Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Cunliffe 'job ready' and Labour's obvious choice

The Labour caucus chose not to take Helen Clarke's advice in 2011. Mr Cunliffe had rubbed too many of them up the wrong way over the years, says Rudman. Photo / Natalie Slade
The Labour caucus chose not to take Helen Clarke's advice in 2011. Mr Cunliffe had rubbed too many of them up the wrong way over the years, says Rudman. Photo / Natalie Slade

David Cunliffe erupted on to our television screens on Monday night as though he'd just become Prime Minister, not just decided to have another crack at the Labour Party leadership. "If he were a racehorse, you'd swab him," joked an old party veteran.

Not for him the simple press release or note to a reporter of his two rivals. Wreathed in Polynesian leis, and backed by caucus allies and adoring electorate supporters, he called the world to his electorate headquarters to declare himself back from the wilderness to which he'd been dispatched for cheeking the now fallen David Shearer.

He claimed to be a chastened, wiser and more humble man for his time in purgatory. Cue wild cheering.

Over the top it was, but it also brought to mind the expression former leader Helen Clark had used behind the scenes during Labour's last leadership contest in December 2011. Job Ready. To Ms Clark, Mr Cunliffe was "job ready", and Mr Shearer wasn't.

It was advice the Labour caucus chose not to take. Mr Cunliffe had rubbed too many of them up the wrong way over the years. Instead, they took a punt on the new mystery man, David Shearer.

Mr Shearer had entered Parliament just over two years before, following a by-election to replace the retiring Ms Clark in Mt Albert. He came from a stellar 20-year career leading humanitarian activities for the United Nations in world troublespots, including North Africa and the Middle East. His backers said he had the X-factor to challenge National's seemingly untouchable leader John Key.

It was never made clear what this miraculous X-factor was.

I quipped at the time that seeking a saviour from the East was highly topical, it being the eve of Christmas, but was it the right way to select someone to lead Labour back into office?

It proved not. Whatever his talents, they didn't include any magical abilities to lure voters back to the Labour fold. Now, little more than a year out from the next general election, the Pundit blog's poll of polls as of August 5 has Labour on 31.7 per cent, nearly 16 per cent behind National. Party optimists argue that that's an improvement on the awful 27 per cent of Labour's 2011 general election party vote, but Mr Shearer was not fooled. Years of experience in the world's troublespots had taught him when to get out, and so he did.

With a general election looming, Labour is now in catch-up mode to bed in a new leader. Once again, it's a contest between "job ready" Mr Cunliffe, first elected to Parliament in 1999, and with senior ministerial experience, and another "trainee", this time Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson, elected to Parliament in 2008 or just a few months before Mr Shearer. Also in the race is Shane Jones, who has already admitted he's a back-of-the-field wild card.

Obviously, Mr Robertson is a political high-flyer, selected, despite being another newbie, by his colleagues as Mr Shearer's deputy. But does Labour have the time before the poll to introduce the rest of New Zealand to a leader largely unknown outside the Wellington beltway.

Despite Mr Cunliffe's past "crimes" of "arrogance" and not suffering fools gladly - he says his time in the wilderness has transmogrified him into a more humble being - he is an instantly identifiable character on the political stage. He has a respected ministerial record and needs no introductions. For Labour, I would have thought that is vital. It doesn't have time to waste blooding in another new face.

Five years into the Key Government, Labour continues to find it difficult to take advantage of the natural dissatisfaction an incumbent government attracts. Labour couldn't even reap the benefits of the widespread protests against the GCSB Act. Green co-leader Russel Norman became the media opposition spokesman, as though by default.

Of course Labour needs more than a change of political leadership to reverse its fortunes. It also needs a campaign plan that both emphasises the need for party supporters not to split their vote and targets the 800,000 or so registered voters who in 2011 did not even vote.

In 2011, Labour ran a one-tick campaign, emphasising electorate candidates at the expense of the leader - then Phil Goff - and party. The other major parties all promoted their leader - and their party brand. The outcome was inevitable. Labour's share of the party vote, which decides the proportion of seats in Parliament, dropped to 27 per cent, although Labour's candidates collected 35 per cent of the candidate vote. In other words, nearly a quarter of those voting for a Labour candidate cancelled out their vote by giving their party vote to the Greens or New Zealand First or whoever.

The first step in reversing this drift away from the party brand is to select a leader who voters instantly link with the brand. Of the two front-runners, there's one obvious choice.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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