John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: On top for now - in a job no one wants

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Phil Goff. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Phil Goff. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Phil Goff's assertion that he has emerged from the Darren Hughes crisis with his grip on the Labour leadership having been strengthened has an element of truth.

That might sound surprising. But it is not for the reasons Goff cited.

He will want to believe that last Tuesday's meeting in Dunedin of Labour's front-bench MPs really did assuage his colleagues' worries about the botched manner in which he handled Hughes once the senior whip told him he was the subject of a police investigation.

The feeble attempt after the meeting to display a show of unity spoke otherwise.

No, Goff's position is stronger because, when presented with more than enough grounds to justify rolling him, the Labour caucus refused to seriously contemplate such action.

It won't get a better opportunity. Not being rolled effectively means Goff - bar any monumental blunder or truly calamitous slump in the polls - is no longer in danger of being dumped this side of the election.

It's now business as usual as far as Goff is concerned. Shutting the door on this sorry episode, Labour's ruling council will today endorse vice-president Moira Coatsworth as the new president to replace Andrew Little, who is stepping down to fight the New Plymouth seat.

On Monday, Goff will launch Labour's campaign against state asset sales - one of the prongs of Labour's election strategy, others including the cost of living and jobs.

On Tuesday, the caucus will "elect" a new chief whip - in other words, accept the choice of the leadership. The shadow education portfolio left vacant by Hughes' departure will be split. List MP Sue Moroney will win promotion and take on responsibility for the primary and secondary sectors, and Mt Albert electorate MP David Shearer, a close friend of Goff, will take charge of the tertiary sector.

Next weekend, the party compiles its candidates list. This may be a less joyous occasion. A few chill winds are blowing around the nether regions of the caucus.

Labour got 33 per cent of the party vote in 2008. A drop to 30 per cent would have six or so list MPs packing their bags and leaving Parliament.

They will be even less disposed towards Goff than MPs on the front bench. But they have no leverage.

The front bench does. But its head-in-the-sand demeanour makes your average ostrich look like an advertisement for decisiveness.

Goff's staying on as leader defies political logic. He has not managed to raise Labour's stocks by one iota in the two years-plus he has held the job.

Keeping him there sends the message to voters that Labour has ended the pretence and now expects to lose the election.

It is difficult to find a precedent for a party throwing in the towel so early and accepting it will spend another three years in Opposition.

The most recent example may be the 1987 election when Labour, then in power, did even better than in 1984 as many normally National-leaning voters swung in behind Sir Roger Douglas's free market agenda.

National's leader, Jim Bolger, knew he was going to lose for that reason. But he never let the public know he thought that.

This year's election is starting to get the feel of 1987 about it as Goff struggles to find some way of dimming John Key's star. The excuse that there is no viable alternative as leader does not wash. If Goff were to fall under the proverbial bus tomorrow, the party would have to find a new leader.

In the absence of anything which might force the issue, the party's collective interest in fighting the election campaign with the best person at the helm has been sacrificed to individual self-interest.

Would-be contenders for Goff's crown do not wish to have their CVs sullied by having led the party to defeat. They will instead enjoy the luxury of fighting for the job once back in Opposition.

Knowing the leadership will be sorted after the election makes it impossible for Goff to be treated seriously by the electorate beforehand.

This is nothing short of madness. But there is no incentive right now for anyone to attempt a leadership spill.

Even if Labour's factions could agree on a new leadership ticket to replace Goff and deputy leader Annette King, who in their right mind would want their jobs right now?

This election year is remarkable for starting with the largely politics-free zone created by the Christchurch earthquake and ending with another such zone in the form of the Rugby World Cup.

There are barely five months between now and the first matches, plus a month for the official election campaign after the World Cup final.

The tight timetable would make it political suicide for a new and largely unknown leader to try to make his or her mark - another reason there are no takers.

So it is Goff who will carry the Labour flag through to election day. The trouble is, most voters assume he will lose and expect him to resign or be dumped soon after the votes have been counted. That assumption undermines Goff beforehand. Somehow he has to counter this self-fulfilling prophecy.

That has become even more difficult since the police investigation into Hughes. It is not what Hughes may or may not have done, nor that he is the subject of a police investigation, which is damaging to Labour.

The disharmony of the past two weeks has left Labour looking even less like a government-in-waiting.

To rectify that, Labour's front bench is really going to have to lift its act. Goff is understood to have told his senior MPs exactly that.

While election campaigns focus heavily on the party leaders, Goff cannot do it all alone.

But the vibes coming out of Dunedin suggest there is not much enthusiasm on his colleagues' part to help him.

That may cost Labour heaps more than they might imagine come election day.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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