In his column in today’s Sunday Herald Matt McCarten accuses Labour Leader Phil Goff and the Labour Party hierarchy of ‘a stunning display of political cowardice’ for having ‘kneecapped’ list MP Phil Twyford in his bid to be selected as Labour candidate in the Mt Albert by-election. McCarten’s argument is that Labour bosses were so fearful of a return to Parliament by Judith Tizard that they persuaded Twyford to fall on his sword, possibly with the promise of the Auckland Central nomination in 2011. With the departure of Helen Clark, I no longer have the inside gen on the Labour Party, but McCarten’s thesis at least sounds plausible.
Labour’s handling of this issue, more than ably assisted not merely by the right-wing press and bloggers, but by the media at large, has been less than pretty. Tizard must have been reluctant to open a newspaper, listen to the radio or turn on her television set over the past few weeks, so venomous has the comment been about her. Meanwhile the media, and seemingly the party hierarchy, appear to have anointed UN diplomat David Shearer as Labour’s candidate for the seat. It’s a strategy that may well backfire. Shearer’s abilities are not in question; he might well make a first class MP. But local electorate organisations don’t like being presented with a fait accompli where candidate selection is concerned and may well rebel. I’ve had some experience of this myself. Norman Kirk was firmly opposed to my selection as Labour candidate for Miramar in 1972. I had committed the twin sins of being a television personality and an academic.
The party hierarchy were well aware of the boss’s views and there was strong resistance from Head Office to my candidacy. The effect was merely to make the local electorate people more determined and I won the nomination. [As it turned out, Kirk was right. The ’72 election produced a Labour landslide, but the candidate for Miramar failed to win the seat.] Seven votes will decide who wins the Labour nomination for Mount Albert – four from the electorate and three from Head Office. If I were one of those four, I might well be starting to feel somewhat disgruntled around now. Whether it is reality or not, the perception is that that the old boy network is at play here. A close friend and former advisor to Phil Goff, who has been out of the country for three years and does not in any real sense live in the electorate, has jetted home to be dubbed ‘frontrunner’ in the race before even getting off the plane.
There are veiled suggestions of carpetbagging. None of this may actually be the case, but it is certainly how it looks. And in politics how things look is everything. At another level, what Labour now needs more than anything is rejuvenation. Shearer will be new to Parliament certainly, but his age and close association with the Labour establishment do not really suggest an infusion of fresh ideas. And with the announcement that Russel Norman will stand for the Greens, rejuvenation and new ideas have become an urgent priority. I should declare that Judy and I have both offered 24-year-old Meg Bates our support in her attempt to win the nomination. Meg has been one of Judy’s tutors in Political Studies at Auckland and we have got to know her very well. If she doesn’t win the nomination, we’ll be delighted to support whoever does. But get to know Meg and you realise that you may well be looking at a Helen Clark in the making. If she were to win Mount Albert, the very real possibility would exist that only four MPs will hold the seat in a hundred years.