Gordon Campbell on David Cunliffe winning the Labour leadership

Finally, David Cunliffe can begin the task of rebuilding and repositioning the Labour Party that should have occurred at the end of the Helen Clark era in 2008. For the last five years, Labour has slowly chuntered downhill under Phil Goff and David Shearer, on the empty tank and fumes from the so called “Third Way” policies that it had borrowed wholesale from Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the 1990s. It is now Cunliffe’s job to define what Labour stands for in the wake of a Global Financial Crisis that drove the last nail in the coffin of the neoliberal orthodoxy that has failed most of the voting public so comprehensively for the past 30 years. In its infinite wisdom, the Third Way advocates have argued that Labour should shed its blue collar constituency and the language of class differences, and focus instead on trying to win over the white collar professionals who were liberal on social issues. Those social issues became Labour’s sole badge of authenticity, as it quietly embraced the dry economic policies that were systematically destroying the jobs of the party’s traditional base.

The task of reversing away from this suicidal set of economic policies is one that should put Cunliffe’s current minor tiffs with his caucus in perspective. Like Ed Miliband in Britain, Cunliffe has to devise and promote a different way of doing business to a caucus, business sector and media that are wedded to the current economic settings, regardless of the fact they are consistently failing most New Zealanders. Change to this ruling mindset will not happen overnight. The advantage Cunliffe has is that he heads a party that seems willing to embrace a different message and hundreds of thousands of voters so disenchanted with Labour’s current abandonment of them, that they have stopped voting at all. By focusing on them, Cunliffe can plan on talking past his caucus mandarins and the chatterers in the Press Gallery. He can realistically hope to re-energise the party activists – and if he can mobilise even a quarter of the current 800,000 non-voters, what the rest of his caucus think about him will be even more irrelevant in future than it is right now.

There have been five lost years since the defeat in 2008. The rebuilding will take time. Yet thanks to the timing of the leadership change, Cunliffe has several opportunities to present himself as an alternative Prime Minister including (a) from the moment he is elected (b) at the Labour Party annual conference in November, and (c) when Parliament reconvenes in February. Obviously, Labour will be planning the effects to be cumulative and not as providing “one more chance” opportunities to correct any misfires on the launch pad. One basic point: a leader gets to lead, and followers get to follow.

That may sound obvious. However, some of the media commentary has already tried to place an onus on Cunliffe to accept and pay homage to the current power balance within the Labour caucus – rather than expect the caucus to get in behind the new direction that he will be seeking to chart. Unfortunately for Labour, there still seems to be a ‘born to rule’ mentality among some of the caucus old guard. These would be the same geniuses who selected Phil Goff as leader after the 2008 defeat, and then imposed David Shearer on the Labour Party – after the party membership had been invited to express their preference, did so for Cunliffe, and were then ignored by a caucus leadership that gambled everything on Shearer, and lost badly. Neither Cunliffe nor the party owe these MPs anything, beyond token concessions. To depict the cause of Labour unity as still being somehow dependent on the ruffled feelings of Phil Goff, Annette King, Ruth Dyson, Clayton Cosgrove and Trevor Mallard would be utterly perverse.

Grant Robertson as deputy and Shane Jones on the front bench are the only gestures towards unity that Cunliffe might have to accept. Beyond that, the leadership contest – which Cunliffe won by 51- 33 % over Robertson, with media favourite Shane Jones a distant third – means that Cunliffe is under utterly no obligation to satisfy the will and whims of the caucus mandarins, and to tailor his policies to their agendas. The party membership and its affiliated unions voted strongly for Cunliffe and even in caucus the final vote was fairly evenly split, at a narrow 53-47% preference for Robertson. Already, some observers have been arguing that Cunliffe is under some kind of obligation to retain Rimutaka MP Chris Hipkins as senior whip. This is very odd reasoning. Barely ten months ago, Hipkins had publicly accused Cunfliffe of being “dishonest” and of undermining the leadership of not only David Shearer, but of Phil Goff before him.

The obligation to show loyalty and the need to apologise, one would have thought, now rest entirely with Hipkins. Yet in a weird twist of Beltway logic, Hipkins’ retention is being treated as a litmus test of Cunliffe’s commitment to caucus unity! Conveniently, this is a media narrative where Cunliffe can be portrayed as weak if Hipkins is retained, and vindictive if he isn’t. Ultimately, the only factor that needs to be considered is whether Hipkins is pre-eminently the best contender for the job. Since Cunliffe has said he will be running a meritocracy where only ability – and not past allegiances – will count, there is room for generosity.

Thankfully, most voters have far more important things on their minds than the political future of an MP they have never heard of. Can Cunliffe devise and promote policies that will be better able to lift their incomes, and the nation’s economic fortunes? Arguably, Cunliffe could hardly do worse than how New Zealand is faring under its current management. The government’s rationale for its asset sales programme – which made little economic sense from the outset – is a good case in point. The recent $30 million gift of corporate welfare to the multinational owner of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, against Treasury advice, is the latest in a litany of disasters to befall the asset sales policy. Worse is still to come. On any number of fronts, the Key government looks vulnerable. For that reason alone, Cunliffe is coming into the job with much public good will at his back. Many people within and beyond Labour’s ranks want him to succeed, and to rescue the country from another three years or more, of John Key’s amiable incompetence. If Labour muffs this chance to offer a better alternative, they may never get a better opportunity.