One can understand why John Key is ‘speed dating” to form a one-seat majority in the upcoming Parliament. His honeymoon is likely to be a lot shorter in the next term of government, given the state of the world economy. It is quite different for Labour. In my view the caucus would be wise not to rush to decide who leads Labour into the next election.
There’s an old Irish joke about Paddy being asked for directions and saying “If you want to get there I wouldn’t start from here.” Days or even weeks after a comprehensive defeat, with a depleted caucus, some new arrivals and much to ponder about the reasons for the defeat, is absolutely the wrong time to make what is probably the single most important decision for the Party’s future. This is particularly true if there are a number of contenders for the position – they need to be able to set out their case, and most importantly they need to consult with and gain support from the Party organisation and its members.
With the single exception of Phil Goff’s ascent in 2008, recent Labour leaders have been installed by insider deals and caucus cabals, often preceded by a long period of white-anting. The results have not been good for Labour. I supported Helen Clark’s takeover from Mike Moore in 1993, but the fallout was bitter and it took two terms before she was able to lead Labour to government. The fact that Phil Goff and Annette King intend to remain in Labour’s caucus for the full term although apparently not necessarily in the leadership again means that time should be given for a considered evaluation of their contribution to Labour which has been huge over the last twenty-seven years. Phil Goff also gave 110% to this campaign.
There are two other reasons for a considered approach. Labour’s strength has always been its organisation on the ground. Rebuilding this was crucial to bringing us back to government in 1999, and its highpoint was demonstrated in the 2005 election when Labour won again against all expectations, internal and external. Labour’s next leader has to be able both to connect with and rebuild this organisation.
Secondly, if as now appears likely MMP will be confirmed as New Zealand’s electoral system and unlikely to face any more attempts to remove it, then Labour has to rethink its approach to what it means to be a “major” party. This means moving away from taking supporter groups for granted and building connections across the broad social democratic spectrum. It will also mean a new approach to tactical voting, this time in favour of the left. The success of the Greens and New Zealand First in this election highlights the point. Labour has to rebalance its relationship with the Greens. New Zealand First has always reminded me of the conservative wing of the Labour party in the 1980’s; it’s policy set is also a lot more substantial (and closer to Labour’s) than is portrayed in the media.
Any new leader for Labour has to be able to build these connections and this organisation. It’s going to be a big task: in my view there should be the widest possible consultation and discussion before they are asked to start.