Editorial: Traction and teamwork

For any Opposition party in Labour's position, changing leader is not so much a momentous occasion as a momentum thing.

Much of the talk following David Cunliffe's election is about the need for unity. But it's no chicken-and-egg dilemma - what matters here is not which came first, but which must come next.

And that's not unity, it's momentum in the polls indicating traction with the electorate. Deliver that, and unity becomes less than an issue. The problem with David Shearer wasn't that he was seen as too dictatorial or insufficiently inclusive.

For now, anyway, momentum does not depend on a supreme display of unity. In fact a show of strength from the leader is not only tolerable, but desirable. Nothing quite so brutal as would too strongly evoke the old political adage "in victory revenge, in defeat malice" but still a show of authority for all that.

Shedding Chris Hipkins as senior whip falls well within this tolerance, particularly should it be seen alongside a capacity to work productively - not necessarily too chummily - alongside his two challengers for the leadership, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones.

Voters don't mind acknowledgement of some tensions, provided that's not all that is being presented to them. While spite and enmity are an anathema to unity, to come across as too like-minded is perilously close to seeming unthinking. The concept of different personalities, like-minded where it matters, is not that difficult to grasp, nor to accept. If anything, the Cunliffe, Robertson, Jones trio need not be too dainty about the flintier aspects of any new working relationship, provided the bottom line is that it is indeed working.

It's not really within Mr Cunliffe's power to truly unite the Labour Party in any case. The Helen Clark years were testament to how well it can be held together with a sufficiently adept leadership, but in many ways it's always a case of papering over the cracks -or plastering, anyway - for a party that bears some resemblance to an old, familiar, earthquake-prone building.

Mr Cunliffe prevailed in a reformatted party election process that gave more strength to the rank-and-file members, and to affiliates like the unions, than to the caucus. Had the vote been down to what other MPs thought, he would have lost to Mr Robertson.

He is to the Left of the party that also has not only centrists but its own variation of Right-wing thinking as well. More than a few of the rank and file were either uninspired, or alienated, by the party's performance reaching right back to the 2008 election defeat.

Mr Cunliffe has prevailed at this level by a campaign that includes increasing taxes. That will be a serious problem for some, but they would be unwise to seek more than the status of voices and votes for caution.

Some of the best advice coming Labour's way is not to be mired by issues that don't deliver on core principles. It's easier to make a general assurance along these lines than to live up to it when things get maddeningly combative. But it's a case of eyes on the prize.

The Southland Times