Doing a Deal

So Andrew Little has joined the leadership race. In my last post, ‘Option C’ I presented an unlikely but not impossible scenario that could deliver Little the big job. Now he’s in and the lines are beginning to be drawn in caucus, there are a few more things that should be addressed.
This is an attempt at an objective analysis.

And, objectively, it seems clear that the best thing for David Cunliffe to do now, for his own career, is stand down from the race and back Little. With Little in this race, Cunliffe isn’t going to win. Cunliffe is in the race on the support of his core caucus friends and the most zealous of his backers in the membership. It seems much of the membership who supported him last time have either left him or are distinctly less sure about him than they were a year ago. Andrew Little will siphon Cunliffe’s union support, and members who are uneasy about Cunliffe but don’t see Grant Robertson as the man for them will go to Little too. Whether this group is large enough to make a significant difference remains to be seen, but the calls for an Option C in the leadership race last week were not insignificant.

So if Cunliffe can’t win this race, who should he back? The answer is Little. Grant Robertson doesn’t need Cunliffe’s support to win. If Little and Cunliffe don’t make a deal, it’is very likely they will divide the same pool of votes between them, leaving Robertson the clear winner. Because of this, Cunliffe isn’t in a position to make demands of Grant. However, Cunliffe throwing his support behind Little will make Little a serious contender – with slightly less caucus support than Robertson, but perhaps a slight advantage in the membership and unions. Cunliffe would reap the rewards of this deal. I don’t see him as a Deputy Leader – he’s either a Leader or a key heavy-hitting caucus member. Cunliffe could take the number 3 position in Parliament with the Finance portfolio and see one of his supporters in the Deputy position. Nanaia Mahuta comes to mind – she supports Cunliffe but doesn’t seem to have many enemies in caucus, and she’s respected by the party. A Little/Mahuta ticket?

What are the risks in this for Andrew Little? First and foremost – how much can he trust David Cunliffe? Ask Phil Goff or Savid Shearer how well it worked out for them to have Cunliffe in a senior position in Parliament. If Cunliffe voluntarily drops out of the leadership race and swings behind Little, he does not go out on a defeat but rather as a strategic manoeuvre. A David Cunliffe who sees himself as vital to Andrew Little’s stability as a leader could be dangerous for the party.

Another risk would be if this gamble failed to pay off. As I’ve said, there have been no real indications of where the membership stands. If Cunliffe backs Little and the membership still swings to Grant, the power play hasn’t worked and this would mean very bad things for Little and Cunliffe. We don’t even know who Little’s caucus supporters are. I would have pegged Rino Tirikatene with Little, but he nominated Grant Robertson today, demonstrating that the MPs are not as easy to label as people might think.

If Cunliffe decides to stay in, the second votes become very important. Either Cunliffe or Little would go out on the first ballot. If Little goes out, and his support base in caucus includes the likes of Cosgrove, Shearer, O’Connor and Nash, their second vote is definitely going to go to Robertson  – they are all ABCs. However, if Cunliffe goes out on the first ballot his support, or most of it, could swing behind Little. In one of those two scenarios, Grant Robertson wins on the second ballot, at least with the caucus. With the membership, again, it’s less clear. The unions are also far from clear – rumour says some have gone to Grant but Andrew Little’s union credentials remain.

The membership remains key in this. Andrew Little could appeal to Labour membership in several ways. Firstly, his politics could position him as an alternative to Cunliffe. Secondly, his personality is potentially a look back at the best bits of David Shearer. He’s not a glossy-shiny-on-camera kind of guy like Cunliffe, but at times Cunliffe came off as a bit smarmy and insincere. Little has this ‘honest, straight-talking’ thing about him that Shearer had and that appeals to a lot of New Zealanders. With this, Little could be in the running to draw in quite a lot of the membership. With Cunliffe still in the race, though, the divided vote means this will have less effect.

So the second ballot is important, although I think that if it gets to that point then Grant is going to win. If Little and Cunliffe both run they risk voters putting one of them first and Grant second, to Grant’s advantage. With Cunliffe out, Little would be free to harvest that support.

There are many advantages for Cunliffe in doing a deal with Andrew Little. It would establish a serious contender to Grant Robertson, instead of having one candidate with half of the vote leading two with a quarter each. And Cunliffe should think hard about what he wants to achieve over the next three years. If it’s the leadership he’s dreaming, but if it’s a respectable position in caucus he needs to let go. That might be hard for him but it appears to be the logical choice. Meanwhile, Little needs to decide if he trusts Cunliffe and assess whether the gamble could work.

However, as always, none of these theories or power plays will pay off without hard, positive work on the campaign trail. There is still much to be decided, with members unsure of who they like, many MPs still enigmas and the unions not clear at all. Andrew Little can play all the political games he wants but if Grant Robertson, still the clear frontrunner, is the most earnest and intelligent candidate and can present a viable and achievable vision for Labour, he will be the next leader.


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