So the names for the Labour leadership are now in the hat. The caucus has a decent buffet to choose from, but need to remember it's not all about them

It's hard to know what to say about Labour's leadership tussle. There's a logic inside the beltway and even inside the caucus room that doesn't always translate to the rest of the country. But it's the rest of the country the caucus needs to keep front of mind.

Already, Tervor Mallard has posted on Red Alert a request for feedback on who the new leader should be -- a very open and democratic invitation, you've got to say. And already Dylan has made a comment that every MP must take as a mantra if they want the party to be competitive in three years. Dylan wrote:

"Please consider a leader that [sic] is popular with the public... Please do not focus solely on who you think “deserves” it for internal reasons."

Why do I stress that? In short, the Labour vote is at risk on nearly all fronts.

  • Elections are, to a significant degree, won and lost in Auckland. And Labour needs to do a lot of work there. Auckland thinks very differently to Wellington and if the new leader doesn't know how to talk to Auckland, forget it. While it re-gained some ground in South Auckland it lost ground everywhere else and needs to front that pronto.
  • Labour is weak in the provinces. The under-appreciated Damien O'Connor won back West Coast-Tasman, but Labour can't win government if the only other seat it holds outside the main centres is Palmerston North. Look at Otaki. Labour won it four times in a row, lost narrowly in 2008, but was hammered by over 5000 votes this time.
  • It's lost ground in cities that aren't Wellington. The party vote abandoned Labour even in Dunedin South and Wigram, for crying out loud.
  • John Key is incredibly popular with women. Labour have long dominated the women vote, but is losing it to that nice Mr Key.  
  • As Shane Jones said this morning, Labour needs to reconnect with Maori. Mana didn't quite get a second MP, but it won Te Tai Tokerau and came second in two others. It will grow, and not nexcessarily at only the Maori Party's expense.
  • The Pasifika vote has been taken for granted. The anti-Christian strain in modern Labour is creating openings for the likes of The Conservatives within the Pacific community.
  • The youth would rather be watching the Kardasians; they used to tend to Labour. Who can inspire them to get off their proverbials and vote?
  • Quite apart from Labour's inability to pick up the soft centre, where all elections are won, it bled vote to the Greens. Given the global trend towards the greening of politics, Labour can't assume the centre-left vote will drift back to it as a right. Going by the number of people who seem to have electorate voted National and party voted Green (or vice cersa), it can't even assume it will be the most effective centre-left party at reaching across the centre divide.

So the question has to come back whether the party can get past the factions and focus on who can connect with those people and make Labour seem more relevant. (To be fair, the new policies started that, but the personnel don't look the part yet). Someone willing to own the failings of recent years. (The Q+A panel on Sunday were dismayed by Grant Robertson's appearance on the programme, which just didn't strike the right chord of humility). And someone, as John Pagani says, who looks Prime Ministerial.

It looks like all three Davids will have a crack at the position, and that's a good thing. For a start, it'll help Labour for its leading MPs to get some publicity. At the moment no-one knows who the heck they are.

It's sad no-one could convince Phil Goff to stay in situ until the new year to give them more time to get known; the wee bit of parliament before Christmas means nothing and the extra time could also have been valuable to really get good debate going.

It'd be good too if, as Goff's stand-up has suggested, everyone's running on their own merits, not as tickets. Why not mix and match the five mentioned -- the three Davids plus Robertson and Nanaia Mahuta (or others who may yet step forward) -- and get the best duo for the party, not just the best mates. Better to be served a buffet than a la carte, in this case.

David Parker's 'real life' experience is under-played. He's run small and large businesses, almost gone bust and can rightly claim to be the only MP to have launched a company onto the NZX. So he's no creature of the beltway. He's deeply au fait with the environment, race relations, finance, energy and more... and widely admired for that depth of knowledge. But it's fair to say he did nothing of note on the campaign trail; if the strategy was to have him run in Epsom to get publicity for Labour, it failed.

David Cunliffe has grown immensely in recent years and, contrary to gossip that he didn't support Goff enough this campaign, was the most coherent and effective campaigner the party had. He's become very, very good at television and is quick and numerate. People not inclined to take to him repeatedly tell me they're impressed by him, almost against their will. The questions all seem to come back to likeability. Now I've never found him difficult at all, but obviously others have.

David Shearer is a political baby with just two years parliamentary experience; even John Key had served four years before given the reins of National. Shearer would be a gamble, but one with a hell of a lot of advantages. His narrative is great, as everyone says -- went off to save the world, lead huge aid projects under immense pressure, then came home to settle down with family and give something back. He reads like a left-wing John Key, with the great advantage that he's a political blank slate. No-one knows what he stands for, so he can take any position he wants without being undermined. These are post-political times -- just look at the turnout.

He's the most affable (and slightly blokey) of the three, I'd think. And the speech he gave yesterday was a rip-snorter -- personal, business-friendly and passionate about core Labour values. That's a talent to squeeze all that in.

I'm not here to pick leaders for parties. And the truth is that none of them seem to be the finished product. Whoever wins is going to need to put a lot of work into getting known. In terms of substance, all of them have intellectual grunt and ideas. Shearer would be the least of the three in terms of policy heft thus far.

The good news for Labour is that there's a reason why all of them could pick up votes from the centre if they get it right. The bad news is that whoever gets the nod will be starting from a long, long way back.

So the party and its MPs has to get its head around this simple political truth -- this decision isn't about them, it's about us.

Comments (10)

by alexb on November 29, 2011

I actually hope Labour continue to play the factional game as they drift further and further away from relevence, plenty of other political organisations on the left that are actually listening to people. Just because Labour has traditionally been the main player, doesn't mean that should stay true. Labour has become insular, self serving and expects to win votes by some kind of divine right. They deserve to fall apart.

by Tim Watkin on November 29, 2011
Tim Watkin

Alex, as the 20th century Chinese leader was believed to have said of the success of the French Revolution (although I understand now that something was lost in translation and he wasn't quite as shrewd as supposed), "it's too soon to say".

Lots of parties have disconnected periods without losing their way altogether. Goff himself today pointed to National in 2002 and Labour in 1996.

At the start of the campaign Labour's policy release was hailed widely as timely and fresh. And they're at a stage in the cycle when people don't want to listen. But there's no evidence that's forever. Not yet, anyway.

by Richard Aston on November 30, 2011
Richard Aston

I think they have a way to descend yet. It's almost immaterial who gets Goff's job. One possibility is they become yet another minor party. They may lose more maori, more greens, more central voters yet.

I think they are very vulnerable to a new party staking out some of their patch.  Apparently 50% of voters don't think any party represents them - an opportunity for another party .

Or perhaps, just perhaps, the whole labour party undergoes a transformation and reinvents itself.

Can't see the signs of that yet.


by Tobias Barkley on November 30, 2011
Tobias Barkley

1. About Auckland being (culturally?) different to Wellington. Is the difference between them greater than the differences between central, south and west Auckland? When I lived in central, Manukau seemed like another world (with an airport).

2. Consensus appears to be that there is no 'great leader' in Labour but what are the impressions of group leadership in the caucus? Can the Davids, Robertsons, Arderns and Hipkins (and the old crew) work together to minimise their individual weaknesses? It seems to me that the credit which has gone to Goff for putting out policy and for the campaign should have gone to others like David Clark and Cunliffe. The individual leader isn't everything (I'd consider voting for Key if he wasn't up to his neck in Brownlee and Joyce).

by Russell Garbutt on November 30, 2011
Russell Garbutt
by Pete George on December 01, 2011
Pete George

"And the truth is that none of them seem to be the finished product."

They don't need to be. They have three years to develop, and to rejuvenate Labour. Those who choose the new leadership team should be visualising 2014 rather than remembering 2011.

by Tim Watkin on December 01, 2011
Tim Watkin

Pete, you're right. So the question becomes who's best placed to become the finished product soonest and best.

by K Henderson on December 02, 2011
K Henderson

Its got to be Shearer imo. I think his political inexperience is a major advantage, in particular, it has been suggested he represents a shift away from Helen Clark. I think he is fresh and as you have said, his story reads well!

I would be very surprised if Shearer didn't get the position now that Parker has put his support in behind him (as has Robertson).


I think Labour need to redefine their entire approach and Shearer is the fresh face and popular character they can do that under. This really needs to be a time for labour to redefine themselves as a party - sort out their core values and what they stand for. Union membership has been on the decline the last 10 years and Labour needs to move with the times!

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