Herald on Sunday editorial: Labouring under false impressions

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Kelvin Davies. Photo / APN
Kelvin Davies. Photo / APN

The news broke on Tuesday night that Shane Jones was quitting Parliament. Barely 10 minutes later, Kelvin Davis picked up the phone to his boss at the Ministry of Education to tender his own resignation. I can leave immediately, Davis told him. By the next morning, Davis was clearing his desk.

Kelvin Davis is the pawn in one of the most vexed strategic decisions facing David Cunliffe and the Labour Party strategists this election. Davis, a former school principal, earned mana as a Labour list MP from 2008 to 2011. At that election, he placed second to Mana Party leader Hone Harawira by just 1165 votes, and narrowly missed out on a party list place.

This year, he is again Labour's candidate for Te Tai Tokerau, the lynchpin northern electorate that could decide whether Harawira, his Mana Party and potentially Kim Dotcom's Internet Party win seats in Parliament.

Fortuitously for him, he was also next on Labour's list when Jones quit - meaning he will be ensconced in Jones' green leather Parliamentary seat before it has cooled from Jones' valedictory speech.

Not that he'll want to spend much time sitting down: Davis will be out tramping the hustings from Devonport to Cape Reinga.

And there lies the rub.

Labour has done a poor job of refreshing its caucus. There are MPs who have been there so long that they eyeballed Robert Muldoon across the House. It is in desperate need of new blood, leaders of the future like Davis. Yet last election, Davis was relegated down the list below a clutch of faceless union apparatchiks.

In the long-term, Labour needs people like Davis. But in the short-term (the only terms in which most senior MPs think) Labour may want Harawira.

Because of MMP's derided coat-tails rule, Harawira can win just the one seat and bring in another MP from the Mana Party, perhaps a couple more from the Internet Party when they formalise their ragtag alliance in two week's time. This would provide Cunliffe with a real prospect of toppling John Key from power - despite the fact that Labour is trailing about 17 poll points behind National.

Jones missed out on winning the leadership. But what he did this week was force the hand of the Labour leadership.

Cunliffe and Co must now decide whether to throw their support behind Davis, and set out on the long road to build Labour back to its one-time glory as the party of the working man and woman. Or they can give Davis a comfy list placing, and throw Te Tai Tokerau back to Harawira and its richest resident, Dotcom of Coatesville.

In today's Herald on Sunday, Jones says Labour can win only by dramatically changing its direction. Instead of cosying up to the Greens, Martyn Bradbury and Sue Bradford, he argues, Labour must fight National for the allegiance of hard-working middle New Zealand voters.

As a short-term strategy, he may be right. As a long-term position of principle, he is almost certainly correct. For Labour to entrench itself as a party of government it must determine what it stands for. And that must be rooted in its heritage, and the day-to-day reality of what matters to most Kiwis. Jobs, health and education - not GCSB protests and smartphone apps.

- Herald on Sunday

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