The how, the who and Labour's long haul uphill

For a couple of months or so Labour’s leadership issue has been how to fix it and who should take over. Last Thursday David Shearer did one part of the “how” by pre-emptively saying he is resigning. Now for the second part of the “how” and for the “who”.

Labour’s need is to reduce disunity, so that the fight is against National, not within the party, and to energise Labour activists.

For that there needs to be a plausible show of unity at the top.

First, there is a jamboree: 10 days of meetings for party members, all eligible, whether they go to the meetings or not, to vote by preferential postal ballot (media will hear the formal candidate speeches); union delegates decide whom their unions back (in only one union do members vote); and MPs cast a secret ballot. The totals of the party’s and the MPs’ votes are each weighted at 40 per cent. The union totals are weighted at 20 per cent.

One risk is that blogs and the media will amplify disagreements and candidate differences. But there are two big positives.

Giving members a vote locks them into the majority choice (as a general election does). That lowers the incentive for, and tolerance of, backbiting. In 2011 too many believed the MPs’ choice was not the wider party’s preference. That wound will now be stitched and maybe over time thereby healed.

Stitching the wound, especially by way of an election, will also energise the party — hundreds signed up on Thursday. Some of that energy will endure, in part helped by the looming election. (Might National think it can steal an early election?)

Party council bosses insisted on a wider vote, not a caucus stitchup. That is the other part of the “how” and it is tied tightly into the “who”.

A caucus stitchup would have come down to deciding which of David Cunliffe or Grant Robertson would be leader and making the other deputy. That has been in the air for a couple of months.

This is still the most likely outcome. It will be a focus at the meetings.

Both Cunliffe and Robertson will undertake to place the other high in the inner circle if elected. That may all but predetermine the MPs’ exclusive vote for deputy.

Of course, politics is seldom cut and dried. Elections can take unexpected twists, as John Key found late in the 2011 campaign. This was written before nominations closed. But if the winner is Cunliffe or Robertson, each has a compelling reason to keep the other close. There is nothing so loud as a silent prominent contestant on the back or middle benches.

In the early 1990s Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke found that out when he blocked a push from Paul Keating, only to be later ousted by Keating. Kevin Rudd white-anted Julia Gillard even though mostly silent in public. Cunliffe has had his head down but white-anters were operative on his behalf, as in the famous letter-that-wasn’t in July. How would John Key have gone in 2006-08 if Bill English had not settled for deputy and thereby formed a powerful duo?

A Cunliffe-Robertson/Robertson-Cunliffe leadership would get Labour out of its own 22 where it has been pinned since 2008.

Together, the pair have the potential, at least through to the general election, to make Labour look united and purposeful. They are complementary characters, with complementary styles, Cunliffe with business and cabinet experience, Robertson mostly (but not only) a professional politico, with experience in Helen Clark’s inner sanctum.

Both have got under Key’s skin, Robertson more so recently from the deputy’s pulpit — Labour MPs note how Key rounded on him the day Shearer called it quits. And, though Cunliffe is a bit slick and, for some (especially in the party) too all-things-to-all-people and Robertson is a bit overweight and not quite mainstream because gay, both are personable and fluent public speakers. That will lift MPs’ morale, which can be infectious.

They also encapsulate Labour’s generational shift. Longer-term, the policy innovation and power will rest with the younger-X (Robertson) and Y generations (Jacinda Ardern is the standout). Cunliffe is older-X — but he has been doing some interesting rethinking of economic and social policy, more than Robertson has. For now, however, the policy thrust will not change dramatically — just be more visible.

Labour needs visibility. Labour+Green support has been matching or bettering National this year in polls on average. But Labour has been stuck around 33 per cent and Russel Norman often looked and sounded like the leader of the opposition. That was not a clear path to victory.

The task of the new leadership is to assume and assert leadership of the opposition, so voters see a moderate centre-left alternative government with a shorter left-green tail. A new, more presentationally adept and assertive leadership should manage that.

Then the job is to build the Labour+Green vote so voters see a genuine alternative. There have been glimpses through the past 20 months. But glimpses are not a new dawn.