory if his leadership is destabilised by a back bench filled with disaffected MPs.

The battles won't all be about personality, however.

His battle cry that the "red tide is rising" went down well with the rank and file but a lurch to the Left will be harder to sell to middle New Zealand, where the next election will be won and lost.

Opinion will also be deeply divided within the caucus about the direction he might take them.

For instance, Cunliffe may be in tune with the rank and file in his concern about the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal being negotiated between many developed countries, but the champions of the TPP were, of course, former Labour leaders Helen Clark and Goff.

Cunliffe also has a female problem - or more specifically a blokes problem, given that there is expected to be another big push to raise the party's female representation in Parliament to 50 per cent. That will leave a number of Labour's "blokes" in a potentially precarious position on the party list if they don't win a seat, a cause for even more disgruntlement on the back benches.

Meanwhile, the remit book for the annual conference is chokka with complaints about the pension policy Labour took into the last election - among Labour's blue collar support base raising the age of entitlement to superannuation is a source of angst.

The ground beneath Cunliffe's seemingly overwhelming mandate, meanwhile, is not as sturdy as it seems. The stark truth for the new leader is that the caucus could pull the trigger on him any time.

Robertson's support in caucus is sufficiently large that he could force a no confidence vote that would set off another leadership primary.

That's the nuclear option, of course, and one that would guarantee mutual self-destruction.

But it's certainly enough to focus Cunliffe's mind.

- Stuff

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