After long, productive career in politics Labour MP has earned the right to move on without public criticism.

Politics is a tough business. Politicians need a particularly robust temperament if they are to ride the rollercoaster of political fortune for any length of time. The bouquets, of course, are welcome and enjoyable when they come, but the brickbats - and they can come thick and fast - can hurt. Politicians, like Shylock, bleed like anyone else.

Politicians have a curious image in public opinion. As a class they are usually denigrated and reviled, but as individuals they are usually treated with, I often thought, exaggerated respect. And the truth is that, despite the strong public perception that they are a class apart, politicians are on the whole a group of perfectly normal people, exhibiting all the weaknesses and virtues that are found in the population at large.

In a properly functioning democracy, that should not be a surprise. Politicians are just a representative group of voters. We get the representatives we deserve.

So, why do people do it? It is certainly not - again, contrary to much public opinion - for the money; most politicians, especially those who reach the higher reaches of their profession, could have earned much higher incomes elsewhere. In the end, they are self-selecting - motivated in most cases by a desire to make a difference that, according to their lights, will make things better.


These thoughts were prompted by the news that Shane Jones is to leave politics in favour of a top job in an area that he knows well - the fishing industry, and particularly fishing as a means of advancing the interests of indigenous peoples.

He is not of course the first politician to make such a decision. Even in recent times, one can think of Simon Power - seen by many as a potential leader of the National Party - who left to take up a career in the private sector; and even more recently, Tony Ryall has announced his intention not to stand again and to seek, at the age of 50, a new career.

Such decisions, particularly for senior politicians, will inevitably raise eyebrows, especially in the "chattering classes" where it is an article of faith that politicians are all mad with the ambition to climb the greasy pole, and that every action must have a political explanation. I know this well, because I recognise a parallel between Shane Jones' decision and my own experience when I left British politics and returned to New Zealand.

In 1994, I found myself in a situation with some similarities to the one facing Shane Jones. I, too, had contested my party's leadership and had been defeated. I, too, had begun - partly as a consequence of that defeat - to consider other options, helped in my case by the fact that my wife and I had already formed the intention of coming back to New Zealand in our retirement.

It began to occur to me that, rather than continue to fight a losing battle in the UK for the policies I believed in, it would make sense to come back to New Zealand while I was still able to make a contribution in a different field. So, when I was shoulder-tapped about coming back to lead Waikato University, I decided - as much to my surprise as anyone else's - to accept.

My political colleagues were aghast, not so much at the prospect of losing me, I fear, but more because of what my decision showed about the view I took of what they regarded as the only thing worth doing. But some of the British commentators showed some understanding of my decision, and expressed the opinion that politics itself would be healthier if some of its practitioners recognised that there is a world beyond politics.

The decision taken by Shane Jones has been analysed and mined exhaustively by the commentators for its political significance. Had he lost faith in the Labour Party or its leadership? Had he been bought off by John Key? Why was he going just before a general election?

My advice, though, is that we should look at Shane Jones not so much as a politician but as an ordinary human being. On any reasonable view, he has given the Labour Party excellent service, and politics a good shot. He has had nine years in Parliament, been a respected voice and effective shadow minister, and made a creditable challenge for the party leadership.

He has had his share of the brickbats in politics, and it is unlikely that he would succeed in another shot at the party leadership. He has a good experience and understanding of what is required to succeed in other fields and there is another such field that is close to his heart. When an opportunity has presented itself - even if engineered by scheming political opponents - why should he not, after years of party and public service, put his own interests first for a change? Isn't that what most of us would do, and don't we want our politicians to be more like us?

Bryan Gould is a former UK Labour MP and former vice-chancellor of Waikato University.