Labour leadership up for grabs post-Shearer

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Last updated 11:57 23/08/2013
Fairfax NZ

As race starts to find new Labour leader, party president warns MPs against deals done behind closed doors.

Labour limbo as Shearer out

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CONTENDER: Deputy leader Grant Robertson is smart and a hard worker, but do the wider public know him?

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DEAR DIARY: Labour's ex-leader, David Shearer.
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FRONTRUNNER: Grant Robertson

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As the race starts to select a new Labour leader, the party's president has warned MPs that grassroots members will not accept a deal over the leadership done behind closed doors.

Leadership favourite is Grant Robertson, whose strongest challenge is likely to come from David Cunliffe, after David Shearer stepped aside yesterday.

Labour Party president Moira Coatsworth said today she had supported Shearer but acknowledged his leadership had failed to fire.

"I think there's a general agreement that the place we were in the polls was not the place we wanted to be."

Under Labour's new rules, a contested leadership would be put to the vote among grassroots members, the MPs and affiliated union members.

Coatsworth and general secretary Tim Barnett today released a timetable for the vote, with nominations closing at 10pm on Monday.

A series of hustings meetings would be held over the following three weeks before a vote. The result will be announced on September 15.

Coatsworth said the leadership vote was a "historic" opportunity for Labour's 40,000 to 50,000 members to participate in the democratic process.

The rule changes that allowed the leadership vote were an important part of modernising the party.

She emphasised there was huge expectation within the party that grassroots members would get to exercise their rights.

A deal done "behind closed doors" between the party's MPs would cut across that mood.

It was also important that the party get to decide so that the next leader would have a strong mandate.

Coatsworth said there would be a code of conduct for the leadership race. Only financial members up till midnight last night would be allowed to vote.

She confirmed that there had been a run of membership applications last night as people tried to get in ahead of the close-off date.

CLOSE LEADERSHIP RACE

Robertson has emerged as the frontrunner, though picking him could be a big punt for Labour. He would be its first gay leader and is seen as a Wellington "insider".

But Cunliffe cannot be ruled out after one senior MP said last night the race could be "close".

Labour would be taking a punt on either man with a Fairfax Media-Ipsos poll showing neither has huge recognition among the general public.

The poll, taken before Shearer stepped down, asked who would be the best person to lead Labour. A whopping 47.7 per cent of voters did not know, while 29.7 per cent backed Shearer. Only 7.9 per cent picked Cunliffe, and former leader Phil Goff was next with 7.3 per cent. Front bench MP Shane Jones was on 3 per cent support while Robertson was on just 2.5 per cent.

Opinion is divided in Labour over how the leadership should be decided.

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Former Labour Party president Mike Williams said the leadership would come down to a contest between Cunliffe and Robertson.

It was hard to predict the outcome because of the way voting was divided between 40 per cent caucus, 40 per cent party membership, and 20 per cent affiliated unions.

"That is a process which will develop over three, four, maybe five weeks," Williams told TVNZ this morning.

Cunliffe had done much to repair his relationship with the caucus in the past year.

"It's him who bought the snapper thing to the fore," Williams said.

"Who would make an issue out of fisheries?

"David Cunliffe's done that, so he's getting some credit for that, and he's less of a polarising figure than he was a year ago."

Christchurch East MP Lianne Dalziel believed Labour would unite quickly to do a deal on a new leader rather than enduring a contested and potentially bloody process.

"There are a lot of people who would like to see the matter resolved quickly - very quickly," she said.

But that would require Robertson and Cunliffe to come to an accommodation over the leadership and deputy leadership.

The smart money at this stage is on a Robertson-Cunliffe ticket as leader and deputy respectively, but it is not clear Cunliffe will accept that.

If he does decide to fight, and will not accept second fiddle as deputy, then Andrew Little and even Jacinda Ardern come into the mix as deputy.

Shearer's resignation came at the end of what one MP called a "growing crescendo" of MPs questioning his ability to take on and beat Prime Minister John Key.

It started in earnest on July 9, the "night of the non-letter", when rumours flew that a letter of no confidence was circulating.

There was no letter, but Shearer's handling of the "man-ban" - a move to allow electorates to run women-only selections - had further-undermined him.

A group of seven senior MPs - David Parker, Shane Jones, Maryan Street, Robertson, Clayton Cosgrove, Chris Hipkins and Annette King - met him in his office to tell him he was not making an impact and to put him on notice.

One MP said it was "vociferous" and sheeted the blame home to the leader. He was also told to sack his chief of staff, Alastair Cameron.

Since then the drums have been beating, with members privately criticising his work rate and his failure to stay on top of his paperwork.

Insiders say it became apparent about two weeks ago that the mood had hardened. By last week all but a handful of his closest supporters had deserted him.

The "snapper" moment - when Shearer held up two dead fish in the House this week - was a telling symbol of how much he was floundering, though one senior MP said the die were already cast by then.

By Wednesday, Shearer knew his fate was sealed. A Fairfax Media-Ipsos poll showed Labour making no headway, despite the Government's problems with the Government Communications Security Bureau, planned cuts to snapper quota and contaminated dairy products.

He took some advice, and "old hands" told him he would not survive a confidence vote. His time was up.

About midday yesterday, Shearer dropped his bombshell on the party, and informed the media 90 minutes later, saying he no longer had the confidence of many of his caucus.

He was soon on a plane out of Wellington for a three-week holiday, his 20-month dream of being the country's next prime minister at an end.

- Fairfax Media

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