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.

Comments (2)

by Steve Barnes on November 11, 2008
Steve Barnes

Indeed Tim, succession planning is extremely important for political parties, just as it is for any other organisation. However, in politics things are never as easy as they seem...

Geoffrey Palmer is quoted in Top of the Greasy Pole: "One of the things you've got to remember about Prime Ministers is that they tend to have massive egos... That is part of the reason why they want the job, and I often think that one of the greatest obstacles to political harmony is politicians' egos."

That always resonated with me. While CEOs and heads of other organisations are able to openly discuss how long they wish to be in their roles and under what conditions, the same is not true for political leaders. Even the act of grooming future political leaders implies that the leader will be leaving the office in some form of transport other than a box and thus is politically dangerous.

Moreover, leaders who groom their own successors face one major problem: the caucus. If, as Palmer argues, PMs have large egos, then so do the aspiring leaders in the caucus. It is unlikely that they will sit on their hands while the leader grooms their preferred successor. A caucus vote is required to install a leader - leaders who essentially pick their own successors must somehow maneuver to bring the caucus on board and prevent a divided and troublesome party.

Plus, leader-picked successors are likely to be seen as simply a surrogate extension of the leader. Hardly a base to lead from...

I absolutely agree that succession planning is essential for political parties. However, the skills required to groom future leaders are rare and the process is far more difficult than it appears. My respect goes to any leader who can manage such a task.

by Keith Bolland on November 11, 2008
Keith Bolland

I'm not so sure you're right. Sure, Labour's chances for roaring back in three years look limited, but with a win on the scale of Key's that seems completely independent of who leads Labour. One of the reasons it took National nine years to get back to the Treasury benches was that they never thought past the next election. If they'd planned better in the 1999-2002 term, they could have won in 2005. 

To me, it looks like the most important task facing Labour is making sure that nice, juicy four-and-a-quarter percent who voted for NZ First tick red in 2011. I can't imagine anyone in the caucus better suited to that than Goff. 

I'm also not convinced that Andrew Little is the one and only saviour of the Labour Party. Key is part of a cohort, and though he made it to the brass ring, there's Judith Collins and Simon Power seemingly unable to break into the caucus top three, and Katherine Rich going nowhere and going home. Likewise Little has peers in Jones, Cunliffe, Street, Parker, etc. Goff will not dominate his caucus like Clark did, and the new generation will have a chance to make its mark. One of them will emerge as the most obvious contender to succeed Goff, just as Key broke away from the rest of his pack. It might be Little but personally I doubt it.

Also, the simple fact that Little has twice had the chance to go into Parliament, and twice blinked, shouldn't simply be considered a silly mistake but a serious black mark against him. Is there anything worse for an opposition leader to be than gun-shy?

Finally, it's absurd to put Goff in the same generational cohort as Key. He's eight years older than Key, and only three younger than Clark. He's a transitional figure out of Clark's generation. The leader after him will be the one from Key's.

(Finally finally: If Little does want to get into it, it seems likely there might be a vacancy as MP for Mt Albert some time in the eighteen months...)

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