Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Good luck to Labour's new leader

Congratulations to my old friend and one-time boss, Phil Goff, on becoming the new leader of the NZ Labour Party. He takes over from the outgoing prime minister, Helen Clark, who stood down as leader after Labour’s general election defeat on Saturday.

Phil Goff (pictured here with his deputy, Annette King) is widely acknowledged as one of New Zealand’s most competent and hard working politicians. He has been the heir apparent for some years now.

But perhaps commiserations are more in order. The eminent New Zealand historian, Sir Keith Sinclair, once wrote that:

“It is difficult in New Zealand to make much of an impression on the public as Leader of the Opposition. The Prime Minister inevitably inspires a certain awe. But there is no comparable feeling about his chief opponent. Indeed, the Opposition, in general often seems to be carping; opposing for the sake of opposing; sometimes almost unpatriotic.

Helen Clark eventually overturned a government and stayed in office for nine years. But in her early years as opposition leader, Helen Clark had huge difficulties in establishing herself with the public and the media. National’s Robert Muldoon was a highly effective opposition leader who, in 1975, defeated a government that had held a huge parliamentary majority. But Muldoon later wrote of how hard it was to be taken seriously in his early months as leader. Muldoon was himself ousted in 1984 by David Lange. But Lange initially faced similar problems to Muldoon and Clark, as well as a fractious party organisation that was deeply divided over policy.

Phil Goff has other challenges. He will take on a new government at the start of its honeymoon period. That’s never easy. Some sections of the NZ media are already kicking off a narrative that, as a former minister in two previous Labour administrations, he represents “the past” and is really a transitional leader. Labour, they say, will soon be looking past him, trying to find a “fresh face”.

There are good reasons to expect Phil Goff to succeed as leader. First, he has a sound grasp of policy issues and broad ministerial experience, having held, at various times since 1999, the portfolios of foreign affairs, justice and, most recently, trade, defence and corrections.

Many years ago, I witnessed (and learned a great deal from) Goff’s ability to very quickly get on top of policy issues, without sacrificing accuracy or a command of detail. He has a first rate mind.

Second, as well as being a high effective media performer, Goff is a strong public speaker and parliamentary debater. He is well-versed in the arts of opposition. Labour’s parliamentary team is large enough to provide a springboard for the next election and includes some interesting new MPs. He and they will take the fight to the Key government.

Third, Goff has loads of political savvy. In my experience, either you have it or you don’t: Goff has and it’s been honed by years of living the highs and lows of politics. The party will not abandon the broad middle ground, where NZ elections are won and lost.

Fourth, his South Auckland upbringing and background -- along with years of representing a conservative, “middle New Zealand” constituency -- should enable Goff to connect with the sorts of voters who seem to have deserted the NZ Labour Party. I have seen this at first hand too. It will be hard for others to paint him as some kind of out-of-touch elitist.

I don’t buy the “new generation” argument. Is 55 really that old? And if Labour had gone for someone a lot younger, their opponents would say that he or she lacked experience and gravitas.

Goff will know very well the next steps: to build a strong and united team; establish a personal profile; score some early hits against the government; gather some political momentum; meet thousands of voters in the suburban and provincial centres; make contact with key interest groups and develop some interesting new policies and themes, avoiding going retro.

The real question is whether Phil Goff can light up the sky with a popular, progressive agenda and – you guessed it – tell Kiwi voters a compelling new story.

This is all very easy to write about (especially from my study in London!) and so much harder to do.

But I think that the NZ Labour Party has the right person in charge.

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