Matt McCarten on politics
Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Leader's race is Labour's chance

David Cunliffe at his elecorate office. Photo / David White
David Cunliffe at his elecorate office. Photo / David White

At the Labour Party's November conference, Grant Robertson or David Cunliffe will take the podium to give the leader's speech.

I like David Shearer. I'm disappointed he didn't make it. It's the nature of politics that when a person gets into the political bear pit, it inevitably ends in failure - 19 years for Helen Clark and just 20 months for Shearer.

Bill English has been able to carve out a major political role after he lost his party's leadership. I hope Shearer will, too.

Unlike most politicians, Shearer was genuinely liked by his colleagues and they are saying nice things about him.

But yesterday's news is today's fish and chips paper. The only news now is who will lead.

The party branches and their affiliated trade unions are ecstatic. The new process for the election of a leader is divided into three electoral colleges.

The party branches get 40 per cent of the vote, the same as the caucus. The unions pick up the remaining 20 per cent.

It's a straight race between Robertson and Cunliffe. As of this week Robertson had the edge, although everyone says it's close.

Both of these guys are talented. Interestingly, both are past acolytes of Clark.

Andrew Little has respect and support in the party, and I'm sure he'll be delighted he's being talked about as a candidate.

But after Shearer, Labour will be gun-shy about considering a first-term MP - even though Little has been party president and was the head of the biggest private-sector union. Whoever wins, they'd be smart to promote Little.

Kite-flying from Shane Jones is only that: he has no real support. Jones is a talent and was once a real contender for the top job, but a couple of public missteps and criticism that he's not pulling his weight take him out of the race.

Some of his colleagues think he's got a chance for the deputy's role but it won't happen.

Cunliffe opportunistically nominated Nanaia Mahuta as a running mate when he contested with Shearer. It backfired.

Common sense suggests neither contender will have a deputy running mate.

Robertson has been a loyal deputy and has done nothing to undermine Shearer. That has earned him points. Cunliffe has the opposite reputation, not just with Shearer but with Phil Goff when he was leader.

Conservatives in the party tell me Robertson's sexuality may count against him, especially among the strong Pacific Island sector. However, Pacific leaders I've spoken to say his homosexuality isn't an issue - Robertson has never been into identity politics and isn't defined by it.

There's no doubt Robertson is the caucus favourite, but the hostility against Cunliffe has softened.

Two of his opponents tell me that if Cunliffe did win they'd support him, albeit reluctantly. That's a big change.

The spin from Cunliffe's camp is that their guy has the support of the unions and is more popular in the party, particularly in Auckland.

My feedback from the unions is that their support for him is divided.

In the party branches, it does seem Cunliffe has the slight edge. Outside Auckland, though, Robertson has enough support to make the race for the branches competitive.

Both men are driven politicos and will give John Key a run for his money.

As of this week, Robertson will win. But if Cunliffe runs a good campaign, he may be able to pull it off.

Personal support for National and Key is a mile wide - but only an inch thick. In any event, the possibility of National sleepwalking to victory at the next election evaporated this week.

Let's hope Labour doesn't mess up the opportunity.

- NZ Herald

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