The battle for the Labour leadership was first waged in caucus (Shearer), then on TV (Cunliffe). This week it moves to the regions as remains tight. So who does John Key fear most? And why do I keep thinking of Obama & Clinton?

The Labour leadership race is closer than is being spun, in part because Phil Goff's people still have their hands on the spin levers and Goff is backing David Shearer. As in any election, this race will come down to the undecideds.

My reading is that Shearer still has the edge and momentum, especially outside the party; and the lust within Labour for something fresh and untainted won't ebb in a matter of days. But untainted also means untested and momentum can be fickle. David Cunliffe has had his opponent's measure in the weekend politics programmes and both the viewing public and Labour MPs would have taken note of his sharpness.

As one perceptive viewer emailed to Q+A this morning - one of the men is like John Key and one is not. Labour must decide whether it wants its own likeable leader to out-Key Key, or whether a wind-shift is coming and choose to change tack. 

On both TV One's Q+A and TV3's The Nation, Shearer was caught short. Cunliffe, as I've written before, has become a very good television performer, so the battle was certainly fought on his turf and terms this weekend. For Shearer it's a new environment and, quite apart from the quality of his answers, it showed in his body language and demeanour. He didn't look confident; he took half a second before each answer, when you could see him thinking about what the wrong answer might be and whether he was about to get himself into trouble.

This morning on Q+A came the 'Brendon Burns moment'. Guyon Espiner asked who Labour's Climate Change spokesman was during the campaign; it's a trick Guyon has played on many of us, and almost everyone (me included) has answered Charles Chauvel.

The answer, of course, is Burns. Shearer didn't know, Cunliffe did. In and of itself it's just a very minor gotcha. People at home won't have cared, but it will have given those Labour MPs pause. Just how well does Shearer know his own team? Has he the necessary grasp of detail? And the lingering camera shot on Shearer showed him looking at the ceiling and ruing his answer.

Cunliffe was also smart to tie Shearer to the Goff camp. It paints the Mt Albert MP as less the 'fresh face' and more a continuation of the past three years, which ended in failure.

Shearer wasn't born yesterday though. He talked about Labour being "locked in the past" under Goff; presumably his backers realise he needs to lob a few grenades at them to stress his independence. When Cunliffe gave a cautious answer on the SAS going into Afghanistan, Shearer showed more gumption, taking over the answer with conviction, saying 'I'm the aid hero, foreign policy is where I'm strong'.

Shearer also made sure he got a wee story in about "trying to get a little guy through the Israeli checkpoint to get to a Palestinian hospital ", as an example about his passion for the under-dog.

I've no doubt he's being advised to remind people of his aid heroics at every turn. Even Cunliffe is reported as having described him to voters as "a cross between Mother Theresa and Indiana Jones". That's a potent image and is probably why John Key, for now at least, is more scared of Shearer than Cunliffe.

But Shearer's going to have to sell his story with more conviction. He ended that story... "or something like that". His delivery has some way to go. But the extra confidence should come.

The challenge perhaps is that Shearer would need to change the political culture to his strengths, and that's a massive ask. As John Tamihere cannily observed, his leadership style is more about unifying and negotiating, which is not the default setting of the political world. Cunliffe would bang more heads together, is more 'of that world'. Although wary of that image, Cunliffe went out of his way today to say he knows he's annoyed people in the past and would work to mend bridges.

What those voting Labour MPs need to consider are both men's weaknesses, because they will be writ large eventually, whoever wins. Cunliffe seems to spark strong negative first impressions. People use the word "slick". Because he's got such a carefully tailored political career, there seem to be questions around authenticity.

Now some on the left say he's been a hit with union delegates and is liked and admired by the Greens; that last being a crucial factor in the next three years for any Labour leader. But the doubt remains whether voters will take to him, or be put off by his confidence and, at worst, his air of intellectual superiority. Cunliffe's curse is that he is smarter than most people. But New Zealanders hate being talked down to more than just about anything, so can he get around that?

Shearer's weakness is the flipside of his strength - he's so very, very new. He has momentum because voters and journalists have embraced him like a new toy. He's a shiny new plaything, which is very useful in this post-political age when people want to like who they vote for, not just admire them.

But newness is finite. What happens when the gloss wears off? Are you left with a man of substance and someone who can compete with National?

I just don't know. But I'm reminded of the most recent Democratic primary - Clinton v Obama. Obama was the fresh face, the reform candidate. He exceeded expectations and over years of campaigning came to embody change, his catch-cry. I had many arguments with American friends that freshness may be great on the campaign trail, but how does it translate in the White House? Surely Clinton has the substance and bloody-mindedness needed to govern and effect change in the political swamp. I doubted Obama and I think I've been proved right.

I know that sounds like a count against Shearer, but it's not meant that way. There are many flaws with that comparison. The past presidential election was the Democrats to lose; here 2014 will be 50-50. And maybe Shearer is tougher than Obama, maybe Cunliffe simply won't be able to connect with voters, which makes the question of governance academic.

My broad point is simply that change is not enough on its own; it doesn't last. Winning over voters is only one part of the trifecta. You have to go past that and ask 'what kind of change would he bring?' and finally, if voters can be convinced, 'who would make the best Prime Minister'? 

The test now turns to the closed-door regional party meetings throughout the country this week. Which man can put some meat on the change skeleton, convince member he can re-connect with voters and show he can beat John Key (and whoever may come after him)?


Comments (16)

by Tim Watkin on December 04, 2011
Tim Watkin

Having just posted that, I'm wondering whether the Blair revolution of the Labour party is another overseas comparison worth considering. Both men were cool on the unions today. Might either lead a Blair-like upheaval? Root-and-branch re-connection with the centre?

Blair, of course, went too far and after generating so much love for Labour, ultimately hurt the party. Could the same happen here?

by Raymond A Francis on December 04, 2011
Raymond A Francis

Any proof at all that the Prime Minister "fears" or is scared of either of these want-to-be PMs

I would suggest that neither will be the problem, the Greens on the other hand will be a different problem

by Andrew P Nichols on December 04, 2011
Andrew P Nichols

Blair, of course, went too far and after generating so much love for Labour, ultimately hurt the party. Could the same happen here?

What? The Labour Party elect someone to be a war criminal?

One part of the parallel is right. Thatcher endorsed Bliar as her most worthy successor (while not saying Key is anything like as evil as that old woman)

by Tim Watkin on December 05, 2011
Tim Watkin

Raymond, it's one of those things I "understand" from second-hand sources.

by mickysavage on December 05, 2011

I am not sure the Cunliffe = Clinton suggestion is right.  I agree that Cunliffe has this extraordinary intellect.  I also agree that this can be a turn off for some kiwi voters who have an anti intellectual feeling.  But Cunliffe is extraordinarly quick on his feet and is able to express the most complex concept simply and succinctly.  These are vital skills for TV.  He also has a great deal of empathy and this is a characteristic I am not sure Clinton shares.


Shearer is the more risky candidate.  His background is great but you need more than just background to succeed.  And I am not sure that the Obama comparison is correct either.  Obama is a supeurb orator and as is becoming clearer with every debate Cunliffe has a clear edge on Shearer in this area.

by Carolyn on December 05, 2011

There are many ways that the comparison between Blair and Shearer falls short.

I was in the UK when the then leader of the Labour Party, John Smith, died. Many in the UK Labour Party at that time, felt John Smith was well on the way to reviving the Labour Party with fairly traditional Labour values.

But, by that time, Blair was already getting a lot of media attention and had been for a while - the media favoured him much more than the more down-to-earth Smith.  Blair was a slick media performer (especially on TV) and had more centrist appeal. When Smith died, I instantly had no doubt that Blair would take over the leadership of Labour and would lead Labour into government.

In contrast, Shearer is unknown to me, has seemed to come out of nowhere, and it is uncertain whether he has the qualities to lead Labour into government, including the ability to perform well on tthe telly.

by Patrick Reynolds on December 05, 2011
Patrick Reynolds

Surely the best of both worlds is to have the fresh face and more approachable Shearer as leader and the more seasoned politician Cunilffe as Finance spokesman. Too obvious, or just naive? The reverse isn't an option, and this seems to harness the best of both worlds, assuming Cuniliffe would be happy there and not set out to undermine Shearer in oerder to prove the choice wrong...?

by Tim Watkin on December 05, 2011
Tim Watkin

Carolyn and Micky... Yep, all sorts of limitations to those comparisons. I'm just playing with ideas. But there are points of familiarity and while nothing is ever identical, it's worth looking at similar scenarios from the past to anticipate what may come next.

Patrick, it may yet turn out like that. The thing is that Cunliffe doesn't want that, so will he play along? Will Shearer be required to give that key job to someone who swung some votes in behind him? And, of course, can the fresh face of Shearer actually lead?


by Craig Ranapia on December 05, 2011
Craig Ranapia

The answer, of course, is Burns. Shearer didn't know, Cunliffe did. In and of itself it's just a very minor gotcha. People at home won't have cared, but it will have given those Labour MPs pause. Just how well does Shearer know his own team?

Meanwhile, what everyone is talking about isn't the 'Burns Gotcha!' but Cunliffe writing party policy (and speaking in the majestic plural) on the fly.  If I had a vote in this race, I'd be asking if this is the kind of judgement under fire I'd expect from someone trying to position himself as the safe, experienced, media-savvy pair of hands in the race.

by Bruce Thorpe on December 05, 2011
Bruce Thorpe

So Shearer needs tv grooming and gets smoother in his delivery. I know media and political wonks like to think  these matters are critical but they are way behind such matters as Cunliffe is not loveable, looks and almost certainly is arrogant, and thinks he is in some kind of debating competition.

Then we have such stuff as buying back assets ???

as against protests in thhe street.

We all know which one of those options has our current Key more nervous.

Or have we forgotten the back pedalling on mining in conservation estate, after a few thousand marched.

by glenn p on December 05, 2011
glenn p

It's a fascinating debate and I've enjoyed reading the comments here. Admittedly I haven't seen enough of these two guys to make an informed choice, but if I was to make a general comment, it would be that it is better to go with real strengths and the courage of your convictions and not to second-guess the beliefs of others (the voting population). If Labour lose the next election because they choose Cunliffe and it turns out that the public were so desperate for a "new face" and they don't like someone who is "more intelligent" than themselves, then damn the public and the country gets what it deserves. Pick the person who will be the best PM, and back yourself to convince the public.

I'd also argue that it is likely to be easier for an intelligent person with good communication skills to modify their language so that it did not produce a negative response, than it is for someone who is not particularly skilled at communicating to become skilled at it.

Finally, the skills that Cunliffe are reported to have match the weaknesses that are apparent with John Key. Key is a poor debator, does not answer questions well or directly, is a poor public speaker, and becomes flustered and rude too easily. He would get eaten alive by anyone skilled at explanation. Key is liked because he says what a large section of the population already believes, but I don't think he has the ability to explain or convince people of beliefs they do not already hold, nor to defend his beliefs against any reasonable line of questioning.

I'm not saying that Cunliffe should get the job over Shearer, because I haven't yet seen TV coverage or read any interviews, but I am worried that the reasons being given for choosing Shearer are the wrong ones.

by Tim Watkin on December 05, 2011
Tim Watkin

Craig, I don't believe there was anything 'on the fly' about Cunliffe's comments. He insisted on finishing his answer to Guyon, having said he's not a 'paler shade of blue' and going on to say he'd look down the barrel and say he would look to buy assets back.

That's not the language or manner of someone making it up as he goes along. I'd bet a fair chunk of change that he'd decided to drop that one for news purposes and to appeal to the base as he heads into a week of meetings with party members. He wanted to be boldly Labour, pick up on the one policy issue still utterly in Labour's favour and even remind Labourites of Cullen and Clark buying back Tranzrail and Air NZ, two of the great Labour victories of recent times.

by DeepRed on December 06, 2011

Pierre Trudeau became the PM of Canada after serving only a single term under his belt (1965-68). However he was heavily involved in politics before then, and made up for his parliamentary inexperience with boundless energy. It also helped that he was young for his role too (48 when he became PM).

by MJ on December 07, 2011

Expensive victories Tim! Thank you Mr Norris, also.

A telling point is here :

"a cross between Mother Theresa and Indiana Jones".

This is Shearer's fantastic story, but Cunliffe's fantastic ability to tell it.


by Jenny Kirk on December 11, 2011
Jenny Kirk

Interesting that no-one has really picked up on the fact that David Cunliffe also comes across really well on the hustings :  with people who don't know him and when he's explaining complicated economic facts to an audience - he has a warmth that comes across really easily and his audience takes to him.  This is not a man who comes across as arrogant, or too clever, or too big for his boots. Cunliffe is a person with the strength and the personality to change Labour from within :  and that's what the Party needs right now.

On the other hand, Shearer is a really great guy too : but he's being led by the "strategists" who have failed Labour in the last two elections.  Shearer doesn't know enough about the "ins and outs" of Parliament or the Party processes to be able to be firm about the changes we need, and he will be relying on those who are already advising him.  And we know - from experience - that their advice and strategies are not always correct.

Incidentially, as far as I'm aware, Cunliffe was not in the campaign strategy team for Phil Goff and I do not think he was responsible for the economic gaffe Phil made on TV in the Leaders Debate.   Didn't Trevor Mallard eventually front up to acknowledge his lack of foresight on that matter ? 

by Tim Watkin on December 12, 2011
Tim Watkin

Hi Jenny,

Mallard did own up, but as campaign manager he was required to do that anyway, regardless of whether it actually was his fault or not. So no way of telling.

Yes, Shearer will have to find a way of making himself his own man. The talk of him being a puppet is not something he can afford to take root.

BTW, gotta ask, are you National's Jenny Kirk commenting on Labour?

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