Who will take the fight to National?

It was obvious to anyone who scratched below the surface of the Labour Party who was going to win the run-off for leader in 2011.

Some on the Left rallied to David Cunliffe but the majority were unconvinced. A salon of the old guard and more conservative members on the Right - and the infamous ABC or Anyone But Cunliffe group - rallied around David Shearer. When David Parker pulled out of the race, a large non-Cunliffe majority was assured.

Fast forward to Mr Shearer's resignation this week and the picture is much more opaque. This time Mr Cunliffe is a real chance.

Last time the caucus had the only say. This time around, under the party's new rules, the votes are cast 40 per cent by the MPs, 40 per cent by the membership and 20 per cent by the unions.

Deputy leader Grant Robertson starts as the front-runner, if only because of backing in caucus. It is his selection to lose, but it is very possible he will.

He is seen as very "Wellington"; more the political operator than the populist leader, despite the inspiration he drew as an aspiring politician from another round guy with glasses - David Lange. In an age where an aura of anti-politician is a boon, he is party-Labour through and through. But he can command the House, is articulate and thinks on his feet. It is hard to recall a single gaffe or misstep, though he has not made the impact in some big portfolios that you might expect.

Tellingly, he was at his best in the state services role. If the gay factor has any impact it will be on those in the party who fear that in a tight race with National even a small minority could make a difference . . . for instance, among conservative Pasifika voters in the huge Labour-leaning South Auckland. Former party president Mike Williams fears they may not vote if they are uncomfortable with the leader, but the counter- argument is that housing, employment and the cost of living trump so-called "identity" politics.

Mr Cunliffe has knuckled down and taken the public edge off his self-evident ego. His supposed favouritism among party members may not be as clear cut as some commentators believe. He certainly has a loud and enthusiastic following in West Auckland and on social media, but party insiders say that presents a distorted picture of the true state of play.

Yet he has been endorsed as the best option by significant players among the commentariat, including Brian Edwards, who may be channelling former prime minister Helen Clark.

In his favour, the ABC sentiment has waned considerably, though he has lost, or is about to lose, two of his strongest lieutenants in Charles Chauvel and Lianne Dalziel.

Crucially it is understood the most senior of that grouping, the finance spokesman Mr Parker, has shifted his stance to at least neutral.

If anything there is a small group of conservatives - not yet officially the ABG or Anyone But Grant club - who sensed Mr Shearer's inevitable demise and believed Mr Cunliffe would not beat Mr Robertson and in recent months were casting around for a third option.

It was during that process that former president Andrew Little's name was floated. He has huge experience in the party and as a union leader. Unlike Mr Shearer, he speaks fluently and well. He has respect among business and is steeped - make that marinated - in Labour policies and beliefs. It is still possible, though unlikely, that he can come through the middle. It is worth remembering it was the last horse at the gate, Mr Shearer, who won last time - though that may be little reason to go down the same track. But even Mr Little's supporters talk about him more as a leader-after-next than the leader- in-waiting.

Where he may be more important is as a running mate, more likely on the Robertson ticket.

He has been something of a loner in caucus but his presence could weigh heavily with the 20 per cent of votes cast by the affiliated unions - including the biggest, the EPMU, that he headed before entering Parliament. The union vote could easily hold the balance of power.

In fact, the deputy on potential leaders' tickets could be the deciding factor. In 2011, Mr Cunliffe chose Nanaia Mahuta as his running mate - a superficially clever move appealing to Maori and female but seen in the end as a "tick-box" approach. In truth he reached too far down the caucus rankings. If he is wise he will not go there again, but the Maori constituency is a hugely important one.

If Shane Jones correctly reads the signs - that he is unlikely, given his baggage, to ever lead the party - he could still be a potent player as a deputy. His presence could help rally the conservative Right and the anti-Robertson faction to Mr Cunliffe's standard.

By the same token Jacinda Ardern could be an attractive running mate, bringing an Auckland and female voice to the Robertson camp. (She is close to him and not a starter on a Cunliffe ticket. The first time I ever heard her name was when Mr Robertson called, spruiking her for an interview as a future political mover and shaker.)

Of course, all of this presumes there will be a run-off and that the caucus will listen to president Moira Coatsworth's clear message not to stitch up a one-candidate deal.

While a no-contest might be the politically safe - even the politically savvy - way to go, Labour has little option but to run a contest. It has put in place more democratic rules, albeit better suited to the relative calm of a post-election defeat than the white- hot pressure of a pre-election spill.

But the activist base expects what they feel they were denied last time. If the caucus defies that it would spark a huge schism between the party and the parliamentary wing.

It may be messy, especially if the electoral college delivers a leader without a clear majority in caucus.

But in the end it needs to deliver someone who can unite the party, inspire the foot soldiers and take the fight to National. If he can't beat John Key - and on current form none of the candidates can - at least he might get the party closer to matching him.

The Dominion Post