30 Sep 2014

Labour rift growing ahead of contest

1:16 pm on 30 September 2014

Divisions within the Labour Party are widening as both David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson push their claims to be the party's next leader.

Mr Cunliffe formally resigned as leader today, paving the way for a leadership vote including not just MPs but also party members and affiliated unions. So far Mr Cunliffe and Mr Robertson are the only contenders.

On the way into a Labour meeting at Parliament this morning Mr Cunliffe told reporters he was not sure whether he would have caucus support in the leadership contest.

Mr Cunliffe has criticised some of his opponents by labelling them beltway politicians - criticism which suggests they are out of touch with the concerns of ordinary New Zealanders and that appeared to be directly aimed at Mr Robertson.

This morning Mr Cunliffe denied he was opening up a rift between MPs and the wider party.

"No I think it's really important that we come together as a caucus and a party, that we need to be outward-looking and focused on the whole country as well as making sure we are united with our base."

Mr Robertson shrugged off the criticism, saying Mr Cunliffe had been watching too much of American political drama West Wing.

He acknowledged the leadership contest could be divisive for Labour. "I think it's important that we work hard to make sure it's not. But what we have to do is be honest about what happened in the election and what's happened over the last few years. Once we go through that process we can come together."

Labour's outgoing deputy leader David Parker said he no longer had confidence in Mr Cunliffe. "I don't think it's tenable that David Cunliffe continue as leader," he said, but declined to give any reason.

Many others refused to say who they supported but MP Kris Faafoi said he would not vote for Mr Cunliffe in the leadership contest.

"I think it's time for change, and that generational change needs to happen. I think the caucus and the party need to be unified and I don't think David Cunliffe is the person do to that."

The leader will be chosen using an electoral college made up of 40 percent caucus, 40 percent party membership and 20 percent affiliated unions.

Asked on Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme this morning whether a majority in caucus was backing him, Mr Cunliffe said "I don't know that I do."

In the election Labour got just 24.7 percent of the vote, its lowest polling since 1922, but Mr Cunliffe said his own ratings were not so bad.

"The voters of New Zealand have shown that my level of preferred PM ratings was around about the same as Helen Clark in 1996, on many measures a little better than Phil Goff in 2011, and it is at the end of the day a matter for the party to decide."

Mr Cunliffe told Morning Report the party would not not tolerate a back room deal that ushered in a replacement, and the whole party must decide.

"I've had a lot of feedback from around the party that people don't think one year was enough. I retain the confidence, I think, of a large part of the party and the affiliates and the caucus and they want me to have another go - it's as simple as that."

Mr Cunliffe said he was stepping down to take responsibility for an horrific election loss but wants a new mandate to battle John Key.

He said the party had sent a clear signal it expected collegiality and discipline from the caucus and he had held out an olive branch to Grant Robertson, making it clear he would be comfortable if the MP rival was elected deputy leader.

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