Grant Robertson

Most of the focus has been on the leadership contest for Labour, but the battle for Deputy Leader is also interesting with Grant Robertson and Nanaia Mahuta both standing for it.

Effectively they are both standing on tickets with Shearer and Cunliffe respectively except that in the former’s case they are pretending it is not a ticket by not calling it that. I tend to subscribe to the theory that if it looks like a duck ……

The caucus though will have two separate votes for the positions, and will only vote for Deputy Leader when they know whom the leader is. It is possible at that point, one of the contenders would pull pull out, so there is no risk of the Leader ending up with a Deputy who was not backing them.

The conventional wisdom is that Shearer is ahead of Cunliffe at the moment, so Robertson one can assume is also more likely to become Labour Deputy Leader. If this eventuates this overall could be very powerful for Labour. But first the negative.

I’ve blogged before that the ideal deputy leader is one that doesn’t want to be leader, and I stand by this. Now this does not mean that I think Grant personally is a disloyal person who would be sitting there from day one plotting to undermine the leader and become leader. I don’t think that is Grant’s style or record. Also Grant is a relatively young guy with a pretty safe seat, and knows his best route to the leadership is to be part of a winning team, where his support for the leader is unquestionable.

However events can mean things are not that easy. If for some reason (assuming Shearer is Leader), Shearer fails to fire and after 18 months is struggling in the polls, then media will focus on the deputy leader and ask whether or not he should be leader. They will every week ask the deputy if he rules out a challenge, and of course no person can ever totally rule out a change, so a response with wriggle room will be given, and the media will note the wriggle room and the speculation becomes destabilising. I saw this first hand when Jenny Shipley was National Leader and Bill English her Deputy. I even recall the press secretary who had to go between the two of them negotiating a wording for his denial of plans to become Leader, but one that does not make you a liar should a change become necessary – which it eventually did. Very rarely will a Shermanesque denial be given which includes the statement “If nominated I will not accept”.

So the risk if Grant is Deputy is not that Grant will be disloyal. He is a team player. It is that if the leader does not perform as expected, that he will be promoted as a viable alternative – especially is as Deputy Leader he is seen to be performing better than the Leader.

Goff survived as Leader to contest the 2011 election because no one else in Labour wanted the job before the election. They were prepared to lose this election. However the caucus will be more hard headed going into 2014. The thought of a third term for National and nine years in Opposition for Labour will be deeply horrific to them. So if a Leader is not performing, then a change before 2014 would be more likely to occur. However I should state that it is not my expectation that either Shearer or Cunliffe would not perform well, so this scenario is a possibility not a probability.

Somewhat unfairly to Grant I’ve written more than I intended on the possible downside of his deputy leadership. The upside is not so long, but it is more powerful. It all relates to what the role of a deputy leader can and should be in a successful leadership team.

I think the best combinations of leader and deputy are like those in a great school. The school principal provides the leadership to the staff and students, while the deputy principal effectively manages the day to day running of the school.

A good deputy will, on behalf of the leader, help manage the caucus and the leader’s office. They will provide political management and sort out all but the biggest issues, freeing up the leader to lead and focus on convincing 400,000 more New Zealanders to vote for the party.

Robertson should be incredibly effective as this type of political deputy leader. His background in NZUSA, working for Hobbs and then as H3 to Clark gives him a wealth of experience in political management. Every day a parliamentary team has to decide what questions to be asking in Parliament, what press releases to put out on what issues etc.

So overall Robertson should be a very effective Deputy Leader for Labour if he gets elected.I would take one issue with his statement at Red Alert:

I know that I can hold my own and best any of the National frontbench in Parliament and on the hustings.

I’ve often blogged in the past about my respect for Grant’s skills and certain higher ups in National tease me relentlessly about a statement I once made that Robertson will give Ryall a much much tougher time in health. I’d even go so far to say they mock me for that statement, as the reality is that Ryall hasn’t even been mildly nuzzled by Robertson in the House, let alone savaged.

So I think it is a wee bit premature to be claiming you can best any of the National frontbench in Parliament. The evidence to date hasn’t shown that. However I think in National’s second term it will be easier for Labour MPs like Grant to land some blows.

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