Labour's failure of leadership

Appointing Phil Goff as leader is an admission of guilt by Labour, not the visionary step forward it needs. But they had no choice, because the obvious candidate to replace Helen Clark isn't even in parliament yet

As National presents a forward-looking face to the electorate, with a fresh leader reaching out to Maori and planning to enter the world stage with urgency, Labour is today taking the dispiriting step of electing Phil Goff and Annette King as leader and deputy, respectively.

Goff and King have strong records in the party, in the House, and in the various portfolios they have held over the years, and the Labour caucus has no choice but to anoint them. But that lack of choice exposes the biggest failing of Helen Clark's otherwise impressive run as party leader – poor succession planning. The fact that Labour is having to turn to two politicians who started their political careers when Sir Robert Muldoon was still leader of the National party, before the Rainbow Warrior was bombed, is not just an indictment, it's a monkey on the back of the party's re-election chances in 2011.

For a party that has just lost a election because voters were bored of the same old faces governing them from their TV screens, it's hardly an inspiring response to the electorate's message.

Voters under 30 won't be able to remember politics before Goff and King. On one hand that proves how deserving they are of this chance to lead. Goff is an incredibly hard worker, he reeks credibility here and overseas, and he knows how to sound centrist because he is a centrist.

As one Labour insider told me this morning, they "deserve their shot". But that same person, in the next breath, doubted whether Goff would ever be able to be prime minister.

That's because, on the other hand, he is of a generation that has by and large had its time in power. True, Key is a baby-boomer as well. But he's at the younger end of the boomer spectrum and is new enough to look like a new broom. Goff is 55, eight years Key's senior, and comes with two decades of political baggage.

Still, Goff will expect that his appointment guarantees him a crack at 2011. The opportunity he has, for those next three years, is Key's inexperience. If the new PM looks out of his depth, gets manipulated by coalition partners or his own caucus, or overwhelmed by the global recession, Goff's lengthy experience could look very appealing to voters. As another centrist, Goff could do to Key exactly what Key has done to Clark – win over the electorate with the promise of change without any great swing away from the mainstream.

Labour failed to motivate its base this year. The working class west went blue and brown South Auckland stayed home. Te Atatu, New Lynn, even Goff's Mt Roskill... each traditional Labour electorate gave the majority of its party vote to National. That's a huge opportunity for National to build its credential in the centre.

Goff, long tough on criminals and less liberal than Clark, could staunch the wound caused by pakeha and Asian working voters walking away from their roots; maybe he could even win them back. But as yet another former academic, he's hardly a voice for the working man and woman. And he's not the exciting new face they want to see.

The real problem is that this is all short-term political tactics anyway, not the long-term vision required. This should be Labour's moment to be bold, to cross to a new era of leader, to find its Barack Obama. The problem is, Labour hasn't groomed or stumbled upon an Obama in its ranks, so it's turning to Goff, its Hillary Clinton.

It's also be the moment when Labour should tack just a little to the left, from where it can rebuild and find points of difference from National. Goff won't do that. He's a figure of continuity, not of rebuilding.

Although he too was from the 80s and an academic, Steve Maharey could have been the man for that job. But he has made his choice to move on. David Cunliffe is not of the left and has not earned enough gold stars yet. There are questions over his personality and political skills, as there are with other medium-term contenders such as Shane Jones, David Parker and Maryan Street.

The unavoidable fact is, the person for this Labour moment isn't in parliament. EPMU national secretary Andrew Little has put off standing for Labour for the past two terms, and if he isn't kicking himself for those decisions now, he should be. He has the talent, charisma, and politics that would be ideal for Labour now. He knows how to talk to workers and is familiar to the 50,000 members of the EPMU. As a 40-something, he's the right age.

If he had entered parliament in 2005 and done the hard work, he would have been a contender now, or at very least the leader-in-waiting after Goff. If he had come in this week, he could have spent the next three years positioning and preparing himself. Either way, it's opportunity missed. Clark and the party should have done more to persuade and groom him, and Labour should feel sick at his absence.

You can be sure, National is looking at the lack of talent coming through Labour's ranks and laughing. Key won't want to be complacent about an opponent as battle-hardened as Goff. But he will hardly be quaking either.