David Parker has been touted as a future Labour leader, so what does his decision to stand in Epsom tell us about his ambitions?

Is David Parker's confirmation that he will stand in Epsom a sign of ambition or humility?

Labour announced that the former Otago MP will stand in the crowded blue rinse Auckland seat, that in the last election went 66% for National in the party vote, more than any other electorate. At face value it's a waste of Labour's and Parker's time - the seat for a beginner learning what it means to knock on his or her 1000th door.

Epsom though is an electorate with that rare thing in an MMP election - media interest. It has a line-up of well-know faces, a web of political intrigue to cut through, is do-or-die for ACT and is accessible to TV cameras in a matter of mere minutes. In other words, it's a platform and Labour's not so stupid as to see a stage and run from it. Instead, they've put up a lead actor. So far, so smart.

You could argue that Parker's got some pedigree in this sort of seat. He won the safe National seat of Otago off Gavan Herlihy in 2002, is one of few in the Labour ranks to have succeeded (and failed) in the private sector, and is polite and intelligent enough to come across well in an older, moneyed electorate.

So the selection was a no-brainer for Labour. But what about Parker himself? Many have been the comparisons made between him and Steve Maharey, but the perceived likeness has been more to do with his policy heft (given his policy influence on the ETS and capital gains tax, for example) than leadership potential.

Until this year, that is, when Parker has emerged amongst the political chatterers as a potential Labour leader. Parker's dismissed the rumours, but his popularity in caucus (he's considered non-factional) became clear when he tied with David Cunliffe – whose ambitions are more widely known – in the contest to be the caucus representative on the party's list selection committee. Cunliffe was only awarded the job on the toss of a coin.

Was Parker's decision to challenge Cunliffe for that job a sign he was quietly looking to advance himself and take positions of influence in the party? And is Epsom a sign of the same?

If Parker is interested in replacing Goff some day, he was one major problem – no-one's ever heard of him. His public recognition would be next to zero. So Epsom would be a boon in that regard, giving him a media profile, especilly in Auckland. He will get camera time, he will be perceived as a moderate voice and he will take one for the team, which will do him no harm inside the party.

In that light, the Epsom run could indicate he's looking to build his voter recognition ahead of any leadership contest.

But the decision also condemns him to a list seat. And no Prime Minister – or even leader of the Opposition – has been without an electorate to call their own. Having an electorate shows a connection to the people and to public service and an proves to your colleagues you can win over the common man or woman.

Hence the feeling that if Andrew Little can't win New Plymouth, how on earth can he expect to win the Labour leadership?

Parker was on the selection committee, he's ranked fourth in the party – surely if he wanted the leadership he could or should have engineered himself into a winnable seat. Perhaps there are simply few safe Labour seats and none he can lever himself into.

But the fact that he will enter the next parliament a list MP suggests he's happy with, or will have to get used to, a Michael Cullen-type role. Cullen moved to the list and accepted his lot as Finance Minister and loyal number two to Helen Clark.

Going by history, Parker's run in Epsom positions him as a front-bencher and a team player, but not a leader.


Comments (17)

by ScottY on August 11, 2011

And no Prime Minister – or even leader of the Opposition – has been without an electorate to call their own.

Don Brash?

by Petone on August 11, 2011

Maybe Labour decided they needed a lawyer to explain why they want their Epsom voters to cast their electorate vote for National.


by Oliver Woods on August 11, 2011
Oliver Woods

I was Labour's Deputy Electorate Chairman in Epsom during the 2005 election, and was one of the handful of very active Labourites who door-knocked for then-candidate Stuart Nash.

While our campaign had it's complexities and was ultimately sunk by our own team (when Helen Clark clearly indicated mid-way through the campaign that Labour supporters should be told to give their electorate votes to National), our team saw genuine potential for Labour in Epsom.

While I agree with his analysis that Parker clearly is positioning himself for a list-type role, I think it is a more startegically brilliant move than Tim Watkin credits him for.

We already know he will be able to get a big increase in both electorate and party votes for Labour. He will get more votes than Labour's weak candidate in 2008 (was it Kate Sutton?) and probably more than Stuart Nash in 2005 after Labour's switch to supporting disgraced Richard Worth to keep out Hide. 

This tactical move to stand in a challenging electorate has a very powerful strategic context, however. Labour may experience a terrible loss in 2011 election, similar to what National went through in 2002 with a desertion of voters to Mana, New Zealand First and the Greens.

In this otherwise dire environment, Parker will be one of the few Labour MP's to see a major improvement in votes for both electorate and party - and in an electorate that is traditionally seen as very challenging for the party.

Parker has recognised that, post 2011, Labour will suddenly realise how far behind they are versus National in terms of the community connections of their MPs and candidates with their electorates. This will also potentially culminate in parralel to the frustration of the party's leadership - Goff in particular - with the power of Rainbow Labour and the unions, who have used their authority to stop the selection of a lot of politically centrist prominent local personalities as Labour candidates because they are either seen as too conservative or lacking Labour pedigree.

Taking all that into account, and Parker's relatively high chance of putting on a great performance against mediocre ACT and National candidates in Epsom (though not coming /too/ close to winning), he will be able to make an easy transition to one of the surrounding electorates in Auckand.

Parker will be well-positioned as one of the leaders of a Labour revival, focused on genuinely reaching out into the community like National did post-2002, to more moderate and conservative Kiwi voters.

My two cents!

Oliver Woods


by Tim Watkin on August 12, 2011
Tim Watkin

Thanks Oliver, interesting to hear views from the grass roots. My point is that if Labour loses and Phil Goff needs replacing in November, Parker has not put himself in a position to be Goff's replacement.

Of course Parker will get more votes than Nash or Sutton (for it was she in 2008), assuming Labour voters don't try again to confuse matters by voting National. He's far more senior than they. And he's already positioned as one of Labour's leaders in coming years, whether that amounts to a revival or not. So I'm still not sure about the strategic brilliance.

But it's an interesting point you make about transitioning into a surrounding electorate. Any thoughts which one? And you may be onto something that his improved performance could stand out as a shining light, if Labour isn't able to up its game.

by Tom Gould on August 12, 2011
Tom Gould

@ Oliver, very interesting perspectives.

I get the sense that Parker is running for the finance job once the Goff Cunliffe partnership is put to the sword after November 26.

But who is the leadership horse? You are correct that the rainbow and union block have total unfettered control, beyond the point of indulgence. So it must be Robertson, right? But the quota system will require a hard left female deputy, so maybe Dalziel?

This leadership team would be extremely appealing to that very narrow identity-based cohort of voters, and they will all feel very comfortable in caucus with their great achievement.

Menawhile, National will govern for the next decade or so.

by william blake on August 12, 2011
william blake

"Menawhile, National will govern for the next decade or so."

Don't you mean for the next 1000 years Tom?

National are a shoe in for the next election, Banks will take Epsom and Brash will for a government with Key as a consequence Maori will split (if they are there at all after Mana cuts into their constituency).

Nat/Act will privatise state assets, cut working conditions further and cut back on public service. Benefits will be cut and more prisons will be built, the cops will be carrying guns openly. Democracy will be changed along with our constitutional framework.

John Key will not be PM in 2015 but he may well be in charge.

by Phil Lyth on August 14, 2011
Phil Lyth

And no Prime Minister – or even leader of the Opposition – has been without an electorate to call their own.


This is not only inaccurate (thanks ScottY) but also too early a conclusion to draw. Seven people have been Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition in the MMP era. Five of those (Bolger Shipley English Clark and Goff) entered Parliament under FPP and so with an electorate.

Only two (Brash and Key) entered Parliament under MMP, one on the list (and returned in 2005 on the list) and one in an electorate. So a 50/50 split for a party choosing a leader.

When National and Labour each choose their next leaders, they are likely to have six or seven pre-MMP people in their caucuses. Then it might be interesting to see if list or electorate makes a difference. I suspect it will not.

by alexb on August 14, 2011

Parker will be going for the win I believe, rather than just trying to tactically boost National in. He could appeal to everyone who is against Banks/ ACT, as there would be some in National who find ACT repulsive this could be enough votes to sneak it away. It would be a masterstroke, but could happen if they actually go all out to win it.

by william blake on August 15, 2011
william blake

(noun) Epsom
(used with a singular noun) hydrated magnesium sulfate used as a laxative
Synonyms: bitter salts

by Oliver Woods on August 16, 2011
Oliver Woods

Tim, your post motivated me sufficiently to actually start a political blog. I have rewritten my comment above into a full blog post, which if you're interested, you can read at: http://newzealandpolitics.tumblr.com

To answer your question about Parker's post-Epsom shift to a neighbouring electorate, I always saw Epsom as a great remanant of Labour Party gerrymandering in Auckland. It's one of the most right wing seats in the country surrounded by four left-wing seats (Mount Albert, Mount Roskill, Maungakiekie and Auckland Central) and bordering only one other blue electorate (Tamaki).

While Maungakiekie and Auckland Central were lost through poor campaign strategy, bad Labour candidates and shifting demographics, he could easily go to any of these electorates and win the Labour selection after the 2011 election (particularly if Goff performs terribly and we see a near repeat of 1990 when he was turfed out by Gilbert Myles). He would comfortably win any of these seats in an election for Labour.

Tom, your point about the 'leadership horse' and your thoughts are very interesting. I think we may see a shift away from the appointment of a female deputy if we were to see a fellow like Parker come into the top job: not only because Labour seems to lack high enough calibre female leadership potential but also because it could well be a defining move to symbolise the shift of power away from liberals to conservatives within the party.

The more I reflect on the situation, the more I feel for Phil Goff. I read his biography piece in the Herald, and genuinely felt sorry for him. This is a man, who in his desparation for political power, once allied with hard right free marketeers just to get a Ministeral spot.

Furthermore, despite a humiliating defeat in 1990 and failed attempts at launching a coup against Helen Clark in the late 90's, he stayed loyal to Labour.

Now, when he's finally (after three decades) in his dream job as Labour Party leader, his own cohorts lack faith and campiagn committment because he prefers to talk about restricting land ownership to foreigners and foreign policy over gay marriage and other social liberal concerns.

by Frank Macskasy on August 24, 2011
Frank Macskasy

Tim, on several levels, this article from you is one that deals with one of  the two most fascinating political events in the last few months - the other being Brash's coup de tat of the ACT Party.

"Having an electorate shows a connection to the people and to public service and an proves to your colleagues you can win over the common man or woman."

Perhaps, Tim

But there's another angle that you haven't addressed; the NZ attitude to "give it a go". That's the attitude that has seen various individuals achieve stuff that - on the face of it - was practically unheard off. Whether climbing a bloody big mountain and "knocking the bastard off", or producing a few 'splatter' movies and eventually becoming one of the biggest Names in Hollywood (Miramar Branch) - individuals just gave it a go.

Now it may be a long-shot that David Parker wins Epsom. That's a bloody high mountain to climb in anyone's books.

But Kiwis love the "battler"; the Little Guy Up Against It. Hence why "Goodbye Pork Pie" is one of our most endearing movies?

I think that's the rationale for David P to try it on in Epsom. He may not get anywhere - but by the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I think he'll earn bucketloads of respect from the local Epsomites. 'Cos he Gave It A Go.

Who knows - he may even...

As for the Parker Game Plan - I'm picking he'll opt for Deputy Leadership if/when the Labour leadership issue ever arises.

by Frank Macskasy on August 24, 2011
Frank Macskasy

"Menawhile, National will govern for the next decade or so." - Tom Gould

God help us.

by Tim Watkin on August 31, 2011
Tim Watkin

Seeing as this post has popped up on the most read/commented lists, I'll pop this thought in here... Shane Jones has made the same point as me in his commitment to Tamaki Makaurau - you need to win a seat, and if you don't, your colleagues lose faith.

That statement reflects badly on Parker's leadership ambitions, assuming he doesn't win Epsom. Parker just look more like a Cullen to me.

Cunliffe can look like a leader at times, but there's no point looking the goods to voters if you can't win over your own party. Roberston and Shearer are the other names, but this all may be coming too soon for them.

Dalziel as a deputy (to anyone exceopt Parker) isn't a bad thought, however, and could boost that person's prospects.

And Oliver, good on you for getting into print!

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