Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: Labour's fascinating talent contest

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Labour's leadership election is already proving to be a riveting process, and for the next three weeks there will be relentless focus on this contest. Photo / File
Labour's leadership election is already proving to be a riveting process, and for the next three weeks there will be relentless focus on this contest. Photo / File

Labour's leadership election is already proving to be a riveting process, and for the next three weeks there will be relentless focus on this contest. Already there's a variety of fascinating analysis and commentary, raising all sorts of interesting issues and perspectives. But there's also a sense that the contest could sink into a circus of superficiality rather than substance - or as John Key puts it today, 'a reality TV show'.

First off, there are some excellent satirical and humorous items. Steve Branuias' The secret diary of David Shearer is a gem, focusing on the (fictional) role played by Grant Robertson and David Cunliffe in the demise of David Shearer. Sean Plunket has a similar take on what amusing maneuvering might have gone on behind the scenes - see: Mutiny plays right into Key's hands. Ben Uffindell of The Civilian ponders whether anyone really wants the job - see: No one puts hand up for Labour leadership.

And it's also worth watching an old 27-second satirical video montage from Patrick Gower - see: David "The Terminator" Cunliffe: "I'm Back".

How meaningful is the contest really? Possibly the most insightful critique of the contest so far has come from Rob Hosking in his paywalled column, Labour leadership contest: a substance-free zone (paywalled). Hosking, says 'For people aspiring to lead a party of supposed policy wonks, the Labour leadership contestants are avoiding talking about anything to do with substantive policy. There isn't even any ideological difference between the candidates: it is all the language of branding, of marketing, of positioning and of spin'. In terms of Robertson's branding, Hosking says, 'his branding is as a kind of one man political Hudson and Halls. He is gay, but in a cuddly, down-home way, and he says he represents a "new generation" and will "unify the party". So, no absence of ancient political clichés there'. Cunliffe's branding? He's 'not likely to offer any substantial policy difference between himself and the other candidates. This is, in other words, all about style rather than substance. But then, given the lack of style exhibited by Labour in recent years, perhaps this is not surprising'.

In a similar vein, some leftwing pundits are also challenging the idea that a leadership change will really mean a substantial political change for Labour - see John Minto's Will Labour turn left at the crossroads? Or will the 1980s stranglehold remain? and Matt Robson's The Enduring Legacy That Labour Needs To Expel.

David Farrar has put together a very useful, insightful and readable comparison in his blogpost, Cunliffe v Robertson. The two candidates are rated and analysed across a number of key criteria, with their strengths and weaknesses highlighted. In the end, despite genuine praise for Robertson, Farrar comes down in favour of Cunliffe with an explanation that is worth quoting at length: 'if I was a Labour member, I'd vote for David Cunliffe. He is a bigger risk for Labour, but he also has the bigger potential to gain votes.... the next one will be economic management. One of the reasons National has done so well is John Key resonates economic credibility with his strong business background. Labour needs a leader that can be equally credible, or at least reasonably credible. While Grant is a skilled politician, his background is basically entirely within Government. He was a student politician, then a parliamentary staffer and then an MP, with a couple of brief spells with MFAT and Otago University. That makes it hard for him to convince New Zealanders that he can run the economy better than John Key and Bill English. Cunliffe has studied at Harvard Business School, and worked at Boston Consulting Group. He was also a very competent Communications and ICT Minister. That gives him a greater opportunity (but not a guarantee) to convince New Zealanders that Labour can manage the economy. They don't need to convince people that they will spend more on welfare and families and the like. They need to convince on economic management'.

The Herald's Left to lead is another must-read, in-depth analysis of the two main candidates. The key quote from Audrey Young on Cunliffe is: 'Cunliffe has an uncanny knack of being both left-wing and right-wing, union-friendly and business-friendly, socially liberal and a devout Christian and family man, an urban latte-loving inhabitant of Herne Bay and an outdoorsy fisherman and tramper, a compassionate New Age guy and a tub-thumping mongrel campaigner. In short, all things to all people'. And the key quote from John Armstrong on Robertson is: 'Gay, but not overtly so. Comes across instead as a Good Kiwi Bloke who likes a beer or two while chewing the political fat. That he is gay will not handicap him in the leadership contest, and equally might not handicap Labour if he becomes leader'.

This idea of Robertson not being 'overtly' gay caused significant angst on Twitter - see my blogpost, Top tweets about Grant Robertson and the gay (non) issue. But certainly Robertson's sexuality has become the first major issue - or non-issue, depending on your point of view - to arise in the contest. This is covered best in Hamish Rutherford and Steve Kilgallon's Gay prime minister may be 'a step too far', and also in Amanda Gillies' Robertson's sexuality could hurt chances. According to David Farrar, 'there's a spectrum when it comes to gay and lesbian MPs' and Robertson is not at the end in which he is defined by his sexuality, and hence it although it will have some impact on his chances, 'it is relatively minor' - see: Beyer says NZ not ready for a gay PM. Robertson endorser, Michael Cullen puts it a bit differently: 'Grant's a man who talks straight and he thinks straight and he happens to be a gay man.... The first two things are important for a prime minister. The third is irrelevant' - see Amanda Gillies' Is NZ ready for a gay PM?.

Other commentators have rightly pointed out that there are other aspects to Robertson that are potentially more electorally problematic. Rob Hosking says, 'What is more likely to hurt Mr Robertson is his Wellington-centric background and general approach. He is not well known in Auckland: he is very focused on public sector issues and his points of reference, political and personal, are a very narrow political world'. Similarly, Andrea Vance says 'Grant Robertson will have to overcome the image that he is a Beltway policy wonk who would be a fish out of water in the provincial heartlands' - see: So long and thanks for all the fish, David. Vernon Small also emphasises that Robertson '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' - see: Who will take the fight to National?.

Robertson is still somewhat of an unknown quality for many voters. So for an in-depth look at him and his views you can watch an hour-long interview/discussion that I had with him about his politics and his future at the time of the 2011 general election campaign - see: Part 1 On sexual politics and student politics, Part 2 On student life and drugs and alcohol, and threat of the Greens, Part 3 On Greens threat, Rena, Rugby, and Part 4 On asset sales, Helen Clark, and the Mana Party. Blogger James Meager also summarised the discussion here: Grant Robertson at Vote Chat.

The case for Grant Robertson (paywalled) is put by Matthew Hooton on the NBR website. He says that Robertson 'would represent a generational shift in New Zealand politics', as he would 'would be the first major party leader to be born in the 1970s' and therefore a Generation X politician able to 'inspire those Labour-leaning votes that are less likely to vote to bother to do so'. Hooton astutely points out that Robertson's sexuality is actually a potential strength: 'This works in his favour, given the strength of Rainbow Labour within the party'. He contrasts it to fears that used to exist within National about John Key's wealth: 'Many New Zealanders are prejudiced against gay people but surely even more are prejudiced against $50 million-dollar-worth investment bankers with mansions in St Stephens Ave. Within National, Mr Key's background was a concern when he was moving towards the leadership but those concerns have turned out to be utterly without foundation'.

David Cunliffe will be the third contender for leadership, and is assumed by most to be the frontrunner. Certainly he received a boost with TVNZ's opinion poll showing him to be the clear leader amongst the public, and with Robertson only in fourth place - see: David Cunliffe favourite for Labour leadership - poll. He is also helped by the fact that Camp Cunliffe now includes a significant number of opinion leaders, including influential ex-president of Labour, Mike Williams. Also, see Brian Edwards' On the extremely rare danger of overestimating Labour Party stupidity!. Edwards is still pushing the idea that a 'something more than a glimmer of electoral success in 2014 now exists in the form of a Cunliffe/Robertson leadership with Cunliffe at the helm. This is the dream team'. And leading left-liberal commentator Gordon Campbell appears to be leaning towards Cunliffe - see: Is Cunliffe the answer after all?. Analysis and comments on the leftwing blogsite, The Standard, also suggest a lot of support for Cunliffe and suspicion of Robertson and dismissal of Jones.

On the political right, Cunliffe is finding some support too - see Fran O'Sullivan's Shearer had to go - it was when, not if, and Cathy Odgers - see Isaac Davison's Party will 'weed out' vote infiltrators. And two newspaper editorials have also come out in Cunliffe's favour - see the ODT's The Labour leadership and the Manawatu Standard's Labour has only one credible candidate.

Matthew Hooton has also put The case for David Cunliffe (paywalled). But rather than a real defence of Cunliffe, this is actually a hugely damming critique in which Hooton paints Cunliffe as the political chameleon extraordinaire who will 'say whatever he thinks the audience wants to hear, and he will say it with passion'. Hooton challenges the assumed wisdom that Cunliffe is on the left of the party, saying it's 'all just a case of over-empathising. Businesspeople he meets with privately say he tries desperately hard to sound like one of them. Maori leaders say he is so over the top in his use of te reo and the hongi as to make them feel uncomfortable. As leader of the Labour Party he is not likely, in any substantial way, to take it any further to the left'.

To get a greater insight into Cunliffe and his politics, you can also watch my Vote Chat discussions with him from 2011 - see: Part 1 On his time as a Otago Politics student, Part 2: On his political future, Part 3 On moral issues (http://bit.ly/19GGr41), and Part 4 On the environment. The second Vote Chat video is possibly the most revealing with Cunliffe detailing where he sits on the left-right/liberal/conservative spectrum, what he thinks of Grant Robertson, his thoughts on the role of Leader of the Opposition and feelings about being Prime Minister ('Oh God, why you wish that on a dog').

Some are asking whether Shane Jones' candidacy is serious. I argued on TV3's Firstline programme this morning that it was more about flagwaving and leverage than a real attempt to win the number one position - see: Shane Jones rejects 'flag-waving' charge. Jones, replied later that I needed to 'concentrate on teaching stage one students and stop talking about things he knows nothing about', showing again that he has a knack for a retort and strong self-confidence. This is a point well made today by Rob Hosking, who says Jones 'is though probably the biggest threat to National. He has the one gift which could yet defeat Prime Minister John Key - wit. One of the things most threatening to political leaders is being laughed at, and Mr Jones has the ability to deliver the kind of coruscating phrases which make an opponent look ridiculous'. Furthermore, 'When Mr Jones turns his abilities on full bore, he is incredibly formidable. He does not do so often, which has led to charges of indolence. That, and what is seen as a certain attitude of entitlement - he has been groomed for leadership since boyhood - has turned many people off'.

John Armstrong is also characterising Jones as being in the contest with ulterior motives - see: Why Shane won't win - but is a winner. Armstrong labels Jones as the candidate of Labour's political right, and points out that 'His leverage in the caucus may well be increased if the leadership vote is close and Jones directs his supporters as to which of the other two candidates - David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson - they should give their second preferences and that candidate wins'.

If you want to follow the minute-by-minute contest going on in Labour, it seems that the social media platform of Twitter has really come of age in this election campaign. Felix Marwick reports on the how things are heating up online - see: Labour leadership: Twitter 'campaigning' already underway. But should taxpayers really be paying for Labour's leadership contest? That the question asked today by Newstalk ZB's Katie Bradford-Crozier in her report, Tough battle ahead for Labour. She says 'It is ironic of course that as contenders travel the country - taking them away from their Parliament and constituency work - taxpayers will be footing the bill. Labour's ruling council has made it clear they won't pay for travel expenses, so the MPs will have to decide whether that money will come out of their own pockets, or whether they'll use their taxpayer-funded flights'.

Finally, it's worth reflecting on how the whole campaign will impact on Labour's public support. And on this question, Patrick Gower thinks it's a winner for the party - see: Leader-less Labour already hurting National.

- 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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