Curtains close on Helen Clark

By Anna Rushworth

Helen Clark resigned as Labour leader after yesterday's defeat and the drums are starting to beat for Phil Goff - if only as a caretaker.

After a brief concession speech on stage at the Dalmatian Cultural Society in Auckland, before a boisterous audience of screaming, cheering supporters, she announced her final bow. "My job of leader of the party is complete. I will be standing down." In reply to the collective gasps and roar of "No!" she replied, "Yes".

"I will be expecting Labour Party leaders to elect a new leader by Christmas." She would give that person her full support she said, "It's over and out for me".

Clark said she was proud of some of the "incredible" things Labour had achieved during her time, "I do hope that all we have worked to put in place doesn't go up in flames in a bonfire lit by right-wing politics".

Labour sources say Goff is the only credible candidate now Steve Maharey has left Parliament and with Finance Minister Michael Cullen likely to retire within the next 18 months. As a deputy, Maryan Street could be a contender, providing a left-of-centre influence to balance Goff, who hails from the right.

But there is no sign from within Labour ranks that Goff would hold the reins through to the next election. The role would be that of a caretaker although, as one source put it: "I don't think Phil would see it as such."

Commentator and blogger Russell Brown was also tipping a leadership challenge from Goff or former Health Minister David Cunliffe, although sources close to Cunliffe appeared to rule him out yesterday.

At Helen Clark's election night bash in the Dalmatian Cultural Society on Auckland's New North Rd, the hopeful atmosphere dampened as the votes for National climbed but there was an air of dignity and acceptance.

Most commentators had kind words for the outgoing Government, although some were tinged with criticism of the campaign and acknowledgment that it was time for change.

Brown, of Public Address, said: "I think history will look back favourably on the achievements of these three Labour Governments. That said _ the Government was clearly becoming tired."

Brown said Labour's achievements included the reduction of net Government debt from $20 billion to $2 billion before the current crisis; unemployment down to almost unprecedented levels; a drop in the number of welfare beneficiaries; wage growth; GDP growth that outpaced the OECD for years; and an attempt to address New Zealand's savings problem with KiwiSaver and the Superannuation Fund.

But he said Labour had downfalls of its own making. "I think the Electoral Finance Act was an example of poorly crafted legislation."

Brown also had some harsh words about Labour's campaign tactics. "I am not sure they had much of a choice but to target Key - even though it would now appear to have backfired on them."

Alisdair Thompson, chief executive officer of the Employers and Manufacturers Association, put Labour's loss down to their tactic of campaigning on trust or "the devil you know rather then the devil you don't". He thought Labour should have campaigned on its record instead.

"After a government has been in nine years, if it hasn't been able to achieve its agenda then it wasn't up to it. There is not a heck of a lot that the Labour-led Government had left to offer New Zealanders."

Dr Raymond Miller, of Auckland University's political studies department, said Labour's loss was not a mandate for radical change. "Labour lost because experience proved less appealing than the mood for change.

"This is not a mandate for radical change however, something that National ignores at its peril."

- Herald on Sunday

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