With A Lot To Feel Sorrowful About: The question so few commentators have seriously tried to answer since Labour's defeat in 2008: Why Phil Goff? Why did Helen Clark offer, and what made Goff agree to receive, a chalice so full of poison?
HE IS A MAN of constant sorrow, and calling his party soggy-bottomed risks considerable understatement. It’s why my heart goes out to Phil Goff.
What must he be thinking? Standing there upon the threshold of a campaign he seems certain to lose?
One recalls those gallant young second-lieutenants of the First World War, waiting in the trenches, scout-whistles clenched firmly between their teeth, watching the slow sweep of the second-hands around the faces of their pocket-watches. All-too-aware that, from the moment the signal is given to go “over the top” they will be the German snipers’ prime targets.
But isn’t that analogy false? Isn’t Phil really in the position of the red-faced General far behind the front lines? The man whose lack of imagination and utter indifference to the pain and suffering it’s causing, marks him down as the slayer – not the victim?
If Phil was actually in charge of his party, that would be true. But Phil is not in charge of his party. Phil has never been in charge of his party. And that, right there, is the source of all Labour’s troubles.
Far too few people have asked the one, big, bleedingly-bloody-obvious question about the Labour Party of the last three years: “Why Phil Goff?”
What on earth led Helen Clark to the conclusion that the best way to re-build Labour after its resounding 2008 defeat was to nominate and secure the leadership for the man most closely associated with the right-wing remnants of the Rogernomics era? A man who was awkward and fundamentally out-of-sympathy with far too many of the men and women in the dominant factions of caucus? A man who, from Day One, could rely firmly upon only a small minority of his ostensible “followers”?
Helen Clark was no fool. She must have known, even as she placed the crown upon Phil’s head, that the men and women she had slowly and carefully manoeuvred into Parliament over the fifteen years of her leadership would never pay him true fealty. Phil Goff had been a Rogernome. Phil Goff had joined the plot to roll her in 2006. Phil Goff would always be the Right’s first pick. Why make him leader?
There are only two plausible answers.
1) Realising that her Caucus’s enthusiasm for socially liberal policies had cost Labour the 2008 election, Helen Clark nominated the only man capable of credibly repositioning the party closer to the socially conservative values of its electoral base.Or.
2) Helen Clark only ever saw Phil Goff as a stop-gap leader of the party: someone to demonstrate the Labour Right’s political incapacity; someone to take the blame for the party’s post-election irrelevance; someone to make his inevitable successor from Labour’s Left look good.
What choice did Phil have – except to proceed on the assumption that he had been chosen to reposition his party closer to its electoral base? And, with the help of his savvy policy adviser, John Pagani (who, as a former sidekick to Jim Anderton knew a great deal about promoting social conservatism) that’s exactly what he set out to do.
Except his caucus wouldn’t let him. When Phil tried to undercut working-class support for the Maori Party by harshly criticising the political and economic influence of the Iwi Leadership Group his caucus revolted. He was accused of playing the race card and compared to Don Brash. Upbraided by his own back-bench and up-staged by his own Party President, Phil did the one thing no publicly challenged leader should ever do: he backed off.
That Phil Goff was Labour’s leader in name only was now as clear as day. Much murkier, however, was the identity of those calling the shots in the Labour caucus. As the months went by, and Labour’s troubles multiplied, the awful answer appeared to be: “No one.”
Not content with publicly demonstrating their leader’s political impotence, Phil’s enemies then decided to demonstrate their own by refusing to depose him.
Those familiar with the recent history of the Australian Labor Party will have no difficulty in predicting the NZLP’s future.
The leadership will become a revolving-door through which will pass a succession of political hopefuls, each one worse than the last, until, finally, the public discovers a face that fits.
Meanwhile, our Man of Constant Sorrow, stoically readies himself to go over the top.
This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, The Greymouth Star and The Waikato Times of Friday, 7 October 2011.