Labour's odd couple

One image from the past of the Labour Party's new leader which stays in the mind is that of the long-haired student actively involved in various youth revolution protests in the late 1960s and 1970s, for Phil Goff was born working-class Labour and has been a member of the party since his adolescence.

He entered Parliament in 1981, the same year as another youthful student protester, Helen Clark, but unlike her, became a Cabinet minister just three years later, in David Lange's ministry overseeing the housing portfolio - the youngest minister in our history at that time.

He was marked out very early in his political life as a "coming man", but in Labour Party politics that is no guarantee of success.

He was deeply involved in the secret efforts to remove Mr Lange as his administration fell to pieces, and in the 1990 election fallout, lost his Mt Roskill seat, returning to Parliament in 1993.

Mr Goff is justly proud of his blue collar constituency and his representation of it, but he also has a first class honours degree in political studies and worked for his education at hard manual labour.

He is no ivory tower liberal intellectual; indeed, one view of his appointment as leader might be as a desire by the Labour caucus for a more conservative party, closer to its roots.

The elevation to deputy leader of Annette King - another bright spark but of similarly conservative background - adds authority to the argument.

Both are confident, forceful debaters in Parliament, have succeeded in tough portfolios, and will ensure the tyros on the Government benches face a vigorous Opposition.

But Mr Goff is 55 and Mrs King 61.

When the next general election is scheduled to be held, they will not be able to be represent the fresh young face of Labour to the electorate.

John Key and Bill English will only be 50 and many on National's front bench will be younger.

More than half the electorate will be similarly younger.

The decision by Helen Clark (58) to resign immediately as leader, and for Dr Cullen (64) to follow suit, cannot be regarded as other than actions motivated principally by self-interest, and humanly understandable.

But in three years' time, let alone in six, the causes which motivated their idealism and political careers (likewise those of Mr Goff and Mrs King) - anti-war activism, feminism, environmentalism, anti-nuclearism, opposition to apartheid, the rise of the Maori rights movement - will have ceased to have resonance either to a regenerated Labour Party or to the wider public.

There will be an entirely new range of concerns to keep the 30 and 40-somethings interested in politics.

In Miss Clark's case, especially, there seems to have been no prior effort made by the caucus or the party to take the time to carefully assess the election prospects, consider the possibility of loss, and frame a new leadership to take Labour into the future and match National on its own terms.

Such a change should have been planned 12 months ago, and time given for both wings of the party to mull over the options.

Nor does the Goff/King leadership represent a response to the revitalising of party membership, which has been taking place these past two or three years, now reflected in the 13 new MPs elected on Saturday.

Mr Goff and Mrs King, able as they are, echo a leadership of the past 15 years, not of the future.

Positioning David Cunliffe as the party's finance spokesman implies that he may well eventually become the leader, in the absence of Steve Maharey.

If the argument that Miss Clark and Dr Cullen's abrupt resignations were intended to ensure Mr Goff and Mrs King were elected as some kind of interim strategy, then Miss Clark has achieved what she intended in terms of who should succeed her.

In this context, Mrs King can only be regarded as a stop-gap deputy.

Mr Goff will seize the change he has been waiting for and will make the most of it: he will be a formidable Leader of the Opposition as the new Government settles in, and if National and Mr Key are unable to convincingly shape a coalition that reflects prospective New Zealand within the next three years, he may well have his best chance for the country's top job.

But leadership of a political party is not just a matter of appearance; the notorious factionalism which the past deeply divided the Left has under Miss Clark's warrant been contained.

She made a practice which has served the party well of promoting those who posed a threat to her, or otherwise bringing them inside the executive, rather than giving them room to plot outside.

There is no shadow of doubt, too, that the past nine years have seen a virtually leak-free Labour caucus, so Mr Goff and Mrs King have inherited a well-disciplined group.

Keeping it that way will be a challenge, but the fact that both Miss Clark and Dr Cullen will still be present is a form of guarantee for the new management team.

It is important for democracy and the country that a strong Opposition is available to test the Government.

Mr Goff and Mrs King have been given a chance to prove it, but the choice of them is one of exigency rather than succession planning.

 

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