A good mate pointed out to me that it wasn’t very smart to heap abuse on the heads of people whose opinion you hoped to change. He was referring to my most recent post On the extremely rare danger of overestimating Labour Party Stupidity, in which I called the ‘Anyone But Cunliffe’ brigade ‘numbskulls’. My good mate is right. It wasn’t very smart and you aren’t all numbskulls. But I was angry with you. Very angry. I’m still angry with you because, though I’m not a member of the Labour Party, that’s where my political sympathies lie – left of left. Like you, I want Labour to win the next election. I want to see the back of a government that rewards the rich and powerful and punishes the poor and powerless. So I’m unlikely to have time or sympathy for anyone whose words or actions make that Labour win unlikely. That is what you are doing by supporting either Grant Robertson’s or Shane Jones’ bid for the leadership. Robertson can’t win for Labour and Jones is a harmful distraction.
I like Grant Robertson. He’s hugely intelligent, is a brilliant debater in the House, has a good sense of humour and seems to be a really nice bloke. There are sadly several reasons to discount the ‘really nice bloke’ bit. The history of New Zealand politics for starters, a more or less even distribution of really nice losers and not-so-nice winners. Think Rowling, Goff, Shearer; think Kirk, Muldoon, Clark. Common factor in group two – ruthlessness. The pattern reflects our national psyche: given the choice, we’d rather have a bully than a wimp. Still, it can’t hurt to be a brilliant debater in the House. No it can’t. But the mistake is in thinking that brilliance in the parliamentary debating chamber automatically translates into brilliance in the radio or television studio. It doesn’t. As Helen Clark’s media advisors, we were guilty of making that mistake before the first Leaders Debate in 2008. We’d written off Key as inconsequential, a lightweight in the House and no match for Helen in experience, intellect or mastery of the issues.
The Prime Minister lost that first debate and we had to regroup. Despite his inexperience and his mangling of the English language, Key connected with the radio and television audience, listening and watching at home in their ones and twos. Although they have a huge reach, television and radio are both intimate media. Parliament could not be more different. The debating techniques that are admired there – playing to the gallery, not listening to your opponent, interrupting them, shouting them down, laughing at and abusing them – are the precise opposite to what works on radio or television. Even intelligence can be a two-edged sword, especially if it is seen as academic in nature, as ‘intellectualism – ‘Too smart for his own good!’
But then that may be more a problem for Cunliffe than Robertson. But the real problems for Robertson lie in his inexperience, his lack of profile and that, as a television performer, he is no more than proficient. He’s solid, reliable, down to earth, articulate. But he lacks charisma. In the era of television politics, that is a fatal flaw. Grant has been a Member of Parliament for only five years. He has never been in Government, let alone been a Minister. This is in itself cause for concern. History shows that in politics shooting stars burn out quickly. There is no real substitute for experience. Longevity in office often reflects a lengthy apprenticeship in and out of office. Clark and Muldoon are two examples.
And Grant’s public profile is low. People don’t know who he is. The recent One News Colmar Brunton poll, which asked which of a list of Labour MPs would do the best job leading Labour into the election was evidence of that. Bad enough that among eligible voters Cunliffe was on 29% and Robertson on 10%. But, to add insult to injury, Robertson was behind both Jacinda Ardern and Shane Jones. Only Andrew Little fared worse. And the picture was little better among Labour Party supporters. Small wonder that, as I write this, ipredict has Cunliffe at 78% and Robertson at 20% likelihood to become Labour’s next leader. Great odds for Cunliffe, terrible odds for Robertson. The odds also reflect the view of a majority of editorial writers, columnists and bloggers that Cunliffe is the front-runner and the most likely Labour candidate to best Key in an election campaign. What all of this does is create a sense of inevitability that Cunliffe will take Labour into the election.
Like the polls themselves, these prophecies not merely reflect the current position, they tend to be self-fulfilling. Those of you who support or intend to support Grant’s nomination for the leadership are swimming against this stream. Your dislike of Cunliffe is stronger than your determination to win the election. This seems to me to be a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. So I withdraw my ill-considered and abusive comments about you and invite you to take another look at what you are doing. You are in a very powerful position. There is a degree of uncertainly as to where the party vote will go in a month’s time; there is an even greater degree of uncertainty as to where the union vote will go. Your vote can be crucial. In backing Robertson to keep Cunliffe out, you may well be keeping Labour out of government in as well. That seems to me a grave responsibility, not least because Cunliffe ticks all the boxes as the candidate most likely to defeat John Key. Have another think. Three more years in opposition doesn’t seem terribly attractive.