What the start of the Labour leadership campaign tells us about the candidates...
Don't judge a book by its cover, they say. And it's good advice. When it comes to who might lead Labour into the 2014 election there's a lot more to come as the three aspirants campaign their way round the country. Nevertheless, the launches of Grant Robertson, Shane Jones and David Cunliffe told us a fair bit about who they are and what they bring.
Robertson went first, and you can judge whether it was humble or underwhelming. Off to the steps of parliament on a Sunday afternoon, just him and some journalists and the right words about unity and excitement. The timing was good, but it seemed a timid beginning. In the moment when most of the public will pay attention to you for the first time, you want to give some thought to first impressions, and Robertson's, sadly, seemed lacking in verve and conviction. Party members will want to see much more; the good news is that there is more to Robertson, his challenge is now to get it out.
Jones too was driven through the media, but with little flair. Duncan Garner tweeted, the Herald put politics on its front page (an achievment there, certainly) and he did the rounds of Monday morning radio. His lines though revealed the Jones spark and cajones. Key was the "$50 million gorilla" and the predictable porn movie questions were kicked away with "I'm not running to be Pope, buddy". Voters would have heard the quick wit and colour of the man.
Cunliffe, however, was in a different league. His launch was an 'event' and told you much about the man. He had the theatre – with a crowd, a vision speech and journalists throwing questions at him on the spot. His first impression was forceful, even presidential. Not for him the humble raising of his hand, but rather a statement of intent. From the get-go he had something to say, a language that, while full of rhetoric and flash, had an ideology under-pinning it and stood at odds with the language used by the current government.
He had convictions. The contrast with David Shearer couldn't have been plainer. Asked directly by TVNZ's Corin Dann if he was the sort of Labour leader who would increase taxes on the rich, Cunliffe replied in a heartbeat "you betcha". You can imagine how Shearer – due simply to a lack of experience, uncertainty where the traps lie and political ideas that weren't yet fully rounded – would have fudged and muddled his way through.
But there was the side of Cunliffe that opens him to criticism as well. On the wall of his office an array of Labour leaders in black and white – a sign that he knows politically where he comes from and sees himself as an heir to that tradition. But above them all, in colour and larger than any other picture in the room, a portrait of himself. It seems genuine and uncontrvied, but Cunliffe seems to see himself as the hero in his own play. That may be exactly what Labour – and New Zealand needs – but it may also be undermine his narrative about being a servant of the party and people.
So already we're starting to see the men's character. It'll be fascinating to see which resonates with the Labour Party of 2013.
As for strategy, Cunliffe has cleverly positioned himself as comfortable with business-types and the right of the party, yet espousing the langage and values of the left. Robertson has done the hard yards behind the scenes and, while it's harder to read from the outside, will realy on strong relationships inside the caucus, party and unions. Jones will be hoping to somehow pip Robertson for second in the preferential system and then scoop up enough support from the right of the party and the ABC crowd to push past Cunliffe when it's down to two. At least that's a rough idea at first blush... but much yet to come.