Gordon Campbell on the Labour leadership race

In Papal elections, the front-runner is often doomed to disappointment, as the weaker factions combine and wear the main contender down. Not always (e.g. Pius XII) but often enough to create the saying that the favoured candidate goes into the papal conclave as the pope, and comes out as a cardinal. I’m not suggesting that the selection of the next leader of the Labour Party is anything near as momentous – although the Labour caucus would probably go for those little red hats – but it wouldn’t be surprising if Grant Robertson has a papal strategy in mind in this leadership contest. Meaning: a win on the second ballot, not the first. Surely, that’s one major reason why Shane Jones is in the race.

As has been noted, the fact that Jones threw his hat in the ring has tipped the race into a three way, preferential vote. Robertson is the main beneficiary of Jones’ entry, in that Robertson would almost certainly not have survived a head to head contest with David Cunliffe. But with Jones in the picture, the chances are the votes will be split widely enough for things to go into a second round. Right now, one important question has to be – who inherits Jones’ ballot preferences? From the outset it has been clear that Jones will receive the fewest votes and drop out, and then most of his second preference votes will go to…who, exactly? It would be interesting to know if and whom Jones may be suggesting to his followers they should place second on their ballots. I would bet the bank on the bulk of the Jones vote swinging behind Robertson – with the payoff being that the new leadership team would be Robertson as leader and Jones as deputy. The Beltway Insider and the Man of the People. The Gay Guy and the Dude. It is the kind of politics that gets dreamed up in an advertising agency.

A disclaimer: I have no idea whether such a deal is in the offing. Like everyone else, I’m in the dark about the dynamics of this campaign – which is an exercise in democracy where a discreet veil is likely to be drawn over its conclusion. We may not be told how the winner’s final vote has fallen between caucus, party and unions – but the likelihood of an Anyone But Cunliffe majority in the caucus running against a party leaning towards Cunliffe has not diminished. In that respect, the Jones candidacy has raised a number of “Who Benefits From This” flags. Jones obviously gets added exposure and a crack at the deputy job. Robertson gets a boost for the reasons I’ve outlined. The Anyone But Cunliffe old guard benefits because this may be the only way of heading off the party’s enthusiasm for Cunliffe. With the Jones additive and his alleged populist appeal, a Robertson leadership doesn’t look quite so underwhelming.

Whoever wins, the new leader can expect to get a bump in the polls – probably at the expense of the Greens, who are the low hanging fruit of the leadership change. (Traditionally, the Greens poll support goes up when Labour is weak, and vice versa.) New Zealand First voters may also be susceptible to Jones’ brand of social conservatism. To win in 2014, the new leader will have to do more than cannibalise the centre left vote: it will have to grow it, in a context where the government has already made it clear that the Greens bogey will be one of its prime themes in next year’s election campaign. (The ‘Russel Norman as Finance Minister’ drums have already begun beating.)

So far, there has been an absence of information from the contenders about their vision of the strategic alliances they favour next year, alliances that MMP makes mandatory. Here, Jones has again been a litmus test in that he’s been talking like someone from the FPP era of politics. A few days ago, Jones was saying that he alone could beat John Key, and that he didn’t have much time for the Greens – or for women who don’t like him, a category which includes some of the women MPs in the Labour caucus (“they are just feminists”) who are allegedly out of touch with The People, with whom Jones apparently, is in wordless communion.

All this has been consistent with Jones record of antagonism to the Greens who paradoxically happen to be (a) Labour’s necessary partner post-election, and (b) the partner with which the government will try to tar Labour pre-election, through guilt by association. But who needs criticism from the centre – right, when you’ve got Jones on board? Last year for instance, Jones accused the Greens in general of “hypocrisy” for supporting Maori communities against the potential environmental impact of deep-sea oil exploration, and slagged Greens MP Gareth Hughes in particular for ” pissing on business” by moving an amendment to copyright legislation that would protect parody and satire from being muzzled by copyright owners.

In a “presidential” style race such as the current contest – where personalities matter more than policy – such matters tend to be waved aside, as something the new team can handle sometime in future. Yet who gets chosen now will dictate how such matters get handled. For that reason, this is not simply a personality contest, or a matter of who can do the best anti-Key one liners. If Jones was running for a different office – as say, the country’s most likeable bartender – his track record wouldn’t be a problem. Yet any party that is contemplating giving him a substantive role will have to wear the antagonisms and negativity that he brings to the table. (The risk is that Labour will use Jones to attack the Greens in a way that pre-empts and defuses any centre-right claims of a cosy collusion.)

Robertson and Cunliffe have been even less forthcoming on what is a core tactical issue for Labour in 2014. Beyond the usual election campaign jostling for votes, does it embrace the need for a wider partnership with the Greens next year or will it run solidly against them? If Jones happens to end up on board as deputy, the reasonable assumption is that he would be delegated the attack role on the Greens, leaving his leader (Robertson) making the centre-left noises from somewhere above the fray. Meanwhile, Cunliffe – if he is serious about his avowed centre left intentions – would easily find himself in the contradictory position of (a) running a campaign that unashamedly front foots the policy overlap between Labour and the Greens, while (b) claiming the ability to grow the centre left vote and make inroads with centrist voters disenchanted with John Key. Cunliffe’s choices as deputy could potentially be fraught for that same reason. If Robertson continued on as deputy, and with David Parker in the Finance role and Jones prominent on the front bench, a Cunliffe leadership could easily become as isolated as David Lange became in the 1980s, as a salesman for a message not necessarily of his making.

To repeat: the leader chosen will dictate the strategic positioning of Labour as a centre-left party – both in its own right, and vis-à-vis the Greens. Under Helen Clark, Labour was conspicuously cautious about any “left” messaging that rendered it open to attack. Robertson seems cast in the same mould – in that he has long been notoriously cautious about taking any public positions that move Labour off its centrist tack, and that go beyond safe “feel good” affirmations of the party’s left traditions. One policy question that would usefully test the contenders willingness to stake out, and unapologetically defend territory on the centre -left would be – do any of the contenders believe, on moral grounds, that beneficiaries and their families should have access to the Working for Families package and will that be the position advocated by any party they lead? This should not be a difficult position for Labour to endorse. The bulk of the public – as far as one can tell – does not support the lurch to the right that New Zealand has taken over the past three decades. They do not support economic policies that have conspicuously failed to deliver for them, and that have benefitted only a relative few.

Cunliffe, at least, has begun talking about how the Global Financial Crisis has invalidated neo-liberalism, and has discussed the need for Labour to distance itself from the ‘Third Way’ policies of the Blair [and Clark] era – where “dry” economic policies were maintained in virtual unanimity with the centre right, and were balanced by Labour taking liberal positions on social issues. Unfortunately, the business sector and media still seem wedded to market neo-liberalism. (It is the zombie economics that is dead, but refuses to lie down.) The challenge facing any genuine centre-left incarnation of Labour is to formulate an alternative set of economic policies that cannot simply be written off as a reversion to rampant socialism. The fact that the mainstream media has already depicted talk by Robertson and Cunliffe of raising the minimum wage as heralding “a lurch to the left” shows the scale of the problem.

Cunliffe may fail in restoring centre-left solutions to the centre of our political debate. Under Robertson though, it is very hard to imagine Labour even risking the attempt.

Footnote: supposedly, the socially conservative Maori and Pasifika church- goers among Jones’ supporters in the party – and among his supporters in say, the Service Workers Union – would be unlikely to support Robertson as their second preference choice, on lifestyle grounds. While there may be some who would find Robertson’s sexuality problematic, every unionist and union delegate around the country that I’ve spoken to have said that this factor has been over-rated, and would not be a major hurdle for Pasifika members in choosing their preferences.