Hard-fought tussle on a 'knife edge'

Last updated 05:00 14/09/2013

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Labour is set to enter uncharted territory as its leadership contenders spend a final day glad-handing supporters and rounding up last-minute votes.

After two weeks of town hall-style meetings Labour will find out tomorrow the result of a party-wide vote to elect a new leader following the resignation of David Shearer.

Grant Robertson, Shane Jones and David Cunliffe have been vying for the job and will be dispersed between Auckland and Wellington tomorrow when the decision comes in.

Jones is planning a big party at the Manurewa RSA, despite being a rank outsider. Robertson is planning a more low-key bash at a Wellington cafe, while Cunliffe is likely to be based at his New Lynn electorate office with supporters.

Robertson has a majority of MPs in caucus backing him and that would traditionally give him the leadership. But under new Labour rules, MPs only account for 40 per cent of the vote, while members make up another 40 per cent and the unions 20 per cent.

MPs spoken to yesterday said the result was still on a knife-edge after the two-week leadership "primary", though the momentum appears to be with Cunliffe.

Electing a leader without the backing of a majority of caucus is unprecedented - and risks further acrimony in an already deeply divided caucus.

Cunliffe's first test as leader if elected would be appointing a deputy, which, under Labour's rules, is decided by a caucus vote.

To win the vote he may need to extend an olive branch to the Robertson camp, possibly by selecting a deputy or offering other senior positions, or risk a humiliating defeat. But it will also be a test of whether the group of MPs in the Labour caucus - the so-called old guard who are known as the "Anyone But Cunliffe" club, are capable of uniting behind a new leader.

Cunliffe's campaign was given a boost by the backing of former Labour Party president Mike Williams, which is seen as sending an important signal that he also has the tacit support of former leader Helen Clark.

He also has the backing of Left-wing commentators Brian Edwards and Chris Trotter and is widely believed to have the edge over Robertson among the rank and file.

But turnout could be a decisive factor and the unions could ultimately play the role of kingmaker. That is likely to favour Cunliffe after a number of smaller unions came out publicly to endorse him.

Robertson's campaign suffered a big blow, meanwhile, when the powerful Engineering, Printing, and Manufacturing Union rejected a bid from some of its senior Wellington officials to endorse him.

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Instead, the EPMU agreed its delegates should be allowed to vote how they wished after being warned many would ignore a Robertson recommendation.

Jones is also a wild card and while he is not expected to win, his supporters' second preference could be crucial. He is believed to have five to seven MPs in caucus, but most of them will give their second preference to Mr Cunliffe, making the caucus vote much tighter.

- Fairfax Media

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