David Parker in Epsom – stepping up or giving up?

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.