Work for it: On Rohan Lord & the L'Oreal candidates

Rohan Lord's decision to bail on Labour is perhaps representative of the rise of a political class who aren't prepared to import kumara to earn a seat, but rather take the L'Oreal approach to politics

My, how politics has changed. As with so much of the New Zealand lifestyle it has been streamlined, professionalised and become a much more risk-averse environment in recent years.

Today we learnt that Labour had lost its 72nd ranked list candidate and its choice to contend the true blue seat of East Coast Bays, one Rohan Lord. The party has wrestled with a public perception that it isn't quite true to, or at ease with, itself. That it's been too concerned with appearances and not offending anyone, rather than rolling up its sleeves and getting on with the job of serving as many New Zealanders as possible.

While unpopular talk of quotas and so on have been pushed aside, the party under Andrew Little has achieved some kind of gender parity (depending on exactly how many votes it gets in the election) and a greater ethnic diversity towards the top of its list. And aside from the Willie Jackon ructions, it did so without a great hullabaloo about 'identity politics' and 'political correctness'.

So there must have been some grinding of teeth when Lord – very politely – tossed his toys and told Morning Report that "I'm white middle class male and I couldn't really see a long-term future within this party". It reinforces a message Labour is trying to shake-off, because it will need to take plenty of white, middle class votes – both male and female – off National if it wants to lead the next government.

If National wasn't so focused on the Budget this week, they probably would have made more of it. Presumably that line will rise again on the campaign trail.

When you're placed two from the bottom of the list, you may well be right to assume, as Lord has, that he was being sent the message "you're probably not for us". But perhaps not.

Precedent doesn't support Lord's assumption of doom. I can think of one National MP who stood twice in unwinnable seats and a Labour MP who stood merely for a council seat at first, before coming third in an unwinnable seat after that. Muldoon and Lange were their names. The two giants of recent New Zealand politics.

The list goes on and on. A couple of middle class white guys currently working their way up Labour's pecking order come to mind.

Think on Michael Wood, who just last year won a sweeping victory in Mt Roskill. He has had the patience of Job, waiting to get his shot. He stood in Pakuranga in 2002 and 2005. He ran in the Botany by-election in 2011 and then, for all his efforts and sacrifices, was rewarded by being asked to contest Epsom in 2014. That's earning it.

Stuart Nash first stood for parliament in, well, Epsom in 2005. It was in the messy days of Rodney Hide and Richard Worth; Nash tried to make mischief, but really the greater mischief was happening around and above him and he naturally came third. I remember hosting an election debate that year and I'm not sure I've ever seen a politician misread an audience more completely. 

But that's the point. Those losing campaigns are the way you learn your trade, start to learn to listen to voters and find a connection with a community. Those half-empty halls and hostile environments help you sharpen your steel and figure out just what you stand for. And without those testing years, you're just not as good an MP.

The MMP-era has made room for some people to skip such an apprenticeship. Lists have allowed the Tim Grosers and Chris Finlaysons – people with a particular set of skills who really are almost 'hired' to do a particular job – to enter parliament without the inconvenience of, y'know, ordinary people. Put either of them on a cold street corner in August and... It's too horrible to consider.

But we don't want many of those sort of MPs in parliament. I'm more concerned about the rise of a 'political class', where people enter parliament not as a calling, passion or a public service, but as just another middle-management career. Lord's suggestion that it hadn't been clear to him the "impact on cash, time and career" was telling. It seems he was thinking he could saunter, Key- or Joyce-like, into power. But they are the exception, not the rule. 

I still want politicians who are servants of the people before their own ambitions. I know, I know, it's hard to separate the two. But I prefer politicians who come from the ground-up, and that includes their ideas. They need to be examined, tried and tested over time, not handed to them as a perfectly spun script. Look at someone like Alfred Ngaro, who has risen rapidly and was given a winning list seat on his first time of trying. Perhaps if he had had to win some arguments on the campaign trail, he may have better understood the limits of power and more humility now that he has been given his chance in cabinet. 

In The 9th Floor, Mike Moore recalled not even having the chance to earn his stripes before being given a safe seat; sent first to Eden and then to Papanui, he had to win both seats off National. (Nikki Kaye did something similar more recently for the blue team). Moore said the task meant working a year without pay, learning the community and earning its respect. It meant raffles and car boot sales and even, in Christchurch, "importing kumara" from up north and selling it on pay day. 

That's how you come to understand a country, so that one day you might be ready to lead it. If Lord doesn't want that life, then he and Labour are probably better off going their separate ways. But the frustration Lord expressed is perhaps symptomatic of many on the fringes of politics these days. Theirs is the L'Oreal view that seats should open up for them "because I'm worth it". Bollocks.

To be honest, I hope they remain frustrated and we see more of the politicians who are prepared to do the hard yards, knowing they will be better leaders for it.