Cunliffe's options: Olive branch or knife?

  • 15/09/2013

David Cunliffe has two stark options over the next week. Will the new leader of the Labour Party seek to unify his caucus by extending an olive branch to his detractors, or ensure loyalty by taking a hard line on dissenters? 

The man himself says he will judge his colleagues on their merits, not their prior loyalties, saying this morning they are a "united team".

But right-wing political blogger Cameron Slater says Mr Cunliffe needs to "knife" one of his colleagues to show them who's boss.

"Nothing focuses some people in the trenches of a battle quicker than a couple of dead bodies, and I think David Cunliffe actually needs to do that," Mr Slater said on Firstline this morning.

"He needs to cut some throats, particularly of some people who have been particularly nasty during the campaign. If there's three people who are volunteers for that, I'd pick Chris Hipkins, Trevor Mallard and Claire Curran.

"He only needs to knife one of them, and do it and then kick the body out the back, and then everybody else will be focused."

Ms Curran, who backed Grant Robertson, last week accused Mr Cunliffe's campaign team of using "dog whistle" tactics over Mr Robertson's sexuality. And following Mr Cunliffe's failed bid at the leadership last year, Mr Hipkins said he had "made it very, very difficult for the Labour Party caucus to work with him".

"I know that Trevor Mallard used to go over and swear and cuss and carry on and tell him to shut up and mind his own business when David Cunliffe was sitting at the back of Parliament," says Mr Slater.

"There has to be some retribution… Helen Clark never brooked any nonsense. No one was ever going to cross her, were they? They knew what the results were of crossing her."

But Former Labour Party president Mike Williams says Mr Slater is "quite predictably giving David Cunliffe some really bad advice".

"I think that David will be magnanimous in victory, and he needs to be. I don't think there needs to be a massive cleanout."

After Shane Jones was eliminated and his supporters' second preference votes allocated, Mr Cunliffe had the support of 16 of Labour's 34 MPs, trailing Mr Robertson by only two votes. He won the overall vote however with strong support from party members and affiliated unions.

Mr Williams says although the caucus vote was closer than expected, Mr Cunliffe should acknowledge Mr Robertson's strong showing and keep him on as deputy leader.

"I think David would be very foolish not to let him have that job."

But Mr Slater says that could prove fatal for Mr Cunliffe.

"There's no one who's done any more damage to various leaders other than Grant Robertson and the machinations that have gone on behind it. He was front and centre in ensuring that David Shearer tripped up on as many occasions as possible."

Labour's deputy is chosen by a caucus vote, so it is likely Mr Robertson will keep his job. Mr Slater says this ensures there will be continued tension and turmoil behind the scenes.

"[Mr Cunliffe] deserved to win, there's no two ways about it," says Mr Slater. "He had the membership behind him by a significant majority, certainly got the unions behind him.

"Unfortunately he doesn't have caucus behind him, and that's where the fun and games will be."

Mr Cunliffe says the vote for deputy and whip will take place tomorrow, and a front bench reshuffle will happen by next week.

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