Toby Manhire: Labour needs leader contest, not a stitch up

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The new rules in the New Zealand Labour party, which mirror their UK counterparts in dividing the vote between MPs, party members and affiliates, make for a proper test of a potential leader's mettle.
The new rules in the New Zealand Labour party, which mirror their UK counterparts in dividing the vote between MPs, party members and affiliates, make for a proper test of a potential leader's mettle.

And so David Shearer strums his final chord, swings the guitar over his shoulder and plods off into the political sunset, the whiff of seafood in the air.

The soundtrack is a mix of condescension - such a nice and decent guy, what a shame, yadda yadda - and a chorus of fish-themed sneers from his political opponents.

Probably he would have been a better prime minister than he was Leader of the Opposition. He may indeed have shone as a conciliatory leader of a cobbled-together coalition.

Instead, he never really got out of first gear. The conference speech last year was lauded - but it was only exceptional when compared to his other performances. For all his intelligence, the spluttering interviews continued, the hesitancy, the air of fatigue.

There is some truth in the view that he lacked the necessary ruthlessness - but that's just a part of it.

He was missing the Machiavellian - and I don't mean that pejoratively, particularly - sureness of purpose.

Or perhaps he lacked a Machiavelli to help him find it. Either way, under Shearer, Labour was all tactics, and no strategy.

Shearer won the contest because he was seen to possess that most fashionable quality in a contemporary politician: coming across as not particularly political. The trouble is that for the likes of John Key, or the original modern template, Tony "I'm just a regular guy" Blair, the routine is largely simulacrum; they're political all right, deeply political, with their political muse the focus group. In Shearer's case, he appeared not particularly political because he's not particularly political.

There are only two credible candidates to be the next leader - Grant Robertson and David Cunliffe. Speculation around the chances of Shane Jones or Andrew Little - both of whom failed to win their constituency seats at the last election - is fanciful, about as likely as Labour persuading Stephen Donald to return from whitebaiting in Port Waikato to take up the mantle.

Robertson has hardly put a foot wrong since becoming deputy leader - or not, at least, publicly; it's impossible to know whether he was giving Shearer his full strategic support behind the scenes.

In a rare visit to Parliament this week, I watched him speak with devastating force and lucidity on the GCSB bill, achieving the rare feat of making Gerry Brownlee squirm.

Cunliffe has obviously had to bite his lip since being demoted for failing to give his full and undying support to Shearer at last year's party conference. And yet he's still performed effectively from the back benches, both in the revenue portfolio and as spokesperson for fisheries. Fisheries - as if anything of major consequence ever happens there.

For Cunliffe, however, the main problem remains the venomous dislike he continues to face in his own caucus. Not just because he's unlikely to win most of his colleagues' votes, which count for 40 per cent in the imminent contest, but because he thereby continues to carry the baggage of party divisiveness.

There will be a demand for an end to all of that, and Robertson is better placed to pitch himself as a unity candidate.

Another possibility, being put about last night by Otago University's Bryce Edwards among others, is that a deal has been done already, and that Cunliffe and Robertson will stand together, as leader and deputy respectively.

That would be a shame. Robertson may be wary of going for it unless he's close to certain he'll get the numbers.

Just as likely, he could judge that a defeated Labour after a 2014 election would look again to defenestrate its leader. But to hang back again would suggest he lacks conviction - indeed, that the man whose career has been politics, politics, politics (the criticism he's likely to face most often, incidentally) is too calculating.

Whoever ends up leader, however, it would be much better that it is not a coronation.

There were many reasons for Gordon Brown's failure in succeeding Blair as prime minister and UK Labour leader, but one of them was the lack of a challenge. He advanced essentially unopposed, avoiding the need to go to a full contest, and so missing out on a wider mandate.

The new rules in the New Zealand Labour party, which mirror their UK counterparts in dividing the vote between MPs, party members and affiliates, make for a proper test of a potential leader's mettle.

It's unlikely that Shearer would have been elected under such a system. It would be dismal for Labour if its next leader is seen to sail through.

The quiet choreography in the days before Shearer's resignation suggests that his colleagues agree they need a new leader, and renewal.

They'll now want to send a message of unity to the public - but that should take the form of a robust and well-mannered contest for the leadership, before party members and the country as a whole.

Better that than unity in the shape of a stitch-up.

- NZ Herald

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