Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Jones shows every underdog has his day

Labour leadership candidate Shane Jones. Photo / Stephen Parker
Labour leadership candidate Shane Jones. Photo / Stephen Parker

It is now half way through the leadership roadshow of the three Labour leadership candidates, known as the Three Stooges by National and the Travelling Wilburys by one of their own MPs. Although the voting is well under way, there are still no clear signals as to which of Grant Robertson or David Cunliffe will emerge victorious at the end of the line.

Caucus is split, the members are split and the unions are split, none of which bodes well for the unity that is supposed to be the result of the lengthy process.

The person creating the most interest is the man least likely to win: Shane Jones. Jones' run has been viewed by some as a kamikaze mission from day one. But there is a certain freedom that comes from being the underdog, and Jones has revelled in it.

While Robertson and Cunliffe have taken the approach that honey catches more flies, Jones has applied the vinegar.

Cunliffe and Robertson have played the fawning courtier to the membership which holds their fate in its hands, promising all manner of sweetmeats to entice votes their way. Cunliffe has had a dramatic, but possibly short-lived, transformation into a middle-class Che Guevara. He has decried the dirty freemarket, the crony capitalists, and the neo-liberal agenda and promised world domination to the unions and jobs and lucre for all. He has simultaneously, but in rather more hushed tones, also claimed to understand business. Robertson has taken a more subtle approach, but with the same aim and by highlighting the same policies.

Jones has, apparently perversely, gone the other way by insulting the members and pointing out that they are part of the problem. He wrote off a large portion of the membership as out-of-touch intellectuals who were putting off the genuine working class.

In doing so, Jones has focused on the destination rather than the journey. He has pointed out the real aim of the contest is not to be Leader of the Opposition, but to be Prime Minister in a Labour Government. He has also given a brutally honest depiction of Labour's current ability to do that. While the other two pussyfoot around talking about the need for unity and harmony, Jones is talking about the only thing that can secure that unity. That is not personality. It is the polls and power. He wants the party to be polling in the mid-40s by 2014. In doing so, he has pointed out the obvious: that the winner will have to be able to attract more votes than Labour's current core can deliver. So, he says, the members should be careful not to pick a leader who will only appeal to the already converted.

His approach might seem counter-productive at first glance. But Jones' candidacy is not simply the unnecessary, irrelevant distraction some have claimed. He has shown them what Labour needs to do on that election campaign and made them confront something nobody wanted to mention: that it is Labour, not the voters, which needs to change to get back into a strong position.

Jones' message is more than just his jokes, and that is why it has resonated at those hustings meetings, despite the sideshows about whether or not women like him and the history of his credit card use. He is still unlikely to win. But he will have achieved what he wanted, a rise in his own stocks.

His performance may also have ensured he has moved from being completely written-off to doing well enough to stop one of the others getting a majority on the first round of counting. That is why the other two - Cunliffe and Robertson - can't afford to treat Jones as simply the gooseberry on their date, because they need Jones to give a hint to his voters that they should give their second preference votes to them.

So the banter has been as vicious as things were allowed to get. They've each had their clangers. Jones made a few jokey references to Mr Robertson's sexuality in a couple of the first meetings. Jones later reflected and privately apologised to Robertson for it and has kept it out of further meetings. Jones has also copped a few back himself. The Whangarei meeting was held the same day Jones' insisted he could attract female voters from all over the country, in particular those who read Woman's Weekly instead of Germaine Greer. This sparked outrage from Woman's Weekly-reading feminists who didn't like Jones, and Germaine Greer readers who did like Jones. Some took it upon themselves, rather presumptuously, to declare on behalf of all women that no women liked Jones.

At the meeting in Whangarei, the candidates were asked which ministerial portfolios they would give to the other two. Grant Robertson said he would give Jones arts, culture and heritage "with a particular emphasis on the film industry" - a reference to Jones' porn. Cunliffe opted for women's affairs.

As for Cunliffe, neither of the others really needed to poke fun at Cunliffe. He was quite capable of doing it himself. He has declared he is the kumara people should want to munch on. In Whangarei, he began by talking to Jones' mother in the audience. He rattled off a rather confusing anecdote about Jones saying he was not her son, but her daughter.

It turned out the audience weren't the only ones confused. Cunliffe had wrongly identified Mrs Jones, and was instead talking to some other woman sitting nearby. That woman was more shocked to discover she was Shane Jones' mother than the audience was at discovering Jones was actually a wahine. The audience laughed, albeit at him rather than with him. Realising his mistake, Cunliffe added things were just getting more and more confusing the longer he went on. Quite.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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