The three candidates for Labour Party leadership are all strong. A voter explains his choice

Agonising about how I’m going to vote is a novel experience for me.

I grew up a tribal Labour voter, “rusted-on” as they say, thanks to my mum, who suffered as the daughter of a deserted wife in the Great Depression and whose situation was vastly improved by the election of the Savage Labour Government in 1935.

Mum didn’t even concede that National was a “party” in the normal sense of the word.
To her, National was some kind of criminal conspiracy set up to sluice working people’s hard-earned cash into to the hands of the idle rich.

In her world, National MPs were universally the imbecile sons of cow-cockies who couldn’t find any other employment and who might create mayhem if not confined to Parliament.

With that kind of nurturing it is a miracle that I did, just once, vote against a Labour candidate.

This was when I lived in Herne Bay in the 1990s, and Richard Prebble dropped a “how to vote” card in my letterbox which stated that Sandra Lee’s party was Mana Motuhake.

If that was how the ballot appeared, I reasoned, I would vote for Prebble.
If, however the ballot paper read “Sandra Lee – Alliance”, then Prebble was playing the race card, and I’d vote for Sandra.

The ballot paper read “Sandra Lee – Alliance”

Despite having put both time and money into Prebble’s campaign that year, I followed my conscience and for weeks afterwards felt as though I’d spat on the altar.

Having a vote for the Labour Party leadership has unquestionably galvanised the Labour Party membership. The process has been very well planned and executed by president Moira Coatsworth and general secretary Tim Barnett.

I’ve met all three candidates during the campaign, and been on the end of phone calls and emails from the Robertson and Cunliffe camps.

It doesn’t help to know all three candidates.

Grant Robertson, I know least well. I was not even aware that he was an official in Helen Clark’s office when he presented himself to me as the successor to Marian Hobbs in Wellington Central. I must have been impressed with Grant, because we abandoned the possibility of re-opening nominations in that seat, an option which arose when the only other candidate, Charles Chauvel, dropped out of contention.

Grant’s major advantage in my book is the block of support he has in the caucus.
These people tend to know the contenders best, and I would normally give that great weight if the same people had not given us David Shearer, and then changed their minds.

His disadvantages are his lack of experience in government and a pretty thin CV.
His lack of recognition by the voting public is also a concern at this point in the cycle.
All three sections of the college that will select the leader will take cognisance of a fourth audience - the electorate, as expressed by the polls. Every poll has put Grant in third place. This is not necessarily fatal, but it does mean that the Labour Party will have a much harder selling job if Grant is the choice, and only a year to do it.

Grant is the youngest of the three contenders and those electors who support another candidate can assuage their consciences by knowing that Grant will live to fight another day.

Shane Jones brought the contest to life. If you’d been a visitor from Mars at the meeting I attended, your vote would have gone to Shane. He spoke without notes, but laced a substantial speech with colour, imagery and humour.

I know Shane better having been at the dinner somewhere in the Hutt Valley many moons ago where PM Helen Clark pitched the political career on which Shane ultimately bit. His advantages are an Ivy League education, cross cultural pull, a sense of the absurd (lacking in the other two contenders) and the well-cultivated image of delicious political incorrectness. Business people who interfaced with Shane during his earlier existences speak highly of his acumen and integrity.

His major disadvantage is that, with a narrow base in the powerful caucus vote, he almost certainly can’t win. Alongside some baggage, about which Shane makes sport, this puts him into a second preference situation as far as I’m concerned; however the process has revealed a campaign treasure which any sensible planner will exploit in the battle ahead.

Shane’s second preferences might just decide the winner.

David Cunliffe got off to a bad start with me. I first met him when campaign manager in 1999. David appeared at the Auckland Town Hall with his hair dyed crimson as a result of supporting some charity or other. To his credit, when I explained to him that a certain gravitas was preferable to making a point about some good cause of which I for one was unaware, he rapidly resumed his normal hue.

David’s advantages include another Ivy League education, a broad grounding in both private enterprise and the bureaucracy, and ministerial experience.  He is perhaps the only contender who, through his courageous deregulation of telecommunications, has benefitted vast numbers of kiwis.

His disadvantages are his former inability to suffer fools gladly, a perceived vanity and an inexplicable capacity to polarise. I’ve never been personally exposed to any of these supposed negative traits; however that may be because MPs tend to treat their party presidents with the deference due to someone whose vote you may just need one day.

Just about all of the many calls I’ve had in support of Grant have talked mostly about David. 

So there you have it: three candidates who could do the job in vastly different ways and with vastly different associated risks.

I started off undecided, attending the meeting didn’t help, and I stared at the ballot paper for a week while the contest washed over me.

It’s strange how the smallest incident can tip the balance and this came when some overzealous twerp demanded to see David’s wife’s membership card in Dunedin.

Yesterday I gave my tick to David Cunliffe. 

David has much to learn, just like Helen Clark and John Key when they assumed the leadership of their parties, but he has demonstrated the ability to do so.

Comments (4)

by Bruce Thorpe on September 11, 2013
Bruce Thorpe

Good story Mike,

I too in the distant past, have made my decision very late in the day, in my case in the ballot box, agant Richard Prebble at a time when some heavy things going on in the Auckland branch.

If Robertson trails at the end of the week, Cunliffe must become leader. If Jones is running third, than i am happy with either coming out on top.


by Lee Churchman on September 12, 2013
Lee Churchman

Hope he wins, Mike.

My father was tribal Labour until the party sold out him and all his friends and workmates in 1984.

If Cunliffe is elected leader, then by my reckoning he will be the first Labour leader to adopt an actual left wing position since Bill Rowling. That in itself would be cause for celebration.

by Tim Watkin on September 12, 2013
Tim Watkin

Mike, how hard would it be for a leader with only a third of his caucus having voted for him, do you think? And do you think Cunliffe really has learnt from the past few years (a dose of 'less is more' and making it a little less about him)? I also wonder about Robertson's likeability/good nature and how that might inflitrate public perceptions over time?

by Tom Semmens on September 12, 2013
Tom Semmens

"...To her, National was some kind of criminal conspiracy set up to sluice working people’s hard-earned cash into to the hands of the idle rich...:"

Sounds like my Mum as well! I well remember the day she ostentatiously refused to serve an old guy in our family business, remarking when he left that he had been her mother's slum landlord in the 1930s. She had patiently waited forty years for that moment of revenge.



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