The Latham campaign was a mess internally, as our well placed Labor insider explains.

The upheavals now tearing apart the Labor Party are the long suppressed payback against Mark Latham for his leadership style.

That leadership style tore apart Latham’s own office in the weeks leading up to the election and in recent days has led to the departure of many of Latham’s senior staff.

  • Chief of Staff Mike Richard had a serious falling out with Latham, his closest adviser Michael Cooney and the Hawker Britton team of David Britton and Glenn Byers and was kicked off the campaign bus after just one week.
  • Director of Communications Vivian Schenker was told the day the election started she would spend the campaign back in Canberra and NOT with the leader and a later attempt by her to rejoin the bus was rebuffed.

So, for perhaps the first time ever, an opposition leader was on the road during a campaign without either his chief of staff or senior media adviser. Instead, Cooney, Britton and Byers called the shots and ran the failed strategy to run a values campaign and not engage on either the economy or national security.

Richards departed within days of the election loss, Schenker told colleagues during the campaign she did not expect to have a job even if Labor won and was sacked last Tuesday along with other senior staff. Latham’s third media adviser Alison Crossweiler is also believed to be quitting, along with his economic advisers, media assistant and speechwriter.

Insiders say the office collapse was caused by the fact that Latham only wants advisers who agree with him. Those who disagree and argue opposing points of view find themselves shut out of access and ultimately out of a job.

This style applies just as much to MPs with many complaining privately thoughout 2004 that they could not get access to their leader.

Anger about being ignored was suppressed for most of this year as Labor MPs and Senators genuinely got behind Latham and put aside their fears and doubts about his leadership style and polices in the hope that he would lead them to victory.

Now he has failed the gloves are off, and senior members of the party who believe he will never be electable are now determined he will not get another chance to lead them to a election.

For the moment there is no viable challenger, so they have to wage the war by proxy by attacking Simon Crean and Julia Gillard. Gillard’s only crime is that she was loyal to Crean and then Latham. She is one of the few exceptional talents on the Labor front bench and would have done a superb job as Shadow Treasurer. But by successfully dislodging her, the anti-Latham MPs have sent a signal that already they have the power to cripple Latham’s leadership unless he adopts a far more open and accessible style than he has demonstrated so far as leader.

The next two years are already looking like a repeat of the first two years under Simon Crean, and Labor MPs are bracing themselves for another shocking time in Opposition.

Latham is in a much stronger position than Crean to withstand this as he has a much higher approval rating and won’t waste the next two years on party reform. But the fact is Labor is likely to spend as much time attacking itself over that period as it is attacking the government.

Latham has made a superb start to the rebuilding process in appointing George Thompson as his chief of staff. George is highly respected throughout the party, is a genuinely decent human being but also not afraid to give tough advice where needed – the iron fist in the velvet glove as some of his admirers describe him.

His first showdown is likely to come with Michael Cooney – Latham’s Chief of Staff before he became leader, who stepped aside for Mike Richards but still effectively ran the show. Cooney has never been known to disagree with Mark on anything, and fought like a wounded tiger earlier in the year when it looked like he was being shut out of the inner circle.

Insiders believe the downfall of Richards and Schenker can be traced to the campaign by Cooney to restore his access to the leader and at some stage in the next three years Thompson will find himself in a similar position with Cooney that will have to result in the departure of one or the other.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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