Will He Stay Or Will He Go? Phil Goff and the Leadership of the Labour Party

The Darren Hughes saga may not just claim the political scalp of that MP. It could, it appears, have far reaching consequences for the Party’s leader, Phil Goff. News is leaking through the media that Goff is in danger of being rolled by members of the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary party due to his (mis) handling of the Hughes affair. It is rumoured (rumours are dangerous things) that one of those seeking to actively unseat him is former Labour leader and Prime Minister, Helen Clark.

I remember meeting Phil Goff when I was a young Labour Party member and activist in the 1980s. At that time Goff was Minister of Youth Affairs, and became Minister of Employment and Education. He and I did not hit it off. At the time the Labour Party was in open revolt. Indeed, there was open civil war in the Party, which eventually destabilised the Government, bringing to an end the Prime Ministerial leadership of David Lange and providing National with a 30 seat majority in the 1990 election. It also led to the creation of the Alliance and ACT, two parties which are diametrically opposed to each other, but whose membership and leadership were mostly Labour Party activists in the 1980s.

The problem for Goff has always been that he is a tainted man. When he was an up and coming Labour high flyer in the 1980s, he was given the ‘problematic’ portfolios of Education and Employment. These were ‘killer’ portfolio’s for any Minister, particularly a Minister in the most right wing Government the country had experienced since the 1930s. He quickly became identified with Roger Douglas and the right wing faction in the Labour Party. It was Goff, for example who first increased state house rentals in the 1980s, it was Goff who replaced employment schemes with training programmes and it was Goff, who implemented the Hawke Report, which advocated high fees, loans and a tertiary tax for University students.

I actually have a letter from Goff to me, when I was President of Labour Youth in 1989, in which he praises Margaret Thatcher, as creating a low inflationary economy in the United Kingdom and therefore setting the economic basis for future employment and economic security.

In the 2000’s under Helen Clark, he was seen as a conservative Minister who played it safe and opted for conservative social and economic solutions. Any semblance of the left wing ‘fireball’ that Goff was in the 1970s is well and truly gone.

But, to be fair to Goff, it is also under his leadership that Labour has again started to move to the left. Labour MP’s have actively started questioning the basis behind the neo-liberal market agenda that has underscored their policies since, well, the first time that Goff was a Minister in the Fourth Labour Government.  True, these have not been big questions, but they have been significant enough policy changes for a number of people to start talking about Labour recapturing its social democratic soul.

Still, to many people, Goff was always an in’-between’ leader. A man whose role it was to ‘babysit’ the Labour Party until a new leader could be appointed. It was commonly assumed that this would occur after the election. He was a ‘Michael Foot’ type leader. But, without the left wing credentials, duffle coat and unkempt look that Foot was famous for. 

However, in replacing Goff, Labour is taking a big gamble. They may be hoping for a ‘Gillard’ effect. That a new Leader will cause the polls to rise in Labour’s favour; that a new leader could deal with Key and, thereby, energise the Labour Party in the lead up to the election.

The Labour Party is no longer a Party that suffers a leader which loses it elections, like it did with Walter Nash, Norman Kirk or Bill Rowling. Both Nash and Kirk eventually won and Rowling was eventually deposed by Lange. It has transformed into a party in a hurry; it is party that actively seeks political power now.  (I even suspect that it might actually see it itself as the ‘natural’ party of Government). 

Either way, if Goff goes, Labour may not win the election. But, if he stays, Labour won’t win the election without massive blundering by the National Party. The choice is Labour’s


2 Comments on “Will He Stay Or Will He Go? Phil Goff and the Leadership of the Labour Party”

  1. Chris Ford says:

    A very succinct analysis Quentin! I think you should publish that letter from Goff in its entirety.

    Also I think Goff is a goner too.

    By the way, when you say ‘Gallard’ don’t you actually mean Julia Gillard? 🙂

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