No clear favourite in Labour leadership

12:00 pm on 14 November 2014

So who's it going to be? The four Labour leadership contenders have wrapped up their nationwide roadshow - with no clear favourite standing out.

Labour leadership hopefuls David Parker, Nanaia Mahuta, Grant Robertson and Andrew Little.

From left: David Parker, Nanaia Mahuta, Grant Robertson and Andrew Little.. Photo: RNZ / Kiri Ennis

Under the party rules, members and affiliated unions have a vote - the hustings meetings from Whangarei to Invercargill have provided the candidates with a chance to make a direct pitch.

The party hierarchy has been presenting the post-election leadership race as a positive process for Labour, which had the wind knocked out of its sails by the brutal election defeat.

The leadership contest is a time for reflection, they say - a chance for New Zealand to reconnect with Labour - but it's hard to escape the feeling that many voters have heard enough from politicians this year and aren't watching the contest with baited breath.

Andrew Little. Labour hustings Dunedin 30.10.2014

Andrew Little - a union man. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

That's not to take anything away from the contenders.

Andrew Little, former union boss and MP since 2011, has tried to use the meetings to shake off the image of being grim-faced and dull.

"When I was a union leader I tended to be dealing with situation where someone was being done over or there was a strike, and I guess I conveyed a somewhat kind of serious image, but I was dealing with serious issues and I wouldn't have felt comfortable laughing and giggling about people having a difficult time or even a business that was having a difficult time."

Nanaia Mahuta

Nanaia Mahuta - well-regarded in electorate. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

Nanaia Mahuta is a long-serving MP and was a minister in Helen Clark's government but there is a view the only time she's come to life politically, on the national stage, is when there's a leadership contest.

In saying that, she has impressed with her performance, and she's also well-regarded within her Hauraki-Waikato electorate. She may do well within the large South Auckland support base, having an electorate office there, and benefiting from some active lobbying by other local MPs in particular Su'a William Sio.

Her pitch has very much been about making the most of diversity within Labour and the caucus - a pointed reminder that one of the few bright spots of the election result was the performance of the party's Maori and Pacific MPs.

This is the Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson's second shot at the leadership, having lost out to David Cunliffe in 2013.

A former senior staffer in Helen Clark's office, he worked away from Parliament for a few years before returning as MP in 2008. He's criticised as being too 'beltway' or Wellington-centric, and not being able to relate to Auckland or provincial voters.

Grant Robertson

Grant Robertson - determined to make mark. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

"Oh well you know, I grew up in Dunedin, I've lived in a lot of different places ... the fact that I've got some experience of how the political system works is a good thing ... one of the reasons I've got Jacinda Ardern alongside me, she grew up in Morrinsville, as she often says she spent more time working in a fish and chip shop in Morrinsville than she did working in Helen Clark's office."

Mr Robertson repeatedly deployed a line to front-foot the question that's been raised about whether New Zealand is ready for a gay Prime Minister.

"Some people say New Zealand's not ready for someone like me ... but I think that's a bit unfair to left-handed people who wear glasses."

David Parker. Labour hustings Dunedin 30.10.2014.

David Parker - has a 'rich life' Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

He made a more direct and serious pitch to the more conservative audience in South Auckland, telling them they know what it's like to be told you couldn't do something because of who you are.

The senior MP and former government minister, David Parker, has struggled to shake the image of an earnest policy wonk, not helped by his repeated use of the phrase "We can't survive as a subset, within a subset, of a subset".

He insists there's more to him than that: "I can build a house, I tramp, I ski, I love the arts, I've got a very rich life." He also cites his experience as a businessman, a lawyer and a senior minister, including as Attorney-General in the Clark administration.

The party estimates that only about a third of those who will vote actually turn up to the meetings; some of those who did attend said they thought it was a great process, a chance for them to have a direct say in the leadership and to be involved.

Some, however, question whether Labour should return to the old system of letting the caucus decide the leader, acknowledging that the first leader under the electoral college system delivered David Cunliffe, which was a disaster they have to take some responsibility for.

The party president, Moira Coatsworth, defended the process when asked if it's too long, and the right approach to give members and affiliated unions a say.

She says three weeks is not long to consider such an important selection and that the 40 percent of the vote given to the caucus is more power than MPs have in similar systems overseas.

This contest hasn't been helped, however, by its proximity to the election campaign, voters' disillusionment with Labour, and the fact the same leadership process was run just over a year ago.

That contest gave the party momentum and sparked interest from members as well as the wider electorate that just hasn't seemed to happen this time. The job for the new leader, to reconnect with the broad voter base Labour needs if it's to rehabilitate itself for the 2017 election, is that much harder.

That new leader will be announced next Tuesday - the party's fifth in just four years.

Follow Jane Patterson on Twitter @rnzgalleryjane

David Cunliffe announces he's withdrawing from the Labour leadership race that he himself sparked.

David Cunliffe announces he's withdrawing from the Labour leadership race that he himself sparked. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

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