Labour's local body aspirations

Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files
Like it or not, there are going to be many current and prospective local body politicians seeking attention over the coming months.

With local body elections set for October 12, campaigning will already be well under way for many candidates - even if that just means renewed efforts to maximise exposure in the mainstream media or on social media.

But this election will add something a little different for Dunedin's voters. The Labour Party has announced it intends to stand its own candidates to represent the city in the Dunedin City Council, Otago Regional Council and Southern District Health Board elections.

It should be noted the Green Party already has its own "official" candidates sitting around the DCC table.

For an age, New Zealanders have largely been able to separate national politics from local body politics. Of course, many local body candidates have had clear affiliations and many have been endorsed by political parties. Many, like current Dunedin councillor David Benson-Pope, have previously served as members of Parliament.

Having candidates with political affiliations is not the same thing as having political parties campaigning at local-body level.

Labour will presumably be ensuring its brand is prominent as it campaigns later in the year. It will presumably be trying to connect that brand with the messaging it wants voters to associate with the party a year later.

There is nothing wrong with any of that. It is transparent and allows Labour to be grilled and better understood by voters. That is healthy for democracy. Furthermore, it is a decision any political party can make.

But the electorate should not blithely accept the health of democracy is the point of this move. It could well be argued it is the health of the Labour Party which is the point of this move.

And that raises a tricky point for the party. Politics, whether you like it or not, is largely a tribal affair. There are certainly many swing voters who soberly size up parties, policies and candidates with an open mind, allowing themselves to be persuaded each election. But the vast majority of voters struggle to consider any benefits in the ideas peddled by "the other side".

Local body politics, however, has largely remained a "village" affair in New Zealand. Candidates are elected to do their best on behalf of their "village" - be that a city, town, region or board - not the political party they belong to. Voters rightly expect that to be the case.

Local body politicians are expected to work to better the lot of their electorate - no matter what party politics might dictate.

In the minds of some voters Labour's move - and this is true of any political party which injects itself into local body politics - may muddy those waters and cast doubt as to which master candidates truly answer to.

While any muddying of association may end up working against candidates, it may also end up working against Labour itself. It seems every city's voters reserve the right to ridicule their local council and councillors - no matter the details.

It is the same with students and their teachers and, regrettably, it is often the same with residents and their local newspaper.

When local body politicians represent only themselves, that ridicule is theirs alone. When they represent a political party, it could transpire that any ridicule directed at the politicians will also stick to the party they are attached to.

Nevertheless, that is a risk the Labour Party is willing to take. That is its choice. In the end, what matters most is that voters understand who and what they are voting for this year, and what each candidate is committed to.

Is it to political party ideals? Is it to the city? Can both ideals healthily coexist? Later this year, that will be for voters to decide.

Comments

Labour already has powerful influence in the major Cities through mayors Phil Goff, Justin Lester and Lianne Dalziel. The Labour Party recently cancelled John Tamihere's membership for proposing to go against Phil Goff for the Auckland Mayor position. The most concerning aspect is for politicians on local bodies who may use the council to fight the opposing Government of the day rather than staying focused on local issues.

I don't know what these left wing will say. as the left wing government has done nothing

Most voters don't know one candidate from another and judging by the few numbers of the public who turn up to council watch - don't care. At least with party candidates they are more transparent and better understood by voters, when all most have to go on are a few words and a photo.