Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Labour's new Cunliffe-Robertson combo

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Labour Party deputy leader Grant Robertson during a press conference announcing the resignation of party leader David Shearer at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour Party deputy leader Grant Robertson during a press conference announcing the resignation of party leader David Shearer at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Labour's new leadership is quickly shaping up to be a likely David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson combo, as leader and deputy, and there may be no real contest. Although various political journalists are surveying the leadership options and suggest a full Labour leadership contest will play out with a struggle between Cunliffe and Robertson, in reality the more likely scenario is that the two contenders will combine in as a formidable 'unity ticket', leaving a wider democratic contest essentially unnecessary, or at least uncompetitive. Certainly when leading political commentator John Armstrong comes out - as he has today - and declares that Cunliffe is the only real option for leader, then the discussion starts shifting into an inevitable consensus - see: The only option... it has to be the ambitious unpopular one. Armstrong is right to say that a Cunliffe-Robertson 'ticket would be unbeatable' and he makes a strong case for a Cunliffe-led unity leadership being on the cards. It is possible that before the end of the day - and certainly by the close of nominations on Monday - there may be an acceptance that the Cunliffe-Robertson unity ticket is the most powerful option available for Labour.

Chris Trotter also analyses the options for Grant Robertson, and he pronounces that there is 'only one course of action for Robertson to follow, and that is to approach Cunliffe and offer himself as his running-mate on a Unity Ticket. A Cunliffe-Robertson combination would be unbeatable in the Electoral College - a fact which, once absorbed by the other possible contenders for the leadership - Shane Jones and Andrew Little, would argue for an uncontested succession. A Cunliffe-Robertson combination would see Labour cross the political fault line for the first time in thirty years. It could energise the party and the wider labour movement in ways that would transform the 2014 election into a genuine and passionate political contest' - see: Making the Case for a Cunliffe-Robertson Unity Ticket. My own views on why a Cunliffe-Robertson unity combo is likely are reported by Dene Mackenzie in the ODT today - see: Cunliffe tipped for role.

The possibility of a stitch up is also discussed today by Tracy Watkins and Vernon Small in Labour crosses fingers for easy handover. They say that the combo might be the other way around, with Robertson leading: 'Some would prefer a bloodless transition, which would be less of a distraction and provide a better chance of presenting the caucus as united. But that would require the two main contenders - Grant Robertson and David 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 whether Mr Cunliffe will accept that'. And elsewhere, Tracy Watkins also says that 'If Mr Robertson and Mr Cunliffe aren't already talking about doing a deal, they should be. The alternative is probably three more years in opposition' - see: Lack of timing and nous.

In such a scenario, the other main contenders are likely to drop out of the race in recognition of the impossibility of beating a Cunliffe-Robertson ticket. Supporting that view is news just out that Shane Jones won't be competing - see Newswire's Jones unlikely to contest leadership.

The main problem with the Cunliffe/Robertson scenario is that their leadership ticket would probably lead to their automatic appointment without a full leadership vote by the wider party membership and affiliated unions. This would be criticised as undemocratic, as Toby Manhire points out today in his column Labour needs leader contest, not a stitch up. Manhire says that an undemocratic 'coronation' would be damaging to the new leader's credibility. Similarly, Danyl Mclauchlan blogs today on the stitch up possibility: 'I don't know which of them the party should choose. I do know that they should listen to their god-dammed members this time around, and not just stitch something up in caucus or do a deal with the unions to block vote for a leadership team' - see: Very serious punditry.

Labour's party president Moira Coatsworth is being reported today as warning MPs 'that grassroots members will not accept a deal over the leadership done behind closed doors' - see Vernon Small's Labour leadership up for grabs with Shearer gone. But this article also reports Cunliffe supporter, Lianne Dalziel as believing that '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'. Helen Kelly expressed a similar opinion today on Morning Report. But TVNZ's Corin Dann disagrees about this possibility, saying an election contest now looks inevitable.

There are also reasons to believe that such a deal might actually be widely accepted by the membership and unions. First, if it's true that those groups generally favour Cunliffe as leader, then they are much less likely to protest their favoured candidate winning, regardless of the process.

Second, the advantages of a bloodless leadership transition that avoids further infighting and negative coverage might be embraced - or at least accepted - by many in the party, who now just want Labour to unify under the strongest leadership possible. As much as party activists might enjoy a real battle, the worst scenario would be an all-out, three week, winner-takes-all public brawl. Regardless of the outcome, National would rub its hands in glee with the prospect of playing on internal divisions right up until the election.

Third, if Cunliffe and Robertson announce a joint bid for the leadership, then it won't necessarily be seen as their fault if no other MPs decided to stand as alternative candidates. Instead, the overwhelming narrative will be focused on the burying of the hatchet between Cunliffe and Robertson. There might be minor grumbles about behind-the-scenes maneuvering that produced that outcome, but it would be accepted as being for 'the greater good'.

There is another plausible scenario, in which a Cunliffe-Robertson combo might emerge after both candidates fight it out with the loser taking the deputy leader position - a situation in which no outsider MPs are given a chance to become deputy to the winning candidate (as is the usual practice). This would satisfy the desire for a democratic contest while producing the same outcome. Of course this scenario might still produce some undesirable bloodletting and destabilisation. As Trotter says today about such open contests, 'Things can be done that cannot be undone; words spoken that cannot be unsaid'.

Certainly if there is any kind of contest, the unions and caucus will obviously play a strong role, and might easily dominate the wider party membership. Talking on Radio New Zealand National this morning, the head of the CTU, Helen Kelly, appeared to be suggesting that the unions would be likely to vote as a bloc. Similarly, if the caucus decides to do a deal, essentially also bloc-voting, the membership vote becomes largely irrelevant. The lesson is that smaller organised groups will always be able to dominate wider membership if they work together.

What about Andrew Little? Might the union movement want to get 'their man' into the job? That's being suggested by some, but Gordon Campbell argues today that unions will be more focused on backing the strongest possible candidate: 'The union leadership is nothing if not realistic, however. And as Helen Kelly said on RNZ this morning, the bottom line has to be who can win the next election. For all of Cunliffe's flaws - and the fabled egotism, pomposity and shoot from the hip tendencies have all been brought under greater control in recent years - it would seem obvious to everyone but the diehards in the Labour caucus that Cunliffe is a better media performer than Little' - see: On Shearer's exit, and where Labour goes from here.

In the negotiations going on behind the scenes at the moment, there will also be a lot of thought given to other front-bench positions, especially as pay-off incentives to powerbrokers and other potential leadership candidates. In the NBR, Rob Hosking looks at some of the potential scenarios - see his (paywalled) article, Labour's Michelle Boag moment. He says that there is likely to be a clean out of the 'deadwood' in the caucus, and he pays particular attention to who might be appointed to 'the key economic and business-related roles', suggesting Goff or Jones for the finance portfolio.

Most of the maneuvering, positioning and number crunching is likely to have occurred prior to Shearer's resignation yesterday. Certainly we should be taking anything Labour MPs say with a very large grain of salt - after all, these are the same people that have been staunchly denying any possibility of Shearer being replaced as leader.

And, of course, the question needs to be asked as to whether Labour will need more than just a change of leadership to become a viable alternative government. Labour's Josie Pagani puts this perspective forward in her blog post, Labour needs more than a new leader - it needs change. She concludes: 'Labour can't get elected by hiding from the public what it really wants to do. Unpopular policies have to go, not be clumsily repackaged. And out with unpopular policies must go those parts of the political organisation that prevented David Shearer from making the changes he knew had to be made. Labour is hamstrung by palace politics. Factional loyalty counts for more than performance or electability. Until Labour can be frank about that and tolerant of a contest of ideas, no leader will be successful. I don't know who will lead Labour next. But Labour needs more than a lick of paint or snappier sound bites at six. It needs change'.

In the meantime, as the contest - or stitch up - shapes up, it's worth re-reading Guyon Espiner's excellent Listener profiles of the two main characters - see: Labour deputy Grant Robertson and Labour MP David Cunliffe. Also on the Listener site, Jane Clifton gives her opinion in A tale of two snapper.

In terms of David Shearer's demise, there's plenty of time to analyse this, but the two key article to read today are Claire Trevett's Revealed: The woman who triggered Shearer's downfall and Vernon Small's Shearer: Why he quit.

Finally, for irreverent and playful - but also insightful - takes on the Shearer's resignation and the contest for the new leadership, see Ben Uffindell Civilian blog posts, A Look Back: Remembering Dale Shearer and David Shearer resigns, 'if that's okay with everyone', Scott Yorke's It's a tough decision, and my own blog post, Images of David Shearer.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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