Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Kingmaker Jones stealing show

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Shane Jones. Photo / Natalie Slade
Shane Jones. Photo / Natalie Slade

I haven't had a conversation in the past fortnight where the Labour Party leadership contest doesn't come up. So I popped into the two Auckland Labour Party meetings last Sunday to hear David Cunliffe, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones woo the faithful.

A number of attendees congratulated me for seeing the light and re-joining the party. Alas, I had opportunistically passed myself off as official media to gain a box seat. I noticed my fellow non-Labour lefties, Willie Jackson and Chris Trotter, had pulled the same trick.

The leadership fight has been the injection that Labour has sorely needed. Jones is the surprise hit, giving the campaign a flair and wow factor that Labour hasn't experienced since David Lange entered the political stage.

Despite some in the media fawning over Jones, he hasn't got a bolter's show of winning. Jones knows he's third.

But then Jones was never in it to win the leadership. He entered the fray to restart his political career by creating a new public persona to wash away the embarrassment of his early mistakes. He is already exceeding everyone's expectations.

Former Labour MP, Rick Barker, once said to me that Jones was the man to lead the party after Helen Clark. Shortly afterwards, Jones self-destructed and his reputation nose-dived.

In the past fortnight the country has seen a man we haven't seen before. He's reborn. He's witty, clever and charismatic. The Jones boy is stealing the show.

At Sunday's meetings, before 1000 party members, the three candidates were on fire. Any of them could singly match John Key. If the three of them can work as a team after the contest they will turn the tables on this government.

Cunliffe is Auckland's favourite son and with home-crowd advantage went down well.

Robertson performed strongly and was warmly received. Jones spoke without notes, delighting the crowds.

Given the crowd reactions, Cunliffe had half of the audience in his column and Robertson had a solid quarter. The rest were behind Jones or undecided.

Cunliffe needed an overwhelming win in Auckland to create an inevitability that he had the contest locked up, thus swinging undecided members and MPs to his side.

Apparently, Cunliffe intended to deliver an early knockout blow and lock up the party's union and left vote by declaring his support for a living wage. As the Herald on Sunday revealed, Robertson gazumped him by announcing his support for the unions' living wage the day before.

So, although Cunliffe won Auckland it wasn't enough to give him the unassailable headstart he wanted. It will now be a close race to the finish.

Here's the state of play. Cunliffe has Auckland and Hamilton. Robertson will pick up Wellington, Dunedin and the provinces. Christchurch is a toss-up.

The party overall is likely to be evenly split. The unions were supposed to go to Cunliffe, but enough of their vote is shifting to Robertson to make their vote competitive. The caucus is still heavily weighted towards Robertson.

If the analysis is correct, none of the candidates are likely to get an outright majority.

So what happens then? Assuming Jones comes third; his supporters' votes then go to either Cunliffe or Robertson. This makes Jones the kingmaker.

I may have to eat my words when I said earlier that Jones had no chance of becoming deputy leader. If his supporters determine the final winner any role he desires is his for the asking. Frankly, he's earned it.

No matter what happens there will be two winners in this contest: the new party leader and Jones. The star of the Maori boy from the North is on the rise.

- Herald on Sunday

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