Fran O'Sullivan: Challenge to rebuild Labour

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Phil Goff is well respected in high international forums. Picture / APN
Phil Goff is well respected in high international forums. Picture / APN

The new leader must renew the party and trim any dead wood

It is important that Clark diehards are persuaded to move on. The biggest challenge facing the next leader of the Labour Party is to build a modern and effective political team that is not hostage to Helen Clark's fellow travellers and union apparatchiks.

This is the reality irrespective of whether it is the political neophyte David Shearer or finance spokesman David Cunliffe who wins the caucus ballot. Both are "men of the world" who have had - until this week - to camouflage their internationalist leanings in Shearer's case and, in Cunliffe's case, his ability to talk the language of business.

People tend to forget just what a political colossus Clark actually was. She held tight control of Labour's parliamentary wing from the time she executed Mike Moore as leader after the party failed to win the 1993 election. Not only that but she exerted a strong influence on the party itself, fostering the rainbow wing and aspiring female MPs and far too many union candidates - all of whom would jump at her command once they entered Parliament.

The upshot was that Labour MPs whose sympathies are more in line with the modern policy approaches taken by Australian Labor had to go subterranean in order to survive.

It is a pity that Clark handed Phil Goff the short straw after her 2008 defeat by conferring the leadership on him without a contest.

Goff is from the dwindling right wing of the party. Pro free trade; pro America (unless it suited his domestic political interests to rark up anti-US sentiment during an election); pro private participation in the economy (he did after all promote privatisation while a Cabinet minister in the fourth Labour Government which also sold assets to reduce debt), Goff was also a politician well respected in high international forums after his years as a Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister.

But Clark's stratagem didn't do Goff any good, as he conceded after his own election defeat last Saturday. It was Clark's holidaying buddy Chris Carter who really sabotaged Goff's leadership by leaking against him; not Cunliffe as David Parker's allies have been opportunistically pushing.

But the real problem with Goff's leadership is that he ended up having to promote policies that he didn't really believe in such as removing GST from fruit and vegetables.

Labour did take some heroic steps - broadening the capital gains tax regime, compulsory KiwiSaver and raising the age of eligibility for national super - but these policies were launched far too late in the parliamentary term to build wide electoral support.

The upshot was the Greens with their banal but memorable campaign messages gained territory that a more modern and progressive Labour should have cornered for itself.

Thus electoral wipeout was hardly unexpected. National will have twice as many MPs in Parliament as Labour. But there has not been a seismic shift to the right. Act is a joke. United Future is just one MP.

Labour's old blue-collar core has declined. The unions are not a dominant force in the workplace - membership has declined over time. But strangely, they continue to have huge sway in the Labour Party selections.

The upshot is that list MPs such as unionist Darien Fenton have made it back to Parliament while talented MPs, Kelvin Davis and Stuart Nash for example, have been sacrificed. It also undoes the work of former Labour Party president Mike Williams who ensured a more varied intake in 2008.

Labour could usefully ask itself why it has struggled to marry its traditional stronghold with the new generation of centre-left urban voters. And it needs to win over the affluent professionals who see the sense of long-term generational planning and support the logic of raising the superannuation entitlement age but loathe the class warfare that still dominates the party.

Labour has to reform its own house first. It is important that Clark diehards are persuaded to move on. How can either Shearer or Cunliffe make a go of it when far too many of the caucus are still in thrall to Auntie Helen's texts from New York (a facetious observation but not too far from reality).

If Shearer wins the leadership his chances of one day running a successful government would be enhanced by having a few experienced Cabinet ministers to draw on.

MPs such as Ruth Dyson (a former Labour president and Cabinet minister) should be persuaded to retire before the next election. Easing out list MPs such as Fenton, Rajen Prasad and Kris Faafoi (a run-of-the-mill reporter who emerged on Goff's coat-tails) should also be pushed out to get some real talent back.

If as expected Shearer wins he should retain Cunliffe as finance spokesman instead of giving the job to Parker or Shane Jones.

If Cunliffe's experience wins though he has to make a role for Shearer.

But the real issue is to build a party that has wide appeal - it is not the one that so comprehensively lost its standing on November 26.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

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