Appointment 'a stroke of lunacy or brilliance'

Kapow! as David Cunliffe has been known to say.

The appointment of former Alliance boss and union hard man Matt McCarten as his chief of staff was meant to be a moment of high theatre for the Labour leader (spoiled somewhat by its early leaking out of a gleeful Labour left).

As it was he called a press conference to announce it – an unprecedented move for what is usually a back room role. Certainly neither his previous appointment of Wendy Brandon nor Prime Minister John Key’s choice of Wayne Eagleson in the same role merited such drama. A short press release was all.

But Mr McCarten is a larger than life figure on the Left. 

Who else can boast such history?

He abandoned Labour in disgust at the Rogernomics reforms and alongside Jim Anderton formed NewLabour , later merged into the Alliance. It briefly out polled Labour in Helen Clark’s dark days of 1996 and was a key cog in her government after 1999.

Then there was the schism between him and Mr Anderton. The Alliance melted down over sending troops to Afghanistan, although that was a proxy for a deeper issue – how stroppy the smaller party could be in distinguishing itself inside a coalition. (Mr Anderton is also back ‘‘home’’ with Labour but clearly there is still tension between the two. Mr McCarten yesterday could not bring himself to say they had reconciled.). 

Since then he has set up the low waged workers’ Unite union, faced questions about the union’s tax bill, survived what was expected to be terminal cancer,  stood as an independent in Mana and was later chairman of the Mana Party, championed the Maori Party and set out his shingle as a Left-wing commentator and columnist.

Given all that, former Labour president Mike Williams (one of the few people Mr McCarten spoke to about the appointment before it was confirmed) got it about right.

It was either a stroke of lunacy or of brilliance on Mr Cunliffe’s part. 

He might also have added a third option – a high wire act born of desperation for a ‘‘game changer’’ in the face of National’s strong start to the year and the poll gap betwixt Left and Right. 

In fact ‘‘game changer’’ was the phrase de jour yesterday among Mr Cunliffe’s leftwing chorus of commentators.

After the joint Cunliffe-McCarten press conference yesterday a fourth option springs to mind. The limelight may not be big enough for both of them. One of Mr Cunliffe’s first tasks will be ensuring Mr McCarten understands his is not a public role. If he is still in the news in a couple of weeks , then Mr Cunliffe may have a problem.

But Mr McCarten is one of the most astute strategists around – and is a dab hand at some tactical strokes too. The giant rat the unions run around with in Auckland and the chicken that clucked its way through the Taranaki King Country by-election, after Jim Bolger quit, were out of the McCarten zoo.

You can’t imagine Ms Brandon – or God forbid Mr Eagleson – coming up with either of them.

On that level Mr McCarten’s is very much an election year appointment. 

He may or may not stay on after the election, if Labour wins, but it is hard to see him running the back office in government.

Yet for now he is an ideal foil for new campaign manager Dave Talbot – a formidable pollster and voter mood-taster. But there is still an obvious need for someone in Mr Cunliffe’s inner circle to handle the routine administration.

His other strength is his experience of internal rifts going back to the Left-Right fights inside Labour’s Princes Street branch – ironically with that other recent political retread, ACT’s new campaign maestro Richard Prebble. 

Despite protestations to the contrary there are still differences in the caucus between those who welcomed Mr Cunliffe as leader and those who were hostile. Their current level of disgruntlement is well short of the strike or go-slow it has been called. Most are working hard and all want to avoid being blamed if the Cunliffe experiment blows up. Sceptical rather than openly hostile.

But there is work to be done and Mr McCarten’s appointment sends a number of signals there too.

It lets the rank and file know that the leftward signal Cunliffe sent when he took the leadership is still in place.

It tells the unions likewise.

And it warns the Cunliffe-sceptics and the Right of the caucus yet again that things have changed; When the unions and the membership installed him over their heads it did not mean business as usual.

Mr McCarten is just not a business as usual kind of guy.