Cometh the hour, cometh Cunliffe?
That should no longer be a question and should instead be a
simple statement of fact after Labour Party president Moira
Coatsworth announces the winner of the three-way contest for
the party's leadership tomorrow afternoon.
If Grant Robertson's name comes up in lights instead, then
Labour MPs who backed his candidacy are going to need some
very good answers to some very angry questions from aggrieved
party activists as to why the caucus used its superior voting
power to frustrate the clear preference of the wider party
Unless Mr Robertson picks up a decent portion of the vote of
the ordinary membership and that of members and delegates of
affiliated trade unions, he will not be seen as having a true
mandate. He will begin his tenure very much on the defensive.
The whole three-week exercise in democracy will have been two
steps forward and three back.
Labour cannot afford that. But that cannot be allowed to
happen. And for one very simple reason. The brute political
reality is that support for David Cunliffe has snowballed to
such an extent - and public expectation along with it - that
the party's top job can no longer be really denied him.
MPs who have waited until the last minute to vote will have
recognised that. That has put the onus on them to switch
their allegiance to Mr Cunliffe for the party's sake, if
For all of Mr Robertson's many talents, which are
complemented by a shrewd political brain, he lacks the one
vital attribute which Mr Cunliffe possesses in abundance -
political chutzpah. In other words, supreme self-confidence
and an audaciousness to take the kind of risks Labour will
have to take to win next year's election.
It isn't just a question of taking the fight to John Key in
the relatively short period before then. That is something of
which Mr Robertson is well capable.
Neither is it a question of who is best at unifying the party
- an absolute priority and something which Mr Robertson has
repeatedly stressed he is best placed to achieve.
That no longer necessarily holds. A Robertson victory looks
increasingly counterproductive to that objective.
What counts more than anything else is the new leader's
ability to reconnect Labour with the hundreds of thousands
who did not vote in 2011 and the tens of thousands who voted
National when they had previously inclined Labour's way.
Mr Robertson's ability to convince members he can do that has
been overshadowed by the ''gay factor''. That has dogged his
campaign. The novelty of a gay prime minister meant it was
always going to do so. It won't the next time Mr Robertson is
vying for the leader's job. That will be old news.
Or at least it will if TV3 stops exhibiting a Victorian-era
style prurient obsession with Mr Robertson's sexuality, which
verges on the homophobic. The channel has seemed to think it
has been given some God-given right to manipulate the result
of the contest. Its self-appointed role as kingmaker is an
insult to the intelligence of Labour's activists, who are
well capable of making up their minds without TV3's advice.
But that is another story. The one to be told tomorrow will
focus on the scale of the successful candidate's victory.
Along with the result, the party organisation will produce a
breakdown of how each candidate performed in each of the
three parts of the electoral college - the caucus, the trade
union affiliates and the rank-and-file membership.
This may have been a not-so-subtle means of placing more
pressure on MPs to fall into line with the wider party's
The biggest beneficiary of the release of this data is likely
to be the National Party, which will be able to highlight
Labour's splits and divisions in exact terms from here to the
other side of the election.
That data will be a millstone around Mr Robertson's neck if
it reveals he secured a narrow victory because his colleagues
could not stomach Mr Cunliffe.
But his even bigger handicap is he remains an unknown
quantity to most voters and much the party apparatchik to
those who are aware of him.
He rates far behind Mr Cunliffe when the pollsters ask people
who they think has the best chance of ousting John Key.
Mr Robertson demonstrated during the round of meetings that
the leadership contenders had with party members that he can
articulate a vision - and with some real passion. But this
has failed to come across publicly.
The brutal fact is that David Shearer soaked up too much time
in trying to establish himself that Labour can no longer
afford to devote any more of that precious commodity to
raising Mr Robertson's profile.
In contrast, Mr Cunliffe is already the complete package.
Driven by an overpowered ego, it may not be one that has
endeared him to his colleagues in Parliament.
There is always a ''cringe factor'' with Mr Cunliffe. But his
crucial attribute - and one which has made him the darling of
the Labour left - is a rare ability to define, articulate and
then communicate Labour's basic values and message in clear
and concise terms while also giving that message the power of
moral suasion to shift public opinion Labour's way and leave
Mr Key and National isolated.
In short, Mr Cunliffe is the potential circuit breaker that
Phil Goff and Mr Shearer were not and which Mr Robertson
still falls short of becoming.
Mr Cunliffe is an example of what is described in political
psychology circles as the ''zeitgeist theory of leadership''
- someone raised to the role because the party's situation
demands his qualities and skills.
The classic case - and Mr Cunliffe will relish the comparison
- is Winston Churchill in wartime Britain.
However, once peace was achieved, he was dumped by the
British people, who perceived different qualities were needed
to rebuild their nation.
The more relevant precedent in Mr Cunliffe's case is Mike
Moore. He saved Labour from destitution and brought the party
to near victory. His reward was to find himself on the wrong
end of a leadership challenge by Helen Clark, seen as the
safer bet for Labour long term. In Mr Cunliffe's case, simply
replace Miss Clark's name with Mr Robertson's.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald