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!