Labour's list not diverse enough... and lessons from '93

Labour's list deserves scrutiny and poses questions - just not the ones raised by Damien O'Connor

Labour's party list has caused all sorts of consternation, following Damien O'Connor's outburst about gays and unionists. Rob's post today has conclusively blown apart that argument, but the O'Connor furore has over-shadowed more pertinent questions about the party's MMP strategy and will to win.

The problem for Labour is that O'Connor's focus of attack plays into the smear campaign crafted so effectively by Labour's critics through the Helen Clark years, and beyond; those who talk about "the sisterhood", who rant about " PC gone mad" and whisper "she's really gay, y'know, and looks after her own". As if women or gays anywhere near the pinnacle of power is a subversive or naive or risky thing in and of itself.

This was at its most blatant when Don Brash as National leader claimed to represent "mainstream New Zealand", unlike Labour, which was a mixed bag of minorities. This caused Dr Brash some consternation of his own, but it's a perception that has stuck and still has teeth today.

As conclusive as Rob's analysis is, the political reality is that the 'nanny state' perception of Labour has more traction than the facts.

O'Connor could hardly have chosen a softer part of Labour's political underbelly to aim his West Coast mud-stained gumboots. Which I imagine was part of his thinking - his words could be worth a few votes on the Coast, a seat he simply must win if he wants to continue his parliamentary career.

But it avoids other reasons why Labour's list deserves scrutiny; reasons that have more validity. For one, what has Phil Twyford done to so piss of his fellow Labour-ites? A man hugely admired in his pre-political life and still held in esteem by most political watchers - especially given his efforts in holding National and ACT to account over the super city reforms - makes it to just 33 on the list.

Now, you might say he's a safe bet to win Te Atatu and doesn't need a high ranking. But lists send out messages, and this one says 'disrespect' to Twyford.

It sends a similar message to David Shearer and Kelvin Davis. Both stand-out fresh MPs, they have been ranked behind Darien Fenton, Rajen Prasad and Carol Beaumont, for example. So have the hard-working Clare Curran and Chris Hipkins, who have impressed in their portfolios in just their first terms.

If you want to send a message saying, 'we're fresh, we value diverse thinking and we reward performance', this ain't it.

It's especially remarkable for Shearer, who just two weekends ago was being talked up as a replacement party leader. Number 31 on the list is a long, long way from 'heir apparent'.

This isn't a problem unique to Labour. National's list of ministers has plenty of miles on the clock as well. Anonymous MPs such as John Hayes, Shane Ardern and Lindsay Tisch say just as much about party tokens, sub-cultures and favours as Fenton and the others. ACT and the Greens have both faced major rejuvenation issues.

But MMP in general, and specifically its party lists, offer opportunities for parties to reach out beyond the politic-arti. We live in a post-political world, where people rate politicians as lowly as used car salesmen and voters are looking to be led by people with their own success story. Yet, at first glance, Labour has failed to find new candidates with a compelling narrative.

National brought in John Key and Steven Joyce, as leaders to win votes and run things, for example. They're not in it for the politics per se. Once National loses, just watch how long they stick around as electorate MPs.

National also recruited the likes of Chris Finlayson and Tim Groser, who'd rather wrestle barbed wire than actually - ick - win an electorate. But they add grunt and credibility to the party's ability to govern.

National even had the sense to see the anti-hero appeal of Paula Bennett - the National MP for non-National voters.

The fuss over Labour's lack of rejuvenation simply doesn't stand up to much inspection. Those who make the claim forget that roughly a third of the caucus a first-termers. No, the problem is not the quantity of the rejuventation, but the quality and breadth, the fizz and the sparkle.

As Rob mentions at the end of his post, what's lacking is a cognitive diversity. In part, there's a lack of minorities in this list - minority thinking within Labour, I mean.

This is probably what really bugs O'Connor - he just chose the wrong words to express it. Where are the small business owners? The liberal and eco-friendly corporate heavyweights? The Christians? The working class scrappers? The former sports stars or pop stars? The world-travellers returned? Crucially, those with a strong pedigree in the private sector before they chose public service? That's the weakness in this list.

The wider concern for Phil Goff is the sense that all this speaks to 2014, rather than 2011. There's a growing perception that many within Labour are looking to take this year's election as a 'strategic loss', waiting for the John Key magic to fade and the left to reassert it dominance within Labour.

As people have started to comment, Mike Moore's uphill slog in 2003 bars some comparison to what Goff is attempting now. Moore too was a retread Rogernome taking on a National government struggling to negotiate tough economic times. The 1993 election was deemed unwinnable, but Moore campaigned well, only to be undermined by half-hearted support from inside the party.

In the end, Moore came within a few hundreds votes in Waitaki from causing a massive upset.

But here's one key difference that Labour people will want to consider in the next few months. The loss in 1993 came as National was winding down from its more ideological policies. The mother of all Budgets was done and dusted, and Jim Bolger was trying to rebuild his conservative cred. His days were numbered.

Yet this year National has played a cautious hand in its first term, hinting at more ideology post-election. Key's destiny is entirely in his own hands. If another mother of all Budgets, or similar, were to come in 2012 or 2013, how would they feel then?