Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: Grant Robertson's strong leadership appeal

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Grant Robertson. Photo / David White
Grant Robertson. Photo / David White

The 'Beltway', 'Bowen Triangle', or 'Thorndon Bubble' - regardless of what you call the realm of the 'political insiders' in Wellington, it firmly favours Grant Robertson as the next leader of the Labour Party.

Most notably, respected political journalist Vernon Small has come out decisively for Robertson in his column, Robertson best choice for Labour. Small looks at the strengths and weakness of both Robertson and Cunliffe, and concludes 'On any cost-benefit analysis balance he is the party's best road to government in 2014'. Such journalistic endorsements are why Robertson's opponents are trying to land him with the nickname 'Beltway Grant'.

Robertson also gets some very positive press this week from the Listener's Jane Clifton in her (paywalled) column, Smiling ayes. Her outline of Robertson's strengths is very perceptive and worth quoting at length: 'Robertson is very much liked and trusted by most of his colleagues. He's just as bright as Cunliffe and an almost flawless public performer. He has a similar naturalness to Key, in that there's no difference between the manner of the Grant who banters with the staff in the caff, the Grant who does a stand-up interview in Parliament's foyer and the Grant who goes on Campbell Live.

And like Key, he adds only a little, generally light-hearted, theatricality to those tub-thumping speeches in the House. He is also disarmingly witty. These are rare commodities, and can't be taught or acquired. Despite his high pedigree as a diplomat and a political protégé of Helen Clark, Robertson has an unselfconscious lack of polish, a rumpledness that's backhandedly appealing. He's a useful rugby player, fond of his tucker, and his shirt-collar is never quite the right fit. He's also - and this is a bit of a secret - way more left-wing than Cunliffe. This will come as a surprise to many of the latter's supporters'.

The parliamentary press gallery certainly appears to have a fondness for Robertson, and some of the television media coverage is already much more sympathetic - sometimes verging on fawning - to him than Cunliffe, who is frequently mocked. How well, then, is the media covering the contest? One critic of the apparent Robertson-media lovefest is Denis Welch whose recent blogpost, Chummy and Paddy is worth quoting in full: 'If Grant Robertson really wants to lead the Labour Party, and the country, the first thing he should do is stop looking and sounding so matey with Patrick Gower. Announcing his candidacy last night via an interview with Gower on TV3, beamed nationwide on the 6pm news, Robertson's first words were 'Yes, Paddy.' From then on, it was Paddy this and Paddy that and Paddy how's your father. If Robertson really wants to shed his beltway image, then that's hardly the right way to go about it. Being chummy with the Press Gallery does not play well in Milton and Matamata. I notice David Cunliffe dropped in a 'Paddy' too, announcing his candidacy tonight. What hold does the Svengali-like Gower have on these politicians? Personally I rate him as as terrific political journalist, mandatory viewing in fact, and can only assume that the pols are in mortal fear of him. But please, guys, no first names: the rest of us are watching'. Noticeably, however, the very next day after Welch's blogpost was published, Robertson started to refer to Gower as 'Patrick'.

Why does so much of the Wellington beltway and Labour caucus appear to despise Cunliffe? Chris Trotter answers this today in his column, Left's forces on fault-line rift. Trotter argues it's because Cunliffe has seized upon the post-Global Financial Crisis ideological shift towards the left, and against the cosy political consensus that has characterised beltway politics over the last few decades. Cunliffe is therefore strongly aligned to the mood of the public and especially rank-and-file Labour members and voters, while the 'old guard' in Labour - the so-called ABC faction - are clinging to the status quo that suits their own purposes. Trotter says: 'For politicians like Phil Goff and David Shearer, the job of a Labour leader was simply to assemble a credible alternative government: a group of competent, professional politicians ready to take over the efficient running of the country when the incumbents, exhausted by the demands of office, were no longer able to muster the required level of electoral support. Theirs was a purely nominal leftism: rhetorical, formulaic and reliant on a faded symbolism which very few professional Labour politicians any longer took seriously'. According to Trotter, in contrast to these fake leftists, Cunliffe represents 'a position that obliges Labour MPs to become genuine leftists' and that which 'requires a comprehensive rethink of Labour's entire approach to contemporary politics'.

Cunliffe cheerleader Martyn Bradbury makes a similar argument: 'the ABCs (Anyone But Cunliffe) who have built their careers on the back of neoliberalism will not under any circumstances allow Cunliffe to revisit those sleeping dogs and start a discussion about Milton Friedman' - see: Robertson vs Cunliffe Facebook Wars round 2. Bradbury alleges that Robertson is combating momentum from Cunliffe by using 'chicanery' to bolster his number of Facebook followers. See also, Brian Edwards' A Sort Of Open Letter to the ABCs in the Labour Caucus, which points out some of Robertson's alleged weaknesses: lack of experience, public profile, charisma, and the fact that he might well be 'Too smart for his own good!'

The beltway extends well beyond Wellington, and Robertson has also now received an endorsement from Andrew Geddis, a law professor and blogger from the University of Otago, and former flatmate of Robertson. Geddis says his endorsement is 'not because of his manifest qualities of intelligence and compassion, his leadership skills that combine so seamlessly with his innate ability to bring people together, or his well-thought-out set of policy prescriptions that promise to make New Zealand the brightest shining light on the face of the globe. No, it must be Grant because if I don't give him my critically important, discussion-ending endorsement, he'll destroy my life by making public the trove of deeply damaging personal information about me (and others) that he sits atop of' - see: Four easy pieces. To get one example of the Robertson's background with Andrew Geddis - you can watch this video about The Dead seagull in Robertson's bed from my Vote Chat discussion with Robertson. Other endorsements can be seen in David Farrar's constantly updated blogpost on Who's supporting who. Robertson most surprising supporter is Titewhai Harawira.

Issues of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and related political agendas continue to be central to the Labour leadership contest. Debates about these issues generally come under the concept of 'identity politics', which is a term that describes the modern belief in left and liberal circles that a person's social identity - their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc - is as important as ideology and political positions, if not more important. The slogan is 'the personal is political'. Identity politics are normally linked with a de-emphasis on the importance of traditional leftwing concerns about socioeconomic inequality, the concerns of the working class, and of the importance of economics in general. For a greater discussion of this you can go to a previous blogpost I wrote on the matter: Identity politics vs class politics - What is identity politics?, which was part of a series of blogposts exploring the impact of identity politics on the Labour Party - see also, for instance, The transformation of social liberalism into neo-liberalism, The neo-liberal/social-liberal tradeoff in the 4th Labour Govt, and Neoliberalism and identity politics.

Lew Stoddart has a particularly interesting blogpost on these issues in which he outlines the extent to which identity politics is shaping the current leadership contest, emphasising, in particular, how much both David Cunliffe and Shane Jones are using identity politics in their campaigns - see: Identity is politics. Stoddart points out that, perhaps counterintuitively, Robertson is the candidate least focused on identity politics, but is instead pitching his campaign as one of 'unity'.

Stoddart is critical of some of the media's coverage of Robertson's sexuality and whether it's a relevant issue for the contest. He points disapprovingly to Brook Sabin's TV3 item, Workers not happy with gay Robertson. So should the media be discussing anyone's sexuality, or should it be off limits and irrelevant? Vernon Small says it is indeed relevant, partly because his own party is making it relevant: 'When even some of his own colleagues privately discuss how a small section of the caucus will balk at electing a gay leader, then it is a valid issue for the media to canvass. When turning out conservative South Auckland voters is so important to the party, it has to be considered. When others talk about his ability to cash in on the goodwill generated by a more-tolerant society, evidenced by the gay marriage law, then it is far from irrelevant. Will those who argue for the equivalent of a colour-blind approach to candidates' sexuality deny the chance to celebrate and mark as a historic moment if or when Mr Robertson is selected leader or elected as prime minister?' - see: Robertson best choice for Labour.

Similarly, Jane Clifton says: 'That should be a nullity, but of course it isn't for some voters. As a colleague put it to this writer, "The public aren't going to accept a male Prime Minister who says, 'Meet my partner, Alf. He drives buses.'" Racists, xenophobes, extreme religious conservatives and ignorant, hate-filled bigots all have votes, same as the rest of us. It's a facet of New Zealand voterdom that has to be acknowledged. It would be despicable if the Labour membership voting took any account if it, but we'll never really know'.

Many commentators and politicians - particularly those from the right - have suggested that the leadership contest signals that Labour is shifting significantly leftward. And Labour supporter Grant Duncan also intelligently outlines the possibility of a big shift to the left in his column, Labour's lose-lose-lose strategy.

But what do those already on the far left think? Three very interesting commentaries from three socialist organisations make for interesting reading. Omar Hamed of Socialist Aotearoa argues against the idea that Cunliffe is any sort of leftwing hero or saviour, pointing to the former Cabinet minister's role in leaving 'half a dozen Iranian Christian asylum seekers to rot away in the bowels of Auckland Central Remand Prison' as an example that as with Barack Obama in the US, All that glitters is not gold.

Dougal McNeill of the International Socialist Organisation comes down on Cunliffe's side (with some reservations), and chooses instead to concentrate his fire power on Robertson, who 'with his vague talk of "a new generation of leadership" and "nation building" is positioning himself as a candidate representing continuity with Labour's current, and pathetic, right-wing emptiness. He was an insider through Shearer's tenure, and is surely responsible for its meandering, directionless sense of "business as usual". He is the candidate for more of the same stale Third Way' - see: Labour's Leadership Battle.

Meanwhile, Daphna Whitmore of the Redline blogsite, takes neither side, suggesting that whoever is chosen the same professional careerist approach will ensure that the status quo remains intact - see: Redline sources reveal Labour's new leader.

There is still a strong likelihood that both Robertson and Cunliffe will be winners at the end of the contest, with the second place candidate becoming deputy. Colin James has some interesting analysis of this in his column, The how, the who and Labour's long haul uphill. Similarly, in Jane Clifton's column, she outlines how there was an attempt within Labour to establish a Cunliffe-Robertson unity ticket for the leadership, but that this was undone by party president Moira Coatsworth's insistence that a fight take place.

Finally, for some other very entertaining and interesting items, see Ben Uffindell's version of David Cunliffe's leadership speech entitled I am deeply concerned about me, Cameron Slater edits some video of Cunliffe - see: David Cunliffe can tell lies - based on a longer interview I did with Cunliffe (the original link is: Cunliffe on his political future, and Toby Manhire brilliantly sums up the approaches of the three candidates by putting them into snack-sized pitches - see: Grant, David and Shane ... in a nutshell.

- 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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