A strange little article in the Sunday-Star Times praises National’s ‘rejuvenation’ project. Well, excuse me but 3 MPs out of 53 announcing their retirement and 2 quitting under clouds of corruption during a term hardly equals rejuvenation. In fact, National faces the same problem that Labour did.
The average MP, I read somewhere stays in Parliament about two and a half terms. If National loses just 10% of its MPs this term that’s obviously not enough to keep up with the normal rate of turnover. The danger becomes that National will get about the same number of seats in 2011 as 2008 and, so, bring in virtually no new blood. If its share of the vote falls, as it inevitably will at some point, back in the mid-30s then no only will there be no new MPs, they’ll lose a swath of their backbenches, many of which are tomorrow’s leadership.
Not getting rid of under-performers now means locking out the next generation as National’s support follows the unavoidable downward portion of its popularity cycle.
Labour had this problem in 2002 and 2005 – it had fewer seats to go round and few retirements. In this game of musical chairs some promising young candidates found themselves with nowhere to sit and were lost for a time or forever. Fortunately, Labour undertook a radical rejuvenation in 2008 so that, despite losing total seats again, about a third of its caucus are first-termers and many have real potential.
I’ve nothing against senior MPs with a lot of experience under their belt. Helen Clark had been in Parliament 18 years, been a minister, and Deputy Prime Minister before becoming PM. I reckon a good PM will have at least 3 terms under their belt and already have been a minister. The alternative is the Key/Lange syndrome – a PM who can’t really lead a much more experienced cabinet and becomes a smiling figurehead instead. The problem is when the middle benches are crowded with long-serving MPs who aren’t going anywhere and are preventing people with a future coming on.
In an earlier post, on how to avoid getting stuck with MPs like George Hawkins and Chris Carter, I wrote:
“How can Labour avoid this?
By telling prospective MPs from the outset that Parliament is not a career. A very few MPs might stay on for 6,7,8 terms but they must be the exception, not the rule. Any MP who is not on the track to be a senior minister some day shouldn’t hang around more than two terms.”
I still believe that’s the key to keeping a parliamentary party rejuvenated – tell your new MPs from the outset that this is not a job for life.