Jane Clifton: smiling ayes

by Jane Clifton / 29 August, 2013
Although Labour’s leadership contest is revealing the divisions within the party, it’s also priceless pre-election campaign airtime for the candidates.
Cartoon by Chris Slane

So far, the winner on points in the Labour leadership contest is Prime Minister John Key – ahead of David Cunliffe on the Basking Hubris Leader Board, and that’s really saying something. It would probably have been of no use, but a speaker at last year’s Labour Party conference might have reminded delegates of the old saying: be careful what you wish for. They awarded themselves and the union affiliates 60% of the voting rights and ordained a month-long primary for all subsequent leadership contests – with an automatic trigger every year, in case one of the MPs felt like having a go. Now they have exactly what they wanted. And that’s why, everywhere the Prime Minister goes these days, his smile arrives several minutes ahead of him.

Labour MPs and supporters were for a couple of days after David Shearer’s not entirely surprising resignation trying to broker a unity ticket: Grant Robertson as leader, David Cunliffe as deputy, or vice versa. Various combinations were theoretically Legoed together in theoretical peace-making modules: Jacinda Ardern as Cunliffe’s deputy to steady up the anti-Cunliffe faction; Andrew Little as either Cunliffe or Robertson’s deputy to burn the other guy off by freighting the union vote; Shane Jones to … well, no one was entirely sure what he might add to the mix, but at least there’d be some good one-liners. But surely, it was thought, a prompt demonstration of willingness in the caucus to put aside the leadership unrest, harness its most talented MPs up front in a harmonious sled team and, ahem, turn everyone’s energy to attacking the Government, which is supposed to be the whole point of absolutely everything, would have been a good idea.

It was then that Labour President Moira Coatsworth earned space on the National Party caucus-room wall for a gilt-framed portrait of herself. We’ll have none of that namby-pamby peace-making, she warned. The Labour Party membership wanted input, not barrack-room deal-making. Translation: “Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight!”

And so the Government’s dream came true. Such damaging and niggly issues as spying legislation, snapper quota, asset sales, drug testing on animals and unemployment have been heavily displaced for the foreseeable future by a formalised gizzard-ripping brawl between three Opposition prominenti and their various supporters. Voters will be reminded daily that Labour is divided – with the certainty that whoever of the two viable contenders wins, those divisions will, even if plastered over, be leeching fresh blood.

David Cunliffe (right). Photo/David White

Let’s be charitable and imagine that neither Cunliffe nor Robertson would be foolish or vindictive enough to demote their foes holus-bolus but would follow the shrewd Helen Clark formula of even-handed promotion, as used after her trouncing of Mike Moore. Even then, divisions would endure, because there are perfectly sound reasons for them to exist.

Robertson’s support base is mostly drawn from the caucus A-team: the MPs who are either talented and appealing and on their way up, or who have at least built themselves a reasonably useful profile through diligence or longevity. Cunliffe’s are mostly from the B-team: MPs who have failed to distinguish themselves, but who, all too humanly, believe they have been unjustifiably passed over, and who trust Cunliffe to recognise their true worth in return for their support. There is also, as in any workplace, a fair amount of deeply personal enmity flowing from various individuals to various others.

These are long and deeply forged ley lines, and can’t just be overridden with a public chorus of Kumbaya. Nor are they exclusive to Labour. Envies and loathings simmered and plopped away like Rotorua mudpools in National’s benches during its last Opposition stretch, frequently erupting and scalding poor old Bill English – remember Maurice Williamson’s and Brian Connell’s amok-runnings. Such unease only dissipates in a genuine sense when everyone can see they are on the brink of government again, meaning at the very least a face-saving select committee chairmanship for all but the newbies.


For the foreseeable future, Labour MPs will only be pretending to be unified. That goes also for the party at large, as evidenced by the hand grenades of hostility from the delegates at the last conference, all directed toward the MPs.

A further benison for the Government is that both Cunliffe and Robertson come with a swag of irreducible disadvantages.

Cunliffe’s chief drawback is having been born without the requisite brain-circuitry for modesty. He has been using the world “humbled” a lot this week, but really, as one Twitter wit observed, he is humbled only by his own ambition.

His campaign-launch jubilance was a few notches up from what you’d expect from a Prime Minister-elect on election night. The portentousness of the rhetoric bordered, as has been said elsewhere, on self-parody. He gave us his upthrust-arms saviour pose; his “eat the rich” spiel; even his Statue of Liberty impression, improvised with a bunch of red roses while saluting socialism. Surely his next trick would be to hold up two fishes, à la David Shearer, and feed the huddled masses?

Bear in mind that this was only day one. How much more engorged can he get without going pop? The last person to hit the ground at such a feverish pitch was Nick Smith, briefly elected National’s deputy leader in 2003. After 48 hours’ whizzing round the country like a suddenly-burst balloon, he had to lie down on a sofa with a cold flannel over his face and let Gerry Brownlee take over the job.

Cunliffe should calibrate his energies more dexterously but, alas, he is quite genuinely grandiose. Perhaps his most famous quote thus far was to then Opposition health spokesman Tony Ryall: “Get back in your box, Mr Ryall. I’m running the show now.”

How New Zealanders will process this new humble political style is a fascinating question. Key’s popularity is not exactly founded on his modesty, but he’s perky and cocky rather than full of himself. These things are always in the eye of the beholder, aka the voter, so Cunliffe’s patrician style will make Key seem glib and facile to some, and competent and down-to-earth to others.

Grant Robertson (centre). Photo/Stephen Parker

Cunliffe’s other well-aired problem is that pretty much every other Labour MP of talent and appeal dislikes and/or mistrusts him. Feelings crystallised last election when, as finance spokesman, Cunliffe was seen as having let then leader Phil Goff down by not having policy work ready and not otherwise pulling his weight. Robertson’s arrestingly frank account – which has never been publicly disputed – of Labour’s last election campaign in Victoria University’s book Kicking the Tyres is of a deliberate strategy to undermine the leadership.

The enduring question, which Australian voters seem to be asking in respect of restored Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is: if his own colleagues don’t like him, why should we?

In Cunliffe’s defence, however, he has behaved in the caucus arena, he seems to be greatly liked and admired by his staff, has a fanatical following in the party and is extremely courteous and intelligent from a media perspective.

However, there is an authenticity issue to overcome, too. Like Key, he is a reasonably wealthy man, who lives in a swanky electorate (Herne Bay), rather than the electorate he represents (New Lynn). Unlike Key, he has a constituency that is sniffy about wealth, and represents an electorate that is considerably less toney than the one in which he chooses to live. In fact, Herne Bay is the wealthiest neighbourhood in the country. Cunliffe’s defence of this, that his “Queen St environmental lawyer wife” needed to be close to home so she could breastfeed, understandably hardened perceptions. His children are now well past infancy, but the MP who would “love to” live in New Lynn has yet to dispatch the estate agents to find that Blockhouse Bay bungalow, or even a witty bush-clad Lloyd Wrightian stilt house in right-on Titirangi.

If he’d just said, “Look, we’ve got comfortable here and we’re too busy and settled to move”, the issue would have died.

For all this, Cunliffe is still the favourite in this race, given his party support. Putting aside his risible displays of majesty, he’s a super-bright man and a sterling public performer. He has a strong presence and a glow of authority that, if he succeeds, could translate into charisma.


Still, it’ll be close. And if caucus, union and party voters are factoring in Robertson’s drawbacks on a ledger alongside Cunliffe’s, they’ll have to acknowledge they are mostly things National wouldn’t dare use against him. Like: he’s gay. 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.

Some reckoning goes that the public is “not ready” for a gay Prime Minister. The public probably didn’t think it was “ready” for a filthy rich money-market-dealer Prime Minister, either, when it elected one, but by then it saw Key as John Key the whole bloke.

Anyway, as my Listener colleague Ruth Laugesen recently wrote, Robertson’s greater handicap is that he’s a practising Wellingtonian. Again, this is something the Wellington-domiciled National Party grandees can hardly use against him. Robertson represents Wellington Central, the seat with the greatest concentration of public servants, for whom he advocates vigorously. Irritatingly, it is a fair question as to whether Auckland voters could warm in sufficient numbers to a devout Welly man, given the ambient national resentment toward the state bureaucracy and all who sail in her. An Auckland candidate PM is generally thought to be the safest bet.

Robertson is also not nearly as well-known as Cunliffe. He must cop a lot of the blame for the failure of Shearer’s tenure, which as deputy leader he was in pole position to influence. He was a major contributor to the spin cauldron that produced such PR triumphs as Shearer’s dead-fish stunt in Parliament. Grumbles continue about the efficacy of the leaders’ office that Robertson helped staff and restaff several times in an effort to bolster Shearer’s cut-through, to little avail.

John Key: preceded by his smile. Photo/Getty Images.

In his favour, however, 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, and there is much gloating anticipation among non-Labour politicos for the disappointment-fest if David No 2 gets the job and then does not deliver the socialist vengeance-fest he appears to promise.

Only a few years back, Cunliffe was in this very magazine endorsing the usefulness of public-private partnerships, so the glue from the price tag is still visible on his new persona as socialist scourge.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this contest is that it’s not about policy, but about personality and perception. The party grass roots are flaming mad Labour is not back in government, and not rating highly enough in the polls yet to be more than a 50-50 runner next election, and then only with the support of the Greens and Winston. Being angry, they have cast around for people to blame, and settled on the MPs who continue to sit comfortably in Parliament making little impact. And they have, in noisy and possibly large numbers, settled on Cunliffe as their messiah.

That he is unpopular in the caucus is a bonus rather than a handicap, because the party members want punishment as well as progress. This doesn’t make them loopy. It’s the same lynch-mob grass-roots mood Nats were in at the same time in their last Opposition election cycle. It’s a ghastly period in which no one knows where rock-bottom will lie, and in which even comparative minnows, like New Zealand First, seem to be eating your lunch for you.

Caucuses generally respond to such hostility by beavering away at policy and making ever-shriller declarations of intent, thinking that surely if you have the right bold policies – and Labour now has a few – the votes will follow. But alas, until you achieve the credibility that only a strong leadership presence can provide, the policies will languish unremarked.


As the party awaits the second coming, be it with a halo à la Cunliffe or shaving rash à la Robertson, there’s terrific sport. Various supporters of the pair, and the also-running Shane Jones, have taken to social media to “help” – generally by inelegant sledging of opponents.

Shane Jones. Photo/Michael Cunningham

One Twitter campaign so inexpertly barracked for Cunliffe that it took a long time for followers to tell whether it was a parody or not. When it responded to queries about its true intent by upping a gear to unambiguous slagging of Robertson and Jones, the real Cunliffe on Twitter distanced himself and asked the “supporter” to cool it, calling him/her a “troll”. This is social media-speak for bile-spitting sociopath outcast. The rogue account closed for a couple of hours, only to come back tweeting even more passionate ardour for its beloved. Curiously, then, in some parts of the Labour Party, to be called a troll is a dead-set turn-on.

It’s also been fun for journalists to tease caucus members about their intentions. A handful have declared for the two viable candidates, but most are playing coy. And losing. A favourite rejoinder is “I will be voting for a candidate of integrity” – implying oh so passive-aggressively that one of the candidates is not a man of integrity.

Although the most avidly entertained and gratified audience for this spectacle is John Key and his party, they may find in time that electorally it’s a zero-sum game or worse for National. The contest will give three of Labour’s most impressive MPs an intensive public airing. Labour’s policies will be extensively canvassed. Talk of Green co-leader Russel Norman being “the real Opposition leader” will abate. Labour could come out of this with strengthened public support and trust, rather than, as Key is presuming, added derision.
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