Labour race too close to call

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 11:34 09/09/2013

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OPINION: One week down, one to go. The Labour leadership race is midway and we probably already know more than we need to about each of the three candidates.

Shane Jones knows how to work a crowd and has the most conviction, but is not averse to punching below the belt.

David Cunliffe has an evangelical style of delivery that works well with the Labour faithful - but his colleagues worry he does not know where to draw the line.

Grant Robertson is capable of combining the best of both his rivals on a good day - wit and passion - but for someone who wants the job so much he has done the worst job of showing it.

Here is a recap of the race so far.

Biggest Surprise:

Shane Jones. Mr Jones has fallen from grace, been out in the cold, lost in the wilderness after revelations he clocked up blue movies on his ministerial credit card, then was stood down while questions about a citizenship application were investigated.

However, the leadership race has been a reminder of what might have been and a stroke of pure genius on Mr Jones' part.

Tipped as a leadership contender when he first entered Parliament, he has finally delivered on the promise. The race has also allowed him to connect with Labour's lost tribe of blue collar voters. That will give him a sizeable following that should guarantee him a high list place. He may have alienated too many powerful factions in the party to win but he is far from an also-ran.

Biggest blunder:

It has been a largely pratfall-free race - Mr Jones saying he would string a bungee cord around John Key's sensitive parts is the exception. Still, the candidates have not made some strategic blunders. Mr Robertson was completely blindsided by the theatre surrounding Mr Cunliffe's nomination and looked decidedly casual about putting his name forward in comparison. If it was deliberate to avoid Mr Robertson looking too hungry for the job it backfired.

Mr Cunliffe's launch was equal parts of brilliance and farce. To the converted it shored up their belief in Mr Cunliffe; to his opponents, it verged on parody, serving only to entrench their disquiet.

Riskiest campaign:

In repositioning himself well to the left of his colleagues, Mr Cunliffe has cleverly tapped into the increasingly toxic divide between Labour's hard-line activists and the caucus. But with the likes of Left-wing flag bearer Chris Trotter painting him as a revolutionary, expectations have been ratcheted up beyond what is realistic. Cult- Cunliffe will likely be disappointed to discover that in repositioning the party, he will go about as far as pragmatism allows without losing sight of the end goal, which is to win the next election. That means taking Labour closer to the centre, not further away from it.

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Best performance:

Mr Jones' colleagues will be wondering why he waited nearly a decade to apply himself. Mr Robertson has also been a revelation to many among the party faithful who had their minds firmly made up to vote for Mr Cunliffe.

It has largely been a flawless performance by all three and supporters will see what they want to see. Mr Robertson has reinforced his credentials as one of Labour's smartest MPs and an impressive speaker, while Mr Cunliffe, when he hits the right notes, has shown he can be formidable.

High point:

The race has clearly invigorated Labour's rank and file and has dispelled any doubt that removing Mr Shearer was the right thing to do. Any of the contenders would do a better job of taking the fight to National and articulating Labour's cause. The only question remaining for rank and file will be why the caucus waited so long?

Low point:

In the race to "out Left" each other Mr Cunliffe and Mr Robertson have made extravagant promises about policy yet to be signed off by the caucus and which they will be under pressure to dump on the campaign trail next year, which ever of them is leader.

Who is ahead?

Within caucus, Mr Robertson has the numbers. But Camp Cunliffe say it is closer than Mr Robertson's backers portray and also appears to be counting on second preferences from Mr Jones' backers falling Mr Cunliffe's way. That is not assured, however, and there are indications Mr Jones may push them Mr Robertson's way.

Meanwhile, finance spokesman David Parker and former union boss Andrew Little remain enigmas. Both are hugely influential and while Mr Parker is seen as a firm Robertson man, a nod in the other direction would send ripples through the caucus.

Mr Little will also affect how others vote, including members of the powerful Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union.

With the unions set to play kingmaker, Mr Cunliffe and Mr Robertson have both been working the union numbers extensively. The Dairy Workers Union has come out publicly for Mr Cunliffe and a number of other smaller unions have privately given Mr Cunliffe their endorsement as well. But the EPMU is the heaviest hitter of them all.

The other big factor is the MPs themselves. They are lobbying their electorates extensively and some who are strongly in the Robertson camp - like former party presidents Maryan Street and Ruth Dyson - will have a big influence on party votes.

So while Mr Cunliffe is thought to have the edge among rank and file, that is balanced out by Mr Robertson's edge with the caucus.

Weekend polls could throw the cat among the pigeons and cause a rethink both among MPs and the wider party.

It is hardly surprising then that no-one is ready to call it just yet.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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