Labour's list deserves scrutiny and poses questions - just not the ones raised by Damien O'Connor

Labour's party list has caused all sorts of consternation, following Damien O'Connor's outburst about gays and unionists. Rob's post today has conclusively blown apart that argument, but the O'Connor furore has over-shadowed more pertinent questions about the party's MMP strategy and will to win.

The problem for Labour is that O'Connor's focus of attack plays into the smear campaign crafted so effectively by Labour's critics through the Helen Clark years, and beyond; those who talk about "the sisterhood", who rant about " PC gone mad" and whisper "she's really gay, y'know, and looks after her own". As if women or gays anywhere near the pinnacle of power is a subversive or naive or risky thing in and of itself.

This was at its most blatant when Don Brash as National leader claimed to represent "mainstream New Zealand", unlike Labour, which was a mixed bag of minorities. This caused Dr Brash some consternation of his own, but it's a perception that has stuck and still has teeth today.

As conclusive as Rob's analysis is, the political reality is that the 'nanny state' perception of Labour has more traction than the facts.

O'Connor could hardly have chosen a softer part of Labour's political underbelly to aim his West Coast mud-stained gumboots. Which I imagine was part of his thinking - his words could be worth a few votes on the Coast, a seat he simply must win if he wants to continue his parliamentary career.

But it avoids other reasons why Labour's list deserves scrutiny; reasons that have more validity. For one, what has Phil Twyford done to so piss of his fellow Labour-ites? A man hugely admired in his pre-political life and still held in esteem by most political watchers - especially given his efforts in holding National and ACT to account over the super city reforms - makes it to just 33 on the list.

Now, you might say he's a safe bet to win Te Atatu and doesn't need a high ranking. But lists send out messages, and this one says 'disrespect' to Twyford.

It sends a similar message to David Shearer and Kelvin Davis. Both stand-out fresh MPs, they have been ranked behind Darien Fenton, Rajen Prasad and Carol Beaumont, for example. So have the hard-working Clare Curran and Chris Hipkins, who have impressed in their portfolios in just their first terms.

If you want to send a message saying, 'we're fresh, we value diverse thinking and we reward performance', this ain't it.

It's especially remarkable for Shearer, who just two weekends ago was being talked up as a replacement party leader. Number 31 on the list is a long, long way from 'heir apparent'.

This isn't a problem unique to Labour. National's list of ministers has plenty of miles on the clock as well. Anonymous MPs such as John Hayes, Shane Ardern and Lindsay Tisch say just as much about party tokens, sub-cultures and favours as Fenton and the others. ACT and the Greens have both faced major rejuvenation issues.

But MMP in general, and specifically its party lists, offer opportunities for parties to reach out beyond the politic-arti. We live in a post-political world, where people rate politicians as lowly as used car salesmen and voters are looking to be led by people with their own success story. Yet, at first glance, Labour has failed to find new candidates with a compelling narrative.

National brought in John Key and Steven Joyce, as leaders to win votes and run things, for example. They're not in it for the politics per se. Once National loses, just watch how long they stick around as electorate MPs.

National also recruited the likes of Chris Finlayson and Tim Groser, who'd rather wrestle barbed wire than actually - ick - win an electorate. But they add grunt and credibility to the party's ability to govern.

National even had the sense to see the anti-hero appeal of Paula Bennett - the National MP for non-National voters.

The fuss over Labour's lack of rejuvenation simply doesn't stand up to much inspection. Those who make the claim forget that roughly a third of the caucus a first-termers. No, the problem is not the quantity of the rejuventation, but the quality and breadth, the fizz and the sparkle.

As Rob mentions at the end of his post, what's lacking is a cognitive diversity. In part, there's a lack of minorities in this list - minority thinking within Labour, I mean.

This is probably what really bugs O'Connor - he just chose the wrong words to express it. Where are the small business owners? The liberal and eco-friendly corporate heavyweights? The Christians? The working class scrappers? The former sports stars or pop stars? The world-travellers returned? Crucially, those with a strong pedigree in the private sector before they chose public service? That's the weakness in this list.

The wider concern for Phil Goff is the sense that all this speaks to 2014, rather than 2011. There's a growing perception that many within Labour are looking to take this year's election as a 'strategic loss', waiting for the John Key magic to fade and the left to reassert it dominance within Labour.

As people have started to comment, Mike Moore's uphill slog in 2003 bars some comparison to what Goff is attempting now. Moore too was a retread Rogernome taking on a National government struggling to negotiate tough economic times. The 1993 election was deemed unwinnable, but Moore campaigned well, only to be undermined by half-hearted support from inside the party.

In the end, Moore came within a few hundreds votes in Waitaki from causing a massive upset.

But here's one key difference that Labour people will want to consider in the next few months. The loss in 1993 came as National was winding down from its more ideological policies. The mother of all Budgets was done and dusted, and Jim Bolger was trying to rebuild his conservative cred. His days were numbered.

Yet this year National has played a cautious hand in its first term, hinting at more ideology post-election. Key's destiny is entirely in his own hands. If another mother of all Budgets, or similar, were to come in 2012 or 2013, how would they feel then? 

Comments (16)

by mickysavage on April 12, 2011
mickysavage

I do not disagree with some of what you say but ...

The trouble with current political discourse is the effect that the damned RWNJs have on the debate.  When Hooton continuously gets quoted by the MSM on the internal workings of Labour you know there is a problem.  He is not going to give a considered opinion based on a thorough understanding, he is going to give spin designed to cause the most damage.  Farrar and Whale are worse.

The left commentators are regrettably not much better.  Matt McCarten is not pro labour, Trotter sort of but only rarely, Bomber is good but very left wing.

As an example if you look at the MPs that you think are poorly placed in the list there is a common feature, they are all exceedingly likely to win electorate seats.  When formulating the list there is a very long process which includes Caucus groups formulating and offering a list for consideration.  David Shearer for instance did the very gentlemanly thing of offering to go very low, not as a measure of his ability but in recognition that he will win Mt Albert.  The MPs actually genrally like each other and are prepared to make such contributions to each other's re-electability.

Then Whale and co spin this with a damaging line whereas the reality is that Shearer was doing an exceedingly decent thing.  And after a while it becomes a given.

Part of the problem is that there is no prominant commentator from within Labour's ranks who can counter the spin from others.  Perhaps it is time for one of the MPs to assume an identity and start blogging.

by Graeme Edgeler on April 12, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

The loss in 1993 came as National was winding down from its more ideological policies. The mother of all Budgets was done and dusted, and Jim Bolger was trying to rebuild his conservative cred. His days were numbered.

National basically lost the 1993 election. They got 35% of the vote, and their vociferous opponents: Labour (35%), The Alliance (18%), and New Zealand First (8%) got over 60% between them.

David Shearer for instance did the very gentlemanly thing of offering to go very low, not as a measure of his ability but in recognition that he will win Mt Albert. The MPs actually genrally like each other and are prepared to make such contributions to each other's re-electability.

Then Whale and co spin this with a damaging line whereas the reality is that Shearer was doing an exceedingly decent thing.

Going lower on the list if you are expecting to win an electorate seat does not assist those people you let go ahead of you be elected.

He is not going to give a considered opinion based on a thorough understanding, he is going to give spin designed to cause the most damage. Farrar and Whale are worse.

Whale had pretty much the Labour list on his Website over an hour before it was publicly released. He's got some inside knowledge at least.

by mickysavage on April 12, 2011
mickysavage

Graeme

Going lower on the list if you are expecting to win an electorate seat does not assist those people you let go ahead of you be elected.

No but it does allow you to stand to one side and not worry about the jockeying for position.

As for Whale, he did get a list but it was information that would be released anyway.  Obviously there is a leak but relying on information from one person is dangerous.  He is wrong most of the time and he does have an ulterior motive.

by Tim Watkin on April 12, 2011
Tim Watkin

It is bizarre than anybody within or around Labour would leak to Whale of all people. Nowt stranger than political folk.

The 'Shearer being a gentleman' line is believable, Micky, from what I know of him. But to come back to perception - and that's the business of politics - it's not smart politics. My point was the signal a list sends, which is a big part of its political raison d'etre when you're trying to reclaim swing voters.

What signal? That the new man with international cred is less vital to this election than some MPs who have been round longer and have had minimal impact on public opinion. Or, that while the gentleman stands aside, the desperate and unpopular are pushed forward. Neither is a great message.

It's also impossible to miss the point that there are many MPs in the top 20 who will win electorates. So your argument only goes so far. If you're right and the MPs are good to each other, the new question becomes, why do some get electorate seats AND the prestige of a high placing, while Twyford, Shearer, Curran and co are further back? What's the line that's being drawn? Su'a William Sio's pretty safe in Mangere, for example. And is Trever Mallard, in the twilight of his career, therefore ungentlemanly by taking the 9th slot?

If we assume that those from around 18 to the mid-20s are list-only hopefuls anyway and it doesn't matter where they come, why not rank them further down for the sake of the signal?

It comes down to whether you think those sitting MPs deserve a higher place according to performance, whether their egos or lobbies demand it or, alternatively, you try to think like a swing voter who cast for National last time and put names that might appeal to them further up the list, thereby sending the signal that you're listening and growing.

by Chris Trotter on April 13, 2011
Chris Trotter

Excellent piece, Tim, by far the best I've read on the subject to date.

by Claire Browning on April 13, 2011
Claire Browning

This isn't a problem unique to Labour ...

No. It isn't.

by mickysavage on April 13, 2011
mickysavage

Tim

If you're right and the MPs are good to each other, the new question becomes, why do some get electorate seats AND the prestige of a high placing, while Twyford, Shearer, Curran and co are further back? What's the line that's being drawn? Su'a William Sio's pretty safe in Mangere, for example. And is Trever Mallard, in the twilight of his career, therefore ungentlemanly by taking the 9th slot?

Obviously front benchers were going to occupy the top slots and Sua William Sio is important as the top ranking PI candidate.  I will not comment about Trevor!  But obviously symbolism is important.

I think it is important to understand the process.  It is not driven by Head Office.  There are a number of regional meetings involving the candidates and delegates where candidates speak and the delegates then vote on their ranking.  In Auckland for instance over two days 40 candidates spoke and after exhaustive voting they were then ranked.

These lists then go to the moderating committee where various representatives then fashion a list out of the regions' lists.  It is very democratic and members are much more interested in substance and commitment to the party than in selecting "superstars".  The PR implications as perceived by right wing commentators do not weigh heavily on members.

John Tamihere was a "superstar" who obviously did not work out.

The selection processes also recognise community links and grassroots campaigning ability.  For instance Jerome Mika, an EPMU organiser and a Samoan, has outstanding organising skills that are vital for getting Labour vote out.  He should be an MP in November, party vote depending of course.

by Ian MacKay on April 13, 2011
Ian MacKay

 

"Labour's list deserves scrutiny and poses questions."

National's List will deserve scrutiny and poses questions. And with this list thanks to Tim on DimPost No 30:

"But National’s top 40 look like the below:
12 Lawyers (30%)
12 Business People (30%)
6 Farmers (15%)
7 Other
and two random Rotarians that somehow made it into parliament."

http://dimpost.wordpress.com/2011/04/12/and-new-zealand-first-has-too-ma...

Surely, if the composition of Labour's list is so "terrible", then the huge lack of balance in National's would be even more terrible.

by Richard Aston on April 13, 2011
Richard Aston

"My point was the signal a list sends, which is a big part of its political raison d'etre when you're trying to reclaim swing voters."

Really? Given a significant proportion of the electorate don't understand the dynamics of MMP I am not sure the structure of a party list makes a big difference to the swinging voter. Inspired leadership may do it. I have heard a few ex labour mps aching for a star leader to come in like some post political red knight and win the election for Labour.

I am not a political analyst but I reckon star power cannot be underrated in swinging votes.

Tim you make a very good point re a lack of cognitive diversity in the labour party as opposed to the mix of culture, gender and age.  A wide range of world views and perceptions seems a good indicator of cogitative heath in any group, has the Labour party ever had a time of cognitive diversity and what causes it to diminish?

by Tim Watkin on April 13, 2011
Tim Watkin

Micky, you make good points. Part of the problem I perceive though is displayed in your own words:

It is very democratic and members are much more interested in substance and commitment to the party than in selecting "superstars".  The PR implications as perceived by right wing commentators do not weigh heavily on members.

If you want to win elections, you have to get beyond the in-house virtue of party loyalty and look at yourself like a voter does. A voter doesn't give a toss about party commitment... and 'right wing commentators' notwithstanding, if they don't look at what appeals to those to their right, they won't convince the centrists that win elections.

Richard, you disagree that lists matter then say that starpower cannot be underrated. That latter was really my point - that lists need star power - the fizz and sparkle - to grab the attention of swing voters.

And thanks Chris.

by Richard Aston on April 13, 2011
Richard Aston

Tim, yes you did make the point the list needs starpower and yes I agree with you.  I was referring to the guy at number 1 and maybe at least the top 3 . Yeah I know its easy to knock the leader and yes Phil is a loverly man - I once spent a hour next to him on a plane - but ....

 

by william blake on April 13, 2011
william blake

"National even had the sense to see the anti-hero appeal of Paula Bennett - the National MP for non-National voters."

Blunderwoman, she who got her self out of the poverty trap with a state funded degree and then cancelled the education programme. Do I need to list her other blunders?

West Aucklanders have a good alternative in the Waitakere Seat with Carmel Sepuloni and god help them if they can be fooled by a fake leopard skin leotard.

by Tim Watkin on April 13, 2011
Tim Watkin

It'll be an interesting race, William. Sepuloni seems an odd choice for that electorate and somone - a Nat, I confess - told me she's been invisible out west.

As for Bennett, given the thread over on Rob's piece and Falcon's anger towards Metiria Turei, it's an interesting observation. Falcon despises Turei despite the fact she was a young pregnant woman who dragged herself up by her own boot-straps, as per his ideal for young pregnant women. Bennett relied on the state, yet I imagine he thinks she's the bees knees. Funny old world, ain't it?

by Tim Watkin on April 13, 2011
Tim Watkin

Richard, I take your point and you're right. I'm sure Labour would love a more ka-boom leader. But the party effectively chose its top three back in 2008 ago, and for all the fuss around, they're committed to them for reasons of stability and experience etc (unless the party vote collapses).

But all the more reason to pack your list with some pizzazz.

by Matthew Percival on April 13, 2011
Matthew Percival

All very well saying the Labour list lacks spice but who exactly could they have promoted to spice things up? Shane Jones the porn king? Andrew Little the cure for insomnia? Parekura Horomia??

As for the Waitakere electorate I happen to live there and it's going to be a fascinating battle. Plenty of billboards around at the moment "promoting public meetings" with large pictures of candidates and small writing promoting meetings. Campaigning has already well and truly begun and it's looking like a tag team match with Paula & Tau Henare vs Carmel and David Cunliffe.

I'll leave it to your imagination what the result of that tag team match would be.

by on April 20, 2011
Anonymous

What kind of message does the promotion of Andrew Little to next on the list send when he lost them the last election, and many, many potential voters, with his ill advised forays into personal attack politics? It was particularly stupid when they actually had real issues to address ...but those got lost in the babble. I heard a remark the other day that Andrew Little would bide his time, oust Goff and become the leader - a truly scary prospect.

Labour's latest slogan "what is morally right is likely to be politically right" not only has confusing political implications (but again who knows, they may for once be saying what they actually mean) but is problematic when they outline many legitimate problems with bills passing through the house and then vote completely differently. They are in danger of standing for nothing at all.

As an opposition the Green politicians deserve some cudos for behaving decently, not degenerating into personal attacks and keeping the debate about legitimate issues. The also have the courage of their convictions and actually vote according to stated principles.

Labour seems to be relying on spin and assuming no-one is paying attention to what they actually do. Pity really - we could do with an effective opposition.

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