Labour has to take the blame for creating a bizarre mystique around David Cunliffe's motivations, and his supposedly aloof nature. The problem is not really Cunliffe, it's PR
In Scarlett Johansson’s earlier career, she played characters that were praised for their transcendent beauty. In The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), she was the teen neighbor of Ed (Billy Bob Thornton), who made frequent visits to gaze at her playing the piano. Seduced by her siren-like mystique, Ed could not see that she had little talent, and instead tried to push her career. In Lost in Translation (2003), Johansson spent much of the film traipsing around an apartment in her underwear, her largely expressionless face forming a metaphor for a Tokyo that existed beyond the western imaginary.
In The Girl With the Pearl Earring (2003), Johansson’s appearance as Johannes Vermeer’s muse also revolved around the reading of her face, as if the tiny facial movements revealed something about the feminine mystique. Although subsequent films have proved her ability to act, Johannson’s early work positioned her as all body, as latent desire that could not be told but could only be read.
Johannson’s earlier career as the indecipherable enigma can be read as a metaphor for the way David Cunliffe is read by the media and the public. Like Johansson, much of Cunliffe’s political rise has also centered on an attempt to decipher his motivations based on a reading of his face. Although much of the furore around the internal crisis around Labour has focused on the portrayal of an internal blood bath grander than Caligula, his aloof, academic and “unmanly” nature, or the notion that Labour policies are out of step with New Zealanders, I want to suggest something much more simple: Labour’s public relations need a serious overhaul. Even though it is now likely that Cunliffe’s perception with New Zealanders may necessitate his stepping down as leader, the problems are party-wide, and someone will have to look at these in the future.
From the beginning, Cunliffe’s public perception was defined by a media framing that positioned him as Machiavellian and seeking to topple the leadership from behind the scenes. Former Labour leader David Shearer in this sense did a huge amount of damage. When Cunliffe’s popularity among the wider members began to rise, he was demoted publicly from the Caucus by Shearer and Chris Hipkins. While the impression that this demotion was meant to create was that Labour was united and the leadership was stable, the whole event read like a naughty schoolboy being admonished. It fuelled the fire of rumours of internal division. The result was that every time a news camera was at an event, as well as focusing on Shearer, it would also linger on the obligatory shot of Cunliffe’s expressionless face. Like the post-divorce money shots of Jennifer Anniston crying that would launch a thousand women’s magazines, or the incident of the Greens’ line-dancing that would plague them for two terms in media coverage, Shearer and Hipkins had effectively set the media trope of the obligatory shot of “Cunliffe thinking”. This event alone showed Shearer’s lack of suitability for leadership and extraordinary ability to throw the spotlight off himself and onto others. Shearer twisted the knife as he stepped down, appearing on political television shows claiming that he was unable to cope with the party's infighting.
And herein lies the problem for Cunliffe: how do you overcome such a persistent media trope? How do you overcome this during an election? How do you overcome this trope when it is self-created by the party? The persistence of this trope can be seen in Patrick Gower’s latest editorial piece on Labour where he says it is not right to use the word “tricky” to describe Cunliffe, as that conformed to the negative phrasing of National, but his tactics could be described as “sneaky” or “delphic”.
This is not to say Cunliffe has not misfired – he has. The apology to rape survivors for being a man is one of those examples that enraged middle New Zealand. However, the perception that the ‘New Zealand masculinity’ of Shane Jones’ leadership would have saved the party is misguided: he would have been run over with a National bulldozer in two seconds. No one wants our country to be led by someone who thinks he can “dead cat bounce” John Key’s penis. The perception that Cunliffe’s unpopularity can be surmounted by replacing him is not correct – a fact that many of the more mischievous and politically involved commentators on the Right are aware of as they seek to prolong the narrative of instability around the leadership crisis.
While Labour is compelled by its rules to have a leadership contest within three months of the election, there is a much more urgent lesson to be learned: control your message. The issue is not leadership or policy; it’s public relations. Labour is simply impotent against National until they sort this out. National are not afraid to hire specialists, such as Crosby Textor, who ran campaigns for Reagan and Howard. Their website is careful not to come across as too party oriented or ideological, as something that might appeal to the values of middle New Zealand. In contrast, Labour’s blog Red Alert, apart from its appalling layout, reads like a painful local meeting in a community hall, with posts ranging from statements on policy, Claire Curran’s haiku, to critiques of the very same media commentators they need to convey their message. In the 2011 election, they had interviews with sitting MPs filmed in their offices with poor lighting and sound. At the level of their campaign advertising, the ‘Vote Positive’ focused too much on images of community inclusion, at the expense of aspirational business – a message that is crucial for gaining the votes of middle New Zealand.
Controlling the message begins with creating the identifiers around the next leader, rather than leaving them open to attack. In 1980, running for Vice President alongside Ronald Reagan was a virtual unknown called George H. W. Bush, who was sitting on 1% in the polls. His advertising campaign manager Robert Goodman adopted a strategy where ID spots in political advertising showed him always surrounded by large masses of people, in order to cement the impression that he was already endorsed by the public. Goodman also hired actors to provide the impression of Secret Service members and add to the impression of power. The message that Bush should be listened to was carefully crafted. National understand this, and have managed to create a cult of Key that positions him as almost invincible to scandal, largely because he comes across as the kind of guy that one might want to have a beer with. While Key has elements of natural performance, this is an image that has been carefully crafted, just like the McGehan Close media event in 2007 that framed Key (and National) as caring about the issues that affect lower income New Zealanders.
My point is this: whomever Labour chooses this time as leader, in order to recuperate in the polls it needs to be not another rendition of The Boy with the Pearl Earring. To some extent, the success of the next leader will coast on the personality attributes that they bring to the job. However, within the public domain, the perception of leadership is somewhat a blank slate and can be shaped by drawing from techniques of more strongly managing this perception.