By Lynn Grieveson
Labour's Parliamentary caucus descended into an all-in political brawl on Tuesday as the main candidates traded insults and reopened old wounds about past leadership coups.
Labour's MPs held a three hour caucus meeting in Parliament where they voted David Parker as interim leader and Annette King as interim deputy leader. Parker told reporters after the meeting he expected the full leadership contest held before party members would be completed by Christmas and the details would be announced by the Labour Council on Thursday.
Earlier, David Cunliffe opened the hostilities in a Campbell Live interview in which he latched on to the criticism of rival candidate Grant Robertson and his likely deputy Jacinda Ardern as "beltway babes."
He offered Grant Robertson the position of Deputy Leader, but then went on to describe his opponents "as a group of beltway politicians" and that party members would not tolerate a leadership being "ushered in by some backroom deal."
Cunliffe explained his 'beltway politicians' comment on his arrival at Parliament for the caucus meeting where he formally resigned. Earlier, the candidates had traded blows in media scrums before entering caucus. Cunliffe's 'beltway politician' line was the focus.
"It refers to a political culture around the capital. It's a term that is used internationally and my comment is related for the need for us to look outwards, to connect with our base and to connect with New Zealanders," Cunliffe said. "I am not personalising it to individuals. This is about a political culture and the need for us to maintain connection with our base," he said, denying he was referring specifically to Robertson.
"I am not saying that people in the beltway are not good. I am saying that the culture needs to be outward looking."
Cunliffe said he did not necessarily need a majority of supporters in the Labour caucus to win the leadership contest, which gives 40% of the vote to party members, 40% to the caucus and 20% to union affiliates.
He went on to question the gap that had opened up between Labour's electorate vote and its party vote, which some had suggested was an implied criticism that Labour candidates had not campaigned hard enough for the party vote.
"I've seen for a while, and it is worse in this election than previously, a diversion between the electorate vote and the party vote. Just imagine we got 35% of the party vote, which is approximately what we got on the electorate vote, we would be in government," Cunliffe said.
Cunliffe rejected as "nonsense" the comment from Robertson that Cunliffe had effectively insulted Labour's volunteers by questioning their committment to winning the party vote.
"That's just not true. Because I have been at pains from election night on, in a speech that some thought was too positive, to thank and acknowledge volunteers and as recently as this morning on TVNZ Breakfast my very first comment was to thank and acknowledge the volunteers who are the backbone of our party," Cunliffe said.
Cunliffe denied that he had had anything to do with rolling David Shearer last year. Members of Cunliffe's camp have pointed to Robertson as the plotter behind Shearer's downfall. He said he would be willing to be deputy if that's what the caucus wanted.
"I've offered an olive branch if I am reconfirmed in the leadership role to have Grant Robertson or one of his supporters as deputy and likewise I would make myself available should people wish," he said.
Parker has no confidence in Cunliffe
Meanwhile, Deputy Leader David Parker told reporters he had no longer had any confidence in Cunliffe and that Cunliffe's position in bidding for the leadership again was untenable.
"I expressed the view to caucus last week that after the election loss we suffered I should tender my resignation. I also said David Cunliffe no longer had my confidence as leader. I don't think it is tenable David Cunliffe continue as leader," Parker said.
Cunliffe said Parker was entitled to his view.
"I respect him but we have different views about the options going forward," he said.
Asked why the rest of caucus would have confidence in him when Parker did not, Cunliffe said: "I can tell you from the literally thousands of messages that I have received in the last ten days that I have a lot of confidence still from, not only some caucus colleagues, but a lot around the party."
"At the end of the day I believe we need major reform to be a fighting force capable of winning the 2017 election. We have just had a drubbing. That is why today I am standing down as leader of the Labour Party. I also believe it needs strong, determined and experienced leadership to take the party through that change process. That is why I am giving the party the choice of either renewing my mandate for that change or selecting someone else."
Robertson returns serve
Robertson rejected Cunliffe's characterisation of him as a 'beltway politician' "It's an American political term isn't it? So perhaps someone's been watching too much West Wing," Robertson said.
"Every member of the caucus I know works hard for the constituents in their electorate where they're from and it's not a term I use. I think our party is about all the people of New Zealand."
Cunliffe later denied having the time to watch television.
Robertson said he would be unlikely to offer Cunliffe the role of deputy leader. He said he thought he had good support in caucus.
"My colleagues have worked with me other the past couple of years I think have got to know me well. They see me as someone that's got good judgement and can lead and unify the team so I have very strong support," he said.
Robertson described Cunliffe's comments about the gap between electorate votes and party votes as "an insult to the thousands of volunteers who put in time in the wind and the rain, delivering leaflets, knocking on doors, on election day getting out the vote."
Robertson said Cunliffe was "absolutely wrong on that." Robertson rejected suggestions from the Cunliffe camp that he had undermined Shearer last year or had plotted for his removal.
After the event
Parker said he was looking forward to being the leader on a short term basis.
"The caucus was clear that they wanted someone who was beyond the pale in terms of their neutrality and, of course, Annette's done it before and she's almost the mother - the grandmother - of the party now," Parker said.
Parker said Labour could get through its divisions.
"I think we are mature, we are a 98 year old party. We ain't going to disappear." he said.
Caucus had recommended to the Party Council that the leadership contest be finished before the Party's review of the election result was completed, but that an interim report was requested before the leadership vote was held, Parker said.
Parker reiterated his decision to not stand for the leadership himself.
"I am sure just about everyone in that room has been asked by someone to stand as leader. We've all got our supporters," he said.
Parker said he hoped the debate would be civilised.
"You can't have a contest without people robustly defending their views but I hope we'll keep it seemly."
King said the fight was not the worst she had seen.
"The 1980s were much worse than this. Whenever there is a loss by a party there is going to be a time of turbulence. I have to say I have been there and seen that before. There is turbulence, and I know it is exciting for the media, all this turbulence, but we will get through and we will come out of it and we will be a strong party," King said, adding she had seen more brutal caucus meetings.
Asked if Labour would be effective in Parliament, Parker said: "We are the same people that we were before the election, sadly, because we haven't brought many new people into parliament."
(Updated with caucus meeting vote result. The caucus meeting ended midway through the afternoon with David Parker appointed interim leader and Annette King appointed Deputy Leader, more comments from news conference.)