Labour leadership

Terrible Labour leadership numbers

Labour now has a new leader – Andrew Little. I’d expected him to win, purely due to union support. Which is basically what ended up happening.

Here’s a round-by-round break-down:

Caucus:

  • Round 1: Robertson – 14, Parker – 7, Mahuta – 6, Little – 5
  • Round 2: Robertson – 14, Little – 11, Parker – 7
  • Round 3: Robertson – 18, Little – 14

Members:

  • Round 1: Robertson – 38%, Little – 26%, Parker – 22%, Mahuta – 14%
  • Round 2: Robertson – 41%, Little – 34%, Parker – 25%
  • Round 3: Robertson – 55%, Little – 45%

Affiliates:

  • Round 1: Little – 64%, Robertson – 19%, Mahuta – 10%, Parker – 7%
  • Round 2: Little – 71%, Robertson 20%, Parker – 9%
  • Round 3: Little – 76%, Robertson – 24%

That means that in the final round, Little beat Grant Roberston by just 1%: 50.5% to 49.5%.

But just look at those round-by-round numbers – they make for terrible reading. For a start, Little comprehensively lost to Robertson in both the caucus and membership votes. Robertson was the most popular candidate in all three rounds for both the caucus and member voters. Andrew Little is now the party leader simply because he’s the former head of the EPMU, and the unions therefore overwhelmingly sided with him.

Little came dead last in the caucus vote in the first round. Just four other MPs (assuming Little voted for himself) thought that Little was the best choice. (It’s certainly a win for the Maori caucus though – all of Nanaia Mahuta’s caucus supporters second-preferenced Little. If just one had gone with Robertson instead, Robertson would have been leader. Andrew Little owes the Maori caucus big-time.)

Robertson maintained a consistent lead of about 10% over Little among the members in each of the three rounds.

Last leadership contest, the members got their way in the face of caucus opposition. That didn’t end well. This time round, neither the caucus nor the members got their way. Instead, the new leader is beholden to the unions.

Can the Labour caucus pull in behind Little? Or will we be in for yet another round of ‘White Ant the Leader’? How long will Labour be allowed to poll in the 20s before the whispering begins?

Time will tell.

In the meantime, National will have a field day, happily painting Little as a union apparatchik, unwanted by the members, unwanted by his own caucus.

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Are you not entertained?

So life’s been rather frantically busy since my last post. A week and a half managed to flash by, filled with full Court days, interesting experiences with chainsaws, and visitations from Perth-based relatives. Sitting down at a keyboard to blog came a very distant second, third or possibly fourth in the ‘interesting things to do’ stakes.

Nonetheless, here’s a brief recap for those who were also avoiding the political world:

  • Much humour was derived from Green MP Steffan Browning and his advocacy on behalf of homeopathy as a cure for Ebola. For quite some time, the Greens had managed to project a face of relative sanity (setting aside Russel Norman’s flirtation with quantitive easing), only to end up the butt of innumerable homeopathy-inspired jokes on Twitter. On the plus side, the party leadership shut Browning down swiftly. And Middle New Zealand doesn’t give a damn about political jokes on Twitter, so no harm done… Or something. Regardless, it further interrupted Danyl McLauchlan’s blogging hiatus, placing it in the realm of Events of Great Significance.
  • Much less humour was derived from National’s Paula Bennett declaring that selling off state houses was “sexy”. Who knew? Personally, my definition of ‘sexy’ is a little different, but I accept that we all have our own unique peccadilloes…
  • And National decided that there should be flexibility in workers’ tea breaks. This bemused people like myself, who had always been fairly flexible already about when tea breaks were taken, even before I joined the ranks of the self-employed (at which point the issue became moot, and I discovered that four weeks’ holiday pay was a luxury that no longer existed). Frankly, I’ve never been part of a union, had always been happy to defer my tea break by half an hour if a job needed completing, and had always figured that workplace flexibility already existed if employers and employees had a half-decent relationship. Nonetheless, various unionists were obviously insisting on taking their tea breaks at contractually agreed times, and the power of the unions had to be broken… Productivity is key, don’t you know? That’s why we have (or was that had?) a Rock Star Economy. (It’s just a pity that the category Rock Star includes specimens such as Bono. Are we the Bono Economy, telling everyone what’s good for them?)
  • Oh, and the Labour leadership continues. Excitement has failed to abound, and charisma has been noticeably lacking. Perhaps Bono needs to become a New Zealand citizen and join the race…

Like a cult…

When a party loses badly, the public expects a bit of sorrowful wailing and beating of breasts. To say “This is what we did wrong, and this is how we’ll fix it” is an important part of restoring trust with the electorate. David Cunliffe didn’t appear to appreciate that, which contributed to the demise of his leadership aspirations. The remaining candidates certainly have accepted the need for a show of party penitence. There have been promises of full-scale policy review, and greater listening to the public (whatever that may mean).

David Parker has taken the penitence to a new level, saying that Labour occasionally “almost feels like a cult” and that it must look at its branding, including its use of the colour red.

Quite what Mr Parker was intending with his comments is a mystery. It’s all very well to get the public on side with a show of remorse for the electoral beating Labour has just suffered, but describing your party as “like a cult” hardly seems likely to foster a feeling of public affection.

Further, Mr Parker is still engaged in a contest in which the membership will vote. And publicly describing the party as “like a cult” seems rather like a direct attack on the membership. Likening the activist base and general party hierarchy to a collection of close-minded, intolerant fundamentalists strikes me as a terrible way to endear oneself to a group that will make up 40% of the votes in the leadership contest.

Mr Parker has certainly never been the front-runner in the leadership race, but his comments will likely have made the road ahead even harder for him.

Cunliffe bows out

David Cunliffe has pulled out of Labour’s leadership race, and in doing so, he’s given Grant Robertson and David Parker a two-fingered salute by way of an endorsement of Andrew Little.

Following The Nation‘s interview with David Shearer over the weekend, Cunliffe’s attempt to regain the leadership had become completely untenable. Shearer’s comments about struggling to get through the working day because he had to support Cunliffe as leader were an epic declaration of war. Shearer was essentially saying that he and other senior Labour MPs could not and would not support Cunliffe if he were re-elected to the leadership. Cunliffe had no choice but to bow out, for the good of the party.

Yesterday, with Parker’s entry into the race, I would have thrown my hands in the air and given up on attempting to pick a front runner. Now, the front-runner is back to being Little. Andrew Little will undoubtedly have the over-whelming union vote, possibly higher than the 70% level of support that Cunliffe reached in last year’s contest. Additionally, Cunliffe’s caucus supporters will undoubtedly pull in behind Little, which, in conjunction with Little’s own supporters, should give him an initial base of around a third of the caucus.

If Robertson and Parker largely split the remaining caucus vote between them, and neither picks up much of the union vote, it’s hard to see how Andrew Little will be anything but ahead in the first round. However, if Little can’t get a majority victory in the first round, things will get interesting. How much of Robertson or Parker’s (whichever drops out first) caucus support will go Little’s way? Does the ABC faction’s distaste for Cunliffe go so far as to a refusal to support whoever he attempts to anoint (ie. Little)? And which way will the membership jump?

Grant Robertson really doesn’t seem to excite much support out in the wider party. But then, it is a little difficult to get excited by career politicians. The problem is that neither Parker nor Little seem to attract much excitement either. They’re solid and intelligent, but hardly charismatic. Andrew Little certainly struggled to shine on The Nation over the weekend, even attracting unfavourable comparisons to David Shearer’s legendary inarticulateness during his time as leader.

Nonetheless, I’ve suggested before that Labour doesn’t necessarily need a wildly charismatic leader if wants to get back into contention by 2017. It needs stability, and it needs a leader that New Zealanders feel they can trust. Cunliffe wasn’t that leader, but either Parker or Little could be. The first task will be mending the breach between MPs and the wider party, and that’s the most fundamental argument against Robertson, in that he was seen as the ABC’s choice to spearhead the fight against Cunliffe.

And now, with nominations closing tomorrow, we wait to see whether David Shearer decides to have another shot, and further complicates the maths…

What effect will Andrew Little have on the leadership race?

In 2013, David Cunliffe won the Labour leadership contest in the first round, winning 51.15% of the total vote. Second preferences weren’t needed. Despite winning just over 32% of the caucus vote, Cunliffe blitzed the field in the membership vote (60.14%) and union vote (70.77%). Grant Robertson came in a distant second, with just short of 33% of the total vote, while Shane Jones limped home in third with almost 16%.

Jones was never a serious contender. It was an ego boost for him, as well as being a form of post-porn redemption. Andrew Little’s candidacy though is a different sort of beast. Whereas Jones was largely despised by the unions (picking up only around 12% of the union vote), Little – as a former EPMU secretary – has serious union street cred. Likewise, where Jones was distrusted by a significant portion of the party membership – seen as a sort of closet National sympathiser – Little has solid left credentials, offset perhaps by a somewhat humourless reputation and an inability to win an electorate seat.

So what does that mean for the leadership race? Firstly, it means that Cunliffe is highly unlikely to hold his 2013 membership and union voting base.  A portion was already likely to have deserted him, thanks to the terrible 2014 election campaign, but that portion is likely to now significantly increase, to Little’s benefit.

The pro-Little effect is likely to most significant in the union vote, which makes up 20% of the total. Little’s former union, the EPMU, is the strongest of the six affiliated unions, making up around 40% of the total union vote. Cunliffe received 71.43% of the EPMU vote last time; this time round, it would be extremely surprising if they didn’t break heavily for Little. That’s just shy of 8% of the total vote already in Little’s camp, largely from Cunliffe’s side of the ledger.

That means that it’s highly unlikely that any of the three candidates are going to win the leadership without going to preferences. So, who’s most likely to drop out first? If it’s Cunliffe or Robertson, you can be sure that most of their supporters’ second preferences would be for Little, as the compromise candidate. That would likely be enough to hand Little the leadership. If Little drops out first though, Robertson will likely be leader.

Let’s play with some (admittedly rough and ready) numbers:

  • At present, it sounds like Cunliffe has the support of about a quarter of the caucus, while Robertson has about half. So let’s use those proportions and give Little the remaining quarter.
  • And let’s assume that Robertson slightly grows his share of the membership vote to 30%, while Little grabs 30% and Cunliffe maintains an edge with 40%.
  • And let’s further assume that the EPMU largely votes Little, while Robertson holds his share of the remaining five unions, and Little and Cunliffe split the remainder about half and half between them. That gives Little about 60% of the total union vote, with Cunliffe on 30% and Robertson on 10%.

All up, that gives both Robertson and Little a total of 34%, while Cunliffe is only marginally behind on 32%. It’s a close race, but Cunliffe would drop out, making Little the likely victor on preferences.

It wouldn’t take much for the result to go in a rather different direction. For instance, if the unions didn’t break quite as heavily for Little, giving him 50% rather than 60%, and that 10% stayed with Cunliffe, suddenly both Cunliffe and Robertson would be sitting together on 34%, while Little would come third on 32%.

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to say how much Cunliffe’s support amongst the membership and unions has been damaged by the 2014 election campaign. Labour’s former president Mike Williams told National Radio on Monday that the unions had voted overwhelmingly for Cunliffe because they thought he could beat Key. According to Williams, the unions no longer think that.

My pick at this stage? Cunliffe to drop out in round one, with Little triumphing on preferences. Unless of course the picture gets further complicated by David Shearer or David Parker entering, to make the race a four- or five-way… Because then all bets would be off!

 

 

Orwellian?

Labour Party member Phil Quin yesterday posted the contents of an email from party president Moira Coatsworth to members. His blog title? “Moira Coatsworth’s Orwellian Gambit“. One might think, from a title invoking Orwell, that Ms Coatsworth’s email contained some fairly strong stuff. Well, judge for yourself:

New Zealand Council last night agreed the following expectations for Party members.

Robust exchanges about the merits of any candidate for leadership need to be based on performance and attributes which are relevant to their ability to be the Labour Leader.

Members (including candidates for leadership) should not directly or indirectly refer to a candidate for leadership in a way which is denigrating or disrespectful.

Members should be cautious to ensure that any statements they make are factually accurate and fair. They should ensure that any public comment on the candidates, the Party and the leadership election system uphold the status of the Party and its chances of election to Government, and do not bring it into disrepute.

To my mind, Ms Coatsworth’s missive reads more like an appeal for polite, reasoned discourse, than a despotic crushing of free speech. As it happens, Mr Quin this morning recanted, posting on Pundit an admission that perhaps Orwellian was a rather silly word to use.

That was as far as the retraction went:

It was pompous hyperbole, a rhetorical misdemeanor, to deem Labour’s edict ‘Orwellian’. The decision by the New Zealand Council to specifically outlaw speech considered disrespectful or denigratory during the leadership primary campaign is merely heavy-handed, obnoxious and unnecessary.

Phil Quin will not be silenced, which is fair enough. He also appears to fundamentally distrust Ms Coatsworth and General Secretary Tim Barnett, which is, again, fair enough – they presumably belong to a different faction to Mr Quin, and factional infighting is certain alive and well in the Labour Party.

However, where Mr Quin goes wrong is his assumption that the public doesn’t care about disunity:

The source of Labour’s woes isn’t the perception of disunity but the stark reality of its disconnection with voters. Our problem is not too much debate, but too little — and now is precisely the worst time to tell members to watch their tongues.

I’ve previously noted that no matter how the Labour caucus gelled during the election campaign, it was never going to overcome the previous two and a half years of the party’s self-mutilation. Going feral in public may be highly satisfying for those involved, but it’s not likely to a) end Labour’s current factional war, or b) engender any modicum of respect for Labour from the voting public.

As an outsider looking in, I can only shake my head and wonder what precisely Phil Quin hopes to achieve by releasing his email communications with Moira Coatsworth. If it’s an attempt to undermine Coatsworth and Barnett, then it’s possibly a cunning plan. Beyond that, it simply feeds into the narrative that Labour are too busy fighting each other to bother attacking National.

The leadership contest is (another) opportunity for the candidates and their supporters to engage in a reasoned debate about Labour’s role in New Zealand politics and its future positioning. Attacks like Mr Quin’s are a less than constructive addition to the debate…

Holding out for a hero

David Cunliffe cannot beat National in 2017. That’s as close to a political certainty as there is. Labour did as poorly as they did this election in part because of Cunliffe. I know too many people who wouldn’t touch Labour with a barge pole while Cunliffe was leader.

Brian Edwards sums up Cunliffe’s problem well:

Perhaps the most widespread criticism you hear of David Cunliffe is that he doesn’t seem sincere, that the things he says seem to lack spontaneity, to sound rehearsed, scripted, to be part of a performance. It’s not just that the Labour Leader’s acting is over the top; it’s that he should be acting at all.

I think there’s some truth to this, to the ‘but’ that lies at the back of so many people’s minds, the ill-defined but nagging doubt as to whether this is a man you can trust or someone you can afford to like. I hear this all the time. On the street. At parties. In discussion with friends. Ask them for the evidence to support their conclusion and you rarely get a clear answer. It’s just an impression, a perception, a feeling. But it may account in part for Labour’s dismal showing in the election. And it may be enough to prevent David Cunliffe ever becoming Prime Minister.

But that’s only the start of it. From even before David Cunliffe was elected leader, everyone knew that most of his colleagues despised him. The term ABC – Anyone But Cunliffe – became a common expression on the evening news. Labour’s MPs may have put their vendettas on hold during the election campaign proper, but the previous year of leaks, backstabbing and continual undermining of Cunliffe had left the public with no illusions that Labour was desperately divided house.

If Cunliffe somehow manages to retain the leadership, the situation will be even worse. Voters will continue to stay away from Labour in droves.

Unfortunately, Grant Robertson doesn’t appear to offer much in terms of mending a broken party. Many in the caucus seem reluctant to get in behind him – they really dislike Cunliffe, but they’re still not sure whether Robertson has what it takes to defeat Key. And a majority of the members seem even less enthused by him, perhaps put off by his career politician, “beltway” background.

Besides, like a drunken fratboy, the Labour leadership contest has gone ugly early. Cunliffe is already damaged goods; by the time the primary campaign is over, Robertson might well be too.

So who else is there? David Shearer? He’s already failed once as leader. His on-camera appearances may have improved, but they’ve been in the context of defined policy areas, rather than the broad big-picture Q&A sessions he’d have to cope with as leader. If he were to revert back to the role of leader, he would once again fail.

Andrew Little? A possibility. If he threw his hat into the ring, he’d certainly command a great deal of support from the unions, and he doesn’t seem disliked by either the caucus or membership. As a contender for Prime Minister though, he’d likely struggle to be seen as anything other than a mouthpiece for the unions.

Stuart Nash or Kelvin Davis? Far too inexperienced, with no real support base yet to speak of. If either of them makes a tilt for the leadership, it will be for the purpose of increasing their profile and gaining a senior role from whoever wins.

Jacinda Ardern? Too young, with no solid form behind her. See my previous post: “The Mystifying Rise of Jacinda Ardern“.

Which leaves David Parker. As Cunliffe and Robertson fight each other to a standstill, Parker would be an ideal candidate to throw his name in at the last minute and cut through the middle. He’s intelligent and articulate, with a solid policy grasp. He was impressive in the finance debates with Bill English during the election. He’s the sort of stable, respectable figure who might just be able to convince the voting public that Labour can again be trusted.

Crazy? Perhaps. But no less crazy than any of the other alternatives…

 

@tarnbabe67 : Cosgrove’s conspiracy theory backfires

Intelligent people occasionally make stupid mistakes. Exhibit A: Karen Price setting up an anonymous Twitter account in order to lambast her husband’s foes. There’s something very unMachiavellian about choosing an “anonymous” Twitter handle that allowed people who knew you to guess your identity…

It wasn’t a smart thing to do, but let’s look at it in context. Convention dictates that as a “political wife”, Karen Price doesn’t get to vent in public about her husband being put through the wringer, especially not when most of those putting him through the wringer are in fact his own colleagues. Twitter provided an ability to vent anonymously, at a time of enormous stress and pressure.

So she got found out. And she’s apologised:

“After a period of intense media attention and scrutiny of our family, I set up and used an anonymous Twitter account over the weekend and made a number of comments that I deeply regret.

“Our family has been under intense media pressure since the election. My actions were ill-judged and were the result of extreme frustration and trying to look after my husband and family.

“David had absolutely no knowledge of the account until a media outlet raised it with him on Tuesday night.

“The account is now closed and I apologise to all those I have offended in any way. I will be taking a short break and will not be commenting further.”

Left there, the whole debacle might have done David Cunliffe some damage. Questions may have been raised about whether Ms Price would survive the pressures of being New Zealand’s First Lady. On the whole though, the general mood seemed to be “Wife sticks up for husband – good on her”.

Unfortunately for Camp Anti-Cunliffe, Clayton Cosgrove had to go on the evening news, pushing a grand conspiracy theory – Karen Price was a pawn in Cunliffe’s game of online chess:

“Let me put it this way. If my partner set up a Twitter account to attack members of the caucus I would know about it.”

It was a vitriolic attempt to smear Cunliffe via his wife, and from the reactions, it’s backfired badly. Cosgrove came across as a thug. And a chauvinist thug at that. Why precisely would he know everything about what his partner does online? How controlling a person is Mr Cosgrove?

If his intention was to further destabilise Cunliffe’s leadership campaign, he’s probably done the exact opposite – inspiring sympathy for Cunliffe via his wife. Women are likely thinking that if they were in Price’s shoes, they’d want to launch a Twitter attack against a past-his-use-by-date arse like Cosgrove. Men are likely thinking that it’s a good thing for one’s wife to have one’s back.

The biggest loser thus far seems to be Cosgrove himself.

The very public evisceration of David Cunliffe

Ordinarily, when the coup of a party leader is underway, one of two things happens. Either the incumbent simply walks, having seen the writing on the wall, or attempts to stare down their opposition in a closed room. Someone walks out of the room as leader, be they the continuing leader or a fresh face, and the party and public is informed of the result.

The Labour Party, in its collective wisdom, now has a very public election process, which is all very well for the candidates with no leadership history to defend. It’s a very different kettle of fish for David Cunliffe, who will now have to defend leading Labour to its worst result in recent history.

If one wins a resounding victory and credits the team (a la John Key), one is deemed a good winner. If one suffers a resounding loss and runs with the ‘blame everyone but oneself’ approach, the plaudits are somewhat fewer. Therein lies the catch for Cunliffe. If he accepts responsibility, as he’s hitherto failed to do, he’s toast. If he tries to apportion blame elsewhere, he risks a resounding backlash.

The backlash has begun. Cunliffe has remarked that some candidates may have been concentrating on the electorate vote, rather than the party vote. He’s had an excruciatingly scathing open letter from Labour’s Ilam candidate, James Macbeth Dann as a result, published at Public Address. Here are some highlights:

I gave my campaign everything, and I am sure that you did the same. We ran a two ticks campaign in Ilam. All our material had “Party Vote Labour” proudly on it. We delivered tens of thousands of pieces of paper with your face on it. But the reality, the hard truth, is that people in the electorate just didn’t connect with you. I lost count of the number of times I door knocked someone who told me they had voted Labour all their life, but wouldn’t vote for us as long as you were leader. People who would have a Labour sign – but not one with your face on it. While those examples are strictly anecdotal, the result on election night isn’t. It’s unavoidable. It’s practically the worst result in the Party’s history.

And:

The Labour Party isn’t a vehicle for you to indulge your fantasy of being Prime Minister. While you might think that it’s your destiny to be the visionary leader of this country, the country has a very different vision – and it doesn’t involve you.

It’s time for a new generation of leadership in the Labour party, one that is closer in both age and understanding with the people it needs to represent. It’s not just time for Grant, but also for people like me. I think I did a good job in a very difficult electorate, and would like to build on it at the next election.

However, I won’t be part of a party that you lead. Not because I don’t like you, but because I simply don’t want to lose again. That’s the reality David. The people of New Zealand don’t want you to be their leader. The comparisons that you and your supporters have thrown up don’t hold water – you aren’t Norm Kirk and you aren’t Helen Clark. You’re David Cunliffe and you led the Labour Party to it’s most devastating result in modern history.

So I’ll promise you this. If you win, I’ll step aside from the party, to let you and your supporters mould it into the party you want. But in return I ask this: if you lose this primary, you resign from parliament. In your time in opposition, we’ve had you on the front bench, where you let down your leader at the most critical point of the 2011 campaign. You ran for leader and lost, then destabilised the elected leader. Then when you got your chance as leader, you led Labour a party that was polling in the mid-30’s to one that sits firmly in the mid-20’s. There is no place for you in this party anymore.

And of course it’s open season in the media, with so much blood in the water. The NZ Herald had an online article entitled “Cunliffe’s candid comments on the leadership”. Except that it doesn’t go by that title anymore. Instead it’s been renamed “13 bizarre things Cunliffe has said in the past 24 hours“. There was no change in the content of the article, but the title is a spectacular shift in slant.

The new acting leader is David Parker, Cunliffe’s former deputy and finance spokesperson. As someone who performed exceptionally well throughout the campaign, he can’t be accused of attempting to undermine Cunliffe’s leadership. He’s been a loyal deputy, despite once being a contender for the leadership. And he too has now rammed the knife into Cunliffe, explicitly stating that he’s lost confidence in him.

When someone like Parker makes it that clear, in such a public fashion, there’s no way back for Cunliffe, even if he somehow wins the members and union vote with such a margin that he scrapes back in as leader. What do you do when your finance spokesperson has publicly stated he has no confidence in you?

Can Grant Robertson beat John Key in 2017? Who knows. Nonetheless, Cunliffe is a corpse, even if he retains the leadership. Perhaps the best thing for Labour would be for Cunliffe to abandon his tilt for the leadership, and for David Parker to reassess his refusal to stand. Parker v Robertson: a battle that could provide positive headlines? Or is it just me?

 

The leadership characteristic that shall not be named

David Cunliffe formally resigns today, setting up a head-to-head battle between him and Grant Robertson, although there’s still a chance that David Shearer, Andrew Little and/or Stuart Nash might throw their hat(s) into the ring.

As the Labour MPs arrived for the resignation caucus, Little refused to rule himself out, instead repeating the line that he needed to wait for the special votes to be counted, to see whether he was even going to be returned to Parliament. Likewise, Nash too was refusing to rule himself out, despite apparently having been told by fellow MPs that he didn’t have the numbers in caucus for either leader or deputy.

The last leadership ballot was largely a genial, gentlemanly sort of event. Cunliffe, Robertson and Shane Jones toured the country, trading wisecracks and generally attempting to prove just how staunchly left-wing they could suddenly be. This time around, the whole enterprise is likely to be a rather murkier affair.

Robertson, on The Nation over the weekend, has already put the boot into Cunliffe, highlighting Cunliffe’s leadership mistakes, while Cunliffe has slapped back, attacking the lack of broad appeal of beltway politicians.

Where things are going to get really nasty though is the issue of Grant Robertson’s sexuality. David Cunliffe’s supporters want Robertson’s sexuality to be an ongoing topic of conversation. The idea is that if enough people are asking whether South Auckland voters will vote for a gay Prime Ministerial candidate, the seeds of doubt amongst the membership will help get Cunliffe over the line.

No one actually wants to come right out and say it though. Yesterday afternoon, on National Radio’s The Panel, everyone could contentedly assert that it wasn’t a problem for them personally, but for others, well, who knows?

The unspoken assumption is that to be New Zealand’s Prime Minister, you must be straight. Here’s Su’a William Sio’s comment (via Laura McQuillan’s Twitter account) as he arrived for Labour’s caucus meeting this morning:

Robertson’s sexuality “never came up” at Mangere LEC but there are “characteristics” that influence leadership support.

And:

Sio warns leadership contenders (ie Robertson) will be under scrutiny from Pasifika voters for “their personal and private characteristics”

It doesn’t take a genius to work out which of Robertson’s “characteristics” Sio and his Mangere electorate committee find so distressing…

Then there’s this reporting by Andrea Vance of “[o]ne community leader, who did not want to be named”:

Robertson’s homosexuality clashed with socially conservative attitudes of voters, who would turn instead to NZ First, he said.

‘‘If Labour want to go from 24 [per cent] to 14 and put NZ First from 10 to 19, that’s the way to go. He won’t unify the party. He will destroy the South Auckland power base, that three Ms [Mangere, Manukau East and Manurewa electorates]. It’s not so much Grant, it’s what aligns with their beliefs … it will probably be a tipping point.’’

In the end, few will come right out and say it, “We need the homophobe vote, so Grant Robertson just won’t do”. In fact, just like the unnamed community leader, few will even want their names associated with their own more toned down concerns. Nonetheless, the whispering campaign will continue, Robertson will be asked in every second interview whether his sexuality will make a difference, and he’ll give yet another variant of his answer about how he also likes rugby and beer.

Robertson might also like to point out that West Auckland voters elected and re-elected the openly gay Chris Carter from 1993 to 2008, while Louisa Wall easily held her South Auckland seat of Manurewa.