Editorial: Labour needs to find some inspiration

Phil Goff. Photo / Doug Sherring
Phil Goff. Photo / Doug Sherring

Few times can have been as depressing as this for the Labour Party and its supporters. Saturday's election result saw its share of the party vote slump from almost 34 per cent to 27.1 per cent and its number of seats in Parliament slide to 34. One upshot of this calamity will be confirmed today when Phil Goff announces he will stand down as party leader. But that creates another sizeable conundrum because no obvious successor has emerged during his three-year tenure.

Mr Goff was always a caretaker leader. Helen Clark's sudden departure left no time for a promising replacement to be found. Labour had, virtually by default, to turn to Mr Goff. But he was never going to give the party the fresh image that was necessary for a strong recovery from defeat.

Additionally, as experienced and hard-working as he was, he had the misfortune to come up against a highly popular Prime Minister. He could make little impact against John Key, and even an energetic election campaign could not rescue his party's declining fortunes.

Labour seems determined to avoid the same selection process error this time.

There is much talk of the potential candidates campaigning for the leadership, as occurred with the most recent change in Britain's Labour Party. In such a scenario, the new leader would be decided by a vote in a couple of months.

The campaign would not only reveal the capabilities of the candidates but give Labour's profile a much-needed boost.

There are three leading contenders - David Cunliffe, David Parker and David Shearer - while Grant Robertson is also mentioned by some. Two other potential contenders, Shane Jones and Andrew Little, had their prospects severely dented by election mishaps.

Mr Cunliffe and Mr Parker hark back to the Clark Administration. While the likes of Jim Bolger and Helen Clark herself show it is quite possible to bounce back from associations with ultimately unpopular governments, it is an added burden, as Mr Goff discovered.

The ministerial records of Mr Cunliffe and Mr Parker show them to be capable. But they do not appeal as inspirational figures of a type that would make Labour a strong force in 2014. In the normal course of events, there would be candidates of slightly lesser parliamentary experience ready to challenge them. But that is not the case because of the shortage of talent in Labour's intake from the 2005 election.

This means the alternatives to Mr Cunliffe and Mr Parker are politically inexperienced. Mr Shearer became an MP only two years ago after winning a byelection in Mt Albert. Mr Robertson came into Parliament just a year earlier, yet found himself the party's spokesman in the important health portfolio this year.

This gap means Labour must either take a safe but largely staid course, or go for broke and risk a relative novice falling flat on his face.

In favour of the latter course is Mr Shearer's maturity and impressive record in humanitarian affairs before entering Parliament, not least his running of one of the biggest aid camps in Somalia. It also helps that he defended his Mt Albert seat with a resounding majority.

Too many old faces remain in the Labour caucus, and too much youthful talent and energy was sacrificed on Saturday because the party has not been sufficiently ruthless. This weighs against any re-establishment of its political appeal and makes selection of the right leader crucial.

A leadership campaign would give Labour the time to ponder the risks and rewards associated with the candidates and where they proposed to position the party so it has the best chance of defeating National in 2014.

The wrong choice will mean, inevitably, at least three more years in the doldrums.

- NZ Herald

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