BBQ at David Cunliffe's place

Summer is on its way. Finally some good weather. And some real sport to watch (test cricket, enough said). And a chance to fire up the BBQ after it’s been thoroughly cleaned by running the burners for 20 seconds. Good to go.

Someone who will be firing up his BBQ this summer is perennial Labour leader hopeful David Cunliffe. He’ll spend a good part of his summer over the smoky grill cooking for his guests, namely the disaffected Labour backbenchers that he will try to woo before the mandatory leadership caucus vote in February.

This vote will pretty much decide who leads the party into the 2014 election. And with the December TVNZ-Colmar Brunton poll putting the Labour/Greens block ahead of the National Party, it may well decide who will be the country’s next Prime Minister.

The February vote is all about timing. For one, the party will be reluctant to change leader beyond this with an election looming the following year. In addition, the February vote will have a special rule in operation. If just 40% of the Labour caucus vote for a new leader (which equates to 14 Labour MPs), a full-scale leadership contest will be triggered. 

If this happens, the Labour Party members outside of Parliament get a big say in who will be leader. The perceived wisdom is that the majority of the Labour rank-and-file want David Cunliffe as their leader and not incumbent David Shearer.  The upshot is that if Cunliffe secures those 14 votes in February, he will likely be the next leader of the Labour Party.

Which begs the question, how come Shearer is even in this position? 

One year on from the high of being elected Labour leader following Phil Goff’s decision to stand down, Shearer simply hasn’t resonated with the public. As other commentators have pointed out, his media and House performances have been marked by a stumbling verbal style and an apparent inability to think on his feet. 

Voters make snap judgements about politicians and Shearer’s weaknesses in these areas don’t do him any favours. They reflect the fact that he is learning the craft of national politics at the same time as being leader of the main opposition party (with all the media attention this position brings). 

That’s a tough ask, but Shearer chose this path when he stuck up his hand to be the leader while still being a rookie MP.

Shearer also hasn’t hit the government where it’s weakest: the economy. 

No question that National has been unlucky in the sense that it inherited the GFC and a rebuild of Christchurch. But the economy remains just plain sluggish. Unemployment now sits at the highest it’s been since 1999.

Plus the government is still borrowing large amounts of overseas money to help pay the bills (a very un-National approaching to government). A more effective opposition leader would have made life much more difficult for Key and English. 

Instead, all the business community has really been able to glean from Shearer is that he wants us to be more like Finland (admirable given its high-tech economy) but with very little in the way of practical policies to spell out how a Labour-led government would make that happen.

The better approach would have been to articulate a clear vision early in his tenure, then identify five or six specific policies to get there and keep repeating them again and again until he was blue in the face.  

In other words, get on the offensive, drive the policy agenda, and get Key Inc. on the back foot. Better than muddling along while the good will afforded to new party leaders slowly dissipates.  

Which brings us back to Cunliffe. His ambition to lead is barely concealed. This much is true. Even some of his Labour colleagues portray him as Machiavellian and dripping in smugness. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Then again, one needs to ask, whether these qualities are actually so bad. Surely we want Prime Ministers who are articulate, strategic, confident, and occasionally a bit stroppy? Isn’t this, after all, why our current Prime Minister remains so popular with the electorate?

I would argue that the business community, on balance, would be more comfortable with Cunliffe as Prime Minister than Shearer. Cunliffe at least has a track record that gives him more predictability and shows experience. He had four years with Boston Consulting and has an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Sure, the demerger of Telecom and Chorus he oversaw as a Cabinet minister raised a few eyebrows at the time. Nevertheless it showed he has a sound understanding of the commercial world, can navigate complex policy reform through Cabinet and Parliament, and isn’t afraid of taking a few bold steps.

Cunliffe will have to put on a damn good BBQ though to bring some of his Labour colleagues around. Make no mistake, many Labour MPs dislike him. Intensely. 

They feel he undermined Phil Goff as leader for three years, and is now doing it all over again with Shearer. Even the senior whip, Chris Hipkins, felt compelled to publically float the idea of Cunliffe leaving Parliament altogether.

So the race is on for February. Buoyed by some end of year polls that have increased his preferred PM rating, Shearer will continue to work away at the Labour caucus to try to persuade them that he is the man capable of tackling John Key in election year. Cunliffe on the other hand, will be checking his invite list, cranking up the BBQ, and dusting off his abacus.

Dr Ryan Malone is a director of Dart Government Relations, a lobbying firm based in Wellington with an interest in ICT, high-tech manufacturing, and biotechnology companies. He does not have political affiliations with any political party.