Popularity not policy key to contest

Last updated 12:25 31/08/2013

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Tracy Watkins

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OPINION: David Shearer may have done more for Labour by standing down than he was ever able to achieve as leader.

The party has looked more invigorated in the past week than it has for years, and that includes its last year or so in government.

Expect the air to be charged at the first of the leadership meetings in Levin today.

An American-style primary, with the full glare of the spotlight on Labour's leadership woes, was always going to be a high risk strategy just over a year out from the election.

It still may be, given the rancour between the caucus and many rank and file who are well beyond the stage of heeding any plea from their MPs that the key to winning in 2014 is to present a united front.

The danger, as MPs know, is that Labour emerges from the primary looking even more hopelessly divided than it did going into the contest. Voters are hugely turned off by such bickering on the quite fair assumption that if party members can't even agree among themselves they can hardly be trusted to run the country.

Given the amount of heat and passion surrounding the debate so far that may still be the outcome - and that is even before the two week long "hustings" style meetings to showcase the candidates are underway.

But the contest has had two huge advantages for Labour so far; it has focused unprecedented attention on the party after 20 months struggling to get any oxygen at all. And it has changed the subject from a conversation about Labour's dire straits over the leadership, to one about which of the three candidates is most likely to lead the party to victory.

Mr Shearer's leadership was the marking time option after defeat in 2011 brought Labour to the crushing realisation that there would be no picking up where the Clark government left off.

But the Shearer experiment only delayed the inevitable. In that sense, Labour has finally got to where National was at in the early 2000s, when there was turmoil over policy and direction and the party purged itself of many long serving MPs, including ruthlessly deselecting them from safe seats.

It was bloody and it was hugely divisive - but it was also necessary after nine years in government.

The purge brought in the likes of Judith Collins and - of course - John Key, and built the platform for renewal.

This is Labour's version of that revolution, though the battle over the next two weeks won't be about policy and direction, since there is not much daylight between the two main contenders on that score. Even underdog Shane Jones, who is further to the Right than his rivals, is largely in synch on the big issues.

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So forget all the slogans and rhetoric about which of them stands for the freshest or newest face of "new" Labour. The real battle between Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson and New Lynn MP David Cunliffe boils down to an old-fashioned popularity contest.

On paper the two main candidates go into the contest with equal weighting.

While Mr Cunliffe was a senior minister in the Clark government he is not overly associated with the baggage that goes with that. And while Mr Robertson does not have Cabinet experience, that is no disadvantage these days. Mr Key had none either before he was elected prime minister.

Mr Cunliffe's polarising effect on his colleagues is by now almost legendary. But some of the visceral dislike that surrounded his previous leadership bid appears to have waned. And the calculation MPs will make this time round is likely to be far more mercenary. The equation is a simple one - who will get them back into power? And will backing the wrong team shut them out of the spoils?

The answer to their first question is not clear cut.

The affable Mr Robertson is better liked by the MPs, is seen as a more unifying force, and provides much of the strategic grunt within Labour.

But his Wellington-ness, and the much picked over issue that he is gay, make him a risk.

Mr Cunliffe, on the other hand, is formidable when on form. It is the off-form Cunliffe, the man whose performance can come dangerously close to parody, that worries his colleagues. So he too comes with risks.

Forget all the hooha, meanwhile, about Mr Cunliffe winning the grass roots vote before the contest even gets underway.

He certainly had the grassroots vote during the last leadership "primary" but that was under Labour's old rules, when the views of the rank and file were meaningless and only the MPs decided the leader.

And this is a very different contest to the one that took place 20 months ago when Mr Cunliffe was up against Mr Shearer. Mr Shearer's performance against Mr Cunliffe at many of those candidate meetings was apparently as woeful as his subsequent public appearances. Many party members are said to have gone into those meetings loving Mr Shearer's back story and willing him to win. But they emerged shaking their hands and backing Mr Cunliffe instead.

This time the contest is between three highly articulate and very clever candidates and the odds of one of them wiping the floor with their opponents are not high.

No wonder the most Camp Cunliffe and Camp Robertson are willing to concede is that the race is "very close".

The wild card is Mr Jones - and he has played a clever hand by throwing his hat into the ring late in the piece.

The reason there is no clear cut majority in the caucus for either of the other two candidates is because he has sucked away the handful of votes that might make a difference.

In a preferential voting system that gives him significant leverage - he probably won't win, but the second preferences of his supporters could swing the caucus vote one way or the other.

Of all the candidates, Mr Jones has the most personally to gain from the changes to Labour's leadership selection process.

It has allowed him to get out on the hustings and remind the caucus of the value he brings to the party, as the voice for the Kiwi battler - the "Mitre 10 hammer man" as he puts it - who has felt increasingly alienated from Labour in recent years.

It is also his path to personal redemption and political rehabilitation; his occasional flashes of brilliance on the campaign trail are a reminder of why he used to be touted as a future leader of the Labour party.

It has also injected humour into what might otherwise have looked too much like a fight to the death to be much fun.

Today's meeting will show for sure whether the momentum is as clearly in Mr Cunliffe's favour as the pundits predict.

If it is, or even if it is the other way, then the Labour MPs have a huge personal decision to make. What damage might a divided vote wreak?

Any outcome that suggests a divided caucus, or a caucus that looks disenfranchised from the rank and file, will make the next election that much tougher to win.

- © Fairfax NZ News


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