Editorial: Cunliffe's main tasks lie ahead

19:40, Sep 15 2013

David Cunliffe has taken over the leadership of the Labour Party with one huge advantage not enjoyed by his two immediate predecessors.

Unlike Phil Goff and David Shearer, Cunliffe will not have to endure having a David Cunliffe as a colleague. Whether it was paranoia or a realistic fear having some foundation in fact, both Shearer and Goff spent almost their entire time at the top worrying about being toppled.

Cunliffe, having seen off those two former leaders and outstripped any plausible rivals, should be able to count on Labour having had enough of leadership crises.

Cunliffe's total of more than half of the electoral-college vote on the first round undoubtedly gives him a secure claim on the job. He still has work to do among his caucus colleagues, however.

While the wider party vote and perhaps more surprisingly the affiliated-union vote went heavily to Cunliffe, only 11 of the 34-strong caucus, the men and women who know him best, supported him. Even when second preferences were counted, Grant Robertson won a clear majority.

Cunliffe's talk therefore in his victory speech yesterday of an entirely unified party is premature. That unity is still a work in progress. He is, of course, aware of that and he acknowledged yesterday that a priority would be to unite caucus.


He has already made a start on that by promising senior roles on the Opposition front bench for his two rivals in the leadership contest. He was not letting on any more than that about his line-up but clearly, given the hard words that have been spoken about treachery and undermining, changes will occur.

But whatever the caucus's misgivings about Cunliffe were in the past, and however justified they may have been, it is clearly in Labour's interest that they now unite behind him.

National won power in the last election on a wafer-thin majority. With National's coalition partners, the Maori Party, United Future and ACT, melting away the next election, even if the economy continues to hold up as well as it has done so far, it is likely to be Labour's to lose.

The leadership contest has shown that Cunliffe has the capacity to articulate policy and energise the grassroots in a way that Labour has not seen for many years and so give it a chance to avoid that fate.

Not that it will be a walkover. Some over-excited Cunliffe supporters talk of his intelligence and articulacy as if that were all that was needed. They forget that both Helen Clark and Michael Cullen were clever and articulate but Key outdid both when it came to the crunch at the ballot box and over the last few years in the House, Cunliffe has not often scored any notably memorable blows against any Government minister.

In any event, Cunliffe's most challenging task is to formulate and sell coherent Labour policy, particularly economic policy. During the leadership campaign he outlined a vague but striking lurch to the left for Labour.

It worked in a populist drive among the hard-core party faithful where it was accepted uncritically. Making it saleable to a wider, middle-of-the-road voting public will not be so easy.

The Press