The most precious thing New Zealand possesses, believe it or not, is two sound political parties. Precious in the economic sense, like gold, oil or green grass. More precious than them. Good government is generally recognised now to be more important to a country's wealth than any mineral or natural advantage it might possess. That is why the Labour Party matters.

Ideally, it would not be in the news at the moment. It would be quietly licking its election wounds and discreetly looking forward to finding a new leader in the right way at the right time. The right way is for someone in the caucus to attract support among MPs and the right time is when he or she has got the numbers.

Instead, a conference of Labour's active members has saddled the party with a public contest at the worst possible time. The party has barely licked a wound, the caucus has no obvious leader and four entries for the contest only proves the old Mike Moore adage that the three most powerful words in politics are: "Why not me?"

Some time after that fateful conference the party's former president, Mike Williams, told the Listener it had been attended by quite a number of people he hadn't seen around the party for a while. "A lot of bloody lunatics who had gone off into the Alliance are now back," he said. "A lot of the kamikaze wing of the Labour Party has returned."


He wasn't to know when he made those comments that a few weeks later David Shearer would step down, bringing about the first election under the new franchise that enabled the members and affiliated unions to force David Cunliffe on the caucus. Williams' observation looked all too true a few months later when Cunliffe made former Alliance organiser Matt McCarten his chief of staff.

The "kamikaze wing" did not make a good decision but it is easy to understand why they took the leadership decision out of the caucus. It made the wrong choice after the 2011 election. It was too soon for Shearer.

Labour's leadership problems began with Helen Clark's retirement announcement on the night her Government was defeated. The audible groan from Labour people in the hall that night was possibly not simply sorrow at her sudden departure. Seasoned members, as most seemed to be, might have sensed what would happen.

In need of a new leader quickly, the caucus elected the next most experienced minister still in its ranks, Phil Goff. When Goff went down to predicable defeat, he followed Clark's example. It may seem the noble and proper thing to do, but it is not in a party's interest. It is better that the defeated leader soldiers on, suffering the taunts and indignities of a lame duck, until a natural successor emerges from the pack.

To force the issue so soon after a devastating election defeat not only runs the high risk of choosing another poor leader, it increases the risk that the party will be destabilised in its policies and direction too. This might be exactly what returners from the Alliance desire.

These are people who have never come to terms with what was done by a Labour Government 30 years ago. Their resentment of Douglas, Prebble and everything that was done is still raw. References to it are never far below the surface of Labour discussion. Nevertheless, the party has adhered to a bipartisan consensus on the economy through the Clark Government's nine years.

This is not, thankfully, a one-party state. We walk on two legs, favouring the right most of the time (65 years out of a hundred when Labour celebrates its centenary in two years' time) but needing the left for balance and sometimes for change. Labour Governments made the two greatest economic changes of the past century, in 1935 and 1984.

Most of the time we don't want or need major economic surgery. Two good parties have enabled us to step off both legs with continuity and stability.


There is no reason to think any of the four contenders in Labour's coming contest would break that consensus. Grant Robertson, the youngest of them, grew up on the staff of Helen Clark's Prime Minister's Office. "Beltway" is not a bad nursery. Nanaia Mahuta will not win the race but she will need to win something. Andrew Little does not look or sound like a leader but nor did John Key. Like him, Little gives you confidence in his judgment. David Parker was impressive in Labour's last Government and should be finance minister in its next. None of the four appear to threaten the consensus but if the party has been retaken by its old dissidents it will be apparent in the candidates' pitch to members. Listen carefully.