Attempts to put a ban on the word female in Labour have failed. It seems to be like having a sore tooth they can't help poking, despite the pain.

No sooner had Labour admonished itself for obsessing over politically correct matters it was talking about gender quotas.

Strangely, not a single person raised the fact that Labour has failed to meet the quota it already has, requiring at least 45 per cent of its MPs to be women this term. It only has 37 per cent.

Instead it was the leadership contest that sparked the debate because only blokes seemed to actually want the job.

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Until Nanaia Mahuta popped her hand up the contenders were all white men. Nobody was stopping women entering, but it nonetheless prompted calls for a woman deputy.

That prompted wagon circling by Labour's bloke bloc. David Shearer, Damien O'Connor and Clayton Cosgrove all said Labour needed to start talking to white blokes again and gender edicts weren't helping. They said Helen Clark hadn't needed such help. They were highlighting a genuine issue.

In terms of a slick campaign, Labour contender Grant Robertson has stolen the march. He's got a flash website up and his fans put up their pitches on it. Former MP Darien Fenton was one of the first. She is a prominent union figure and Camp Robertson clearly hopes her endorsement will ensure rival Andrew Little does not get the clean sweep he is hoping for among the unions.

Sir Michael Cullen is travelling through Italy but has been writing of his support for Robertson on his Facebook page. Cullen wrote that his wife Anne lit a candle for Grant in a Venetian church. He added a caveat: "Since she is even more lapsed than the average lapsed Labour Catholic I'm not sure this will have much impact."

His wife's powers were clearly greater than he imagined. Her candle coincided with news the Catholic Church were moving toward a more tolerant stance on homosexuality. The timing prompted jokes in Robertson's team that clearly even the Pope backed him for leader.

Jacinda Ardern's refusal to give a public pledge so far is a matter of theatrical timing more than a sign she is undecided. Robertson has a campaign launch this Sunday at a pub in Auckland. He is expected to confirm Ardern is his pick as deputy leader.

It provides the Auckland yin to his Wellington yang as well as the gender balance.

Whether he deserves it or not, Robertson is regarded as the effective head of the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) faction. Realistically, to win the race a contestant must pick up some of Cunliffe's former supporters among the members and MPs.

That faction issue is more of a danger to Robertson than dogwhistling about his sexuality or giving him a "beltway" tag.

Little is capitalising from being seen as the non-factionalised option.

That is why he is increasingly regarded as the front-runner. Robertson launched his website a couple of days ago but Little was getting all the attention on Twitter after posting a photo of his cat sabotaging his photo shoot.

Yet his only public endorsement of note so far has been from Cunliffe and even that could be in peril. Mahuta's late entry has put Cunliffe in a bit of an awkward spot. Mahuta was always loyal to Cunliffe and may expect some in return. She needn't bother - Little has more of a chance of winning and it gives Cunliffe the added bonus of a one-finger salute to the ABCs in the process.

So far the best showdown has been between two former leaders rather than those who aspire to it: Cunliffe and Shearer.

Shearer's blunt message for Cunliffe to leave Parliament altogether took many by surprise. Others had taken a hushed "mustn't speak ill of the dead" tone after Cunliffe's decision to withdraw. That assumed Cunliffe had finally buckled to the realisation his dream was over.

They were quickly disabused of any such notion. Cunliffe couldn't quite help himself and even as he was pulling out of the race he was claiming he still could have won it. He said it was clear somebody else would be better to unify caucus - but added "at this time". That leaves the door open for the day his critics are swept up in the rapture of him and he is re-anointed. Shearer's outspokenness was partly driven by necessity. Cunliffe is incapable of picking up on subtle hints aimed at helping him save face, so Shearer spelled it out.

Cunliffe's light is still flickering and that makes him a Kevin Rudd figure in caucus.

As long as he is there, any leader will constantly be on the alert. He will be a lightning rod, Iago waiting for his chance to come around again.