Option D?

In an unexpected about turn, Acting Leader David Parker has signalled that he will be contesting the Labour Party leadership. Parker is expected to make an announcement later today. That would bring the total number of contestants to four, with Parker joining Grant Robertson, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little. David Shearer is reportedly still weighing up his options.

Firstly – why is the Labour caucus unable to produce anything but middle aged-ish white men to contest this leadership? This does not reflect the makeup of the caucus, which has just received an influx of Maori and several Pacific MPs. The number of women in Labour has dropped, although there are some very strong women MPs, including Nanaia Mahuta, Carmel Sepuloni, Meka Whaitiri, Poto Williams and of course Jacinda Ardern. In the wider party too, the membership is incredibly culturally and sexually diverse. What then, is the culture in the Labour caucus that means it can only produce four white men to run for the top job?

Anyway – David Parker’s candidacy is quite interesting. There are several reasons why he could be running, and some of them suggest that he doesn’t actually want the leadership but is rather making a strategic decision.

Obviously, Parker has spent the last year as Deputy Leader, and his well formulated fiscal policy has earned him a lot of respect within the party. He’s seen as sensible and stable. However, is he leadership material? He’s intelligent and articulate but seems to be missing some kind of X-Factor. Parker does have a lot of mana with Labour, but is that because of the aforementioned qualities, and if so, will it correspond to people seeing him as a leader?

Secondly, you have to question what Parker’s support in the caucus is. If Parker has chosen to run, it must be because he has got some positive signals from MPs. I can’t really see the unions going for him over Little, Cunliffe and Robertson, so he would need a lot of caucus to support him to have a chance. Where are these MPs coming from? It seems to me that Parker and Robertson probably occupy the same space within caucus, and that any MPs who support Parker would be walking away from Grant Robertson. That would ultimately benefit no one except Andrew Little. Has Parker weighed this up?

An interesting idea raised by Tracy Watkins here is that Parker’s about turn has come because Andrew Little has been talking about dismantling some of his prized economic policies, including raising the pension age and the Capital Gains Tax. Obviously if these policies have earned Parker his reputation as a good Finance spokesperson then he would be unhappy with any possibility of them being struck from the policy list. By becoming leader, David Parker could preserve these policies and perhaps add one or two of his own. Another possibility is that Parker’s candidacy is a strategic power play to retain his influence in the Finance portfolio. If he manages to get enough support to put him in a kingmaker position, as he was with David Cunliffe and David Shearer in 2012, then he could throw his support behind a candidate that promises to retain his policies and keep him in the Finance position. Given that his support arguably comes from Grant Robertson, Parker could swing behind Andrew Little, as long as Little doesn’t go ahead with dismantling the policies. Would Parker come back as Deputy Leader for this, and what does it mean for a potential deal between Little and David Cunliffe?

While this is in question, it’s important to remember that the caucus don’t have ultimate control over policy – Labour’s new democratic structure means that if the party as a whole want a Capital Gains Tax, then Labour will have a Capital Gains Tax.

There are lots of questions to be asked of David Parker. He doesn’t seem to command enough support in caucus or the unions to be a significant challenger for the leadership, and I think that the membership see him as a consigliere rather than a figurehead. Is his candidacy an unlikely grab for the top job, or is it a more carefully calculated strategic move?

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