24 hours ago, the Labour Party was faced with a decision that many were reluctant to make. We had to choose between three leadership candidates who were almost indistinguishable in many ways. In terms of policy they were unexciting – Parker was moderate, Grant somewhere safe in the middle, and Andrew Little possibly the only one capable of being surprising. In terms of personality, there was little to no variation – at least nothing that the candidates would actually build the campaign on. Many in Labour were starting to resign themselves to having to vote for the candidate that they found the least boring.
However, that’s now changed with the unexpected late entry of Nanaia Mahuta into the leadership race. Mahuta’s candidacy has given this election a much needed shake up, and revitalised many in the membership.
At the first glance, Nanaia Mahuta seems to have almost everything that Labour needs in a leader.
First – experience. Nanaia Mahuta has been a Labour MP since 1996. She’s been around longer than any of the other candidates. She was Minister for Customs, Youth Development and Local Government, making her the only candidate other than David Parker to have government experience. Mahuta is also not afraid to stick up for what she believes in – she crossed the benches to vote against the Foreshore and Seabed Act in its second reading. In her long career in the Labour Party, Nanaia Mahuta has been a consistently highly ranked member of Labour’s caucus, and will have gained a lot of experience from this. She is also a strong campaigner, and is a pleasure to campaign for (speaking from experience).
Nanaia Mahuta’s most obvious quality is diversity. For the last 6 years, the face of Labour has been a series of white men. That hasn’t worked. Perhaps there was too little to differentiate Labour from John Key in terms of substance, perhaps they were all just boring. Labour found success unexpectedly with a woman before, maybe it’s just what we need. With a woman at the helm of the Labour Party, Labour can provide something substantially different to National and to Labour over the last two parliamentary terms. Mahuta is also Maori, and this presents a unique opportunity, not only for Labour but for the country. We could be looking at our first Maori Prime Minister, and our first Maori women Prime Minister! A Maori leader could connect with groups of voters who should be voting for Labour but aren’t, or aren’t voting at all. Labour’s biggest problem last September was people choosing to vote for a Labour candidate, but give their party vote to National. Perhaps a leader that they can identify with, or again one who presents a substantially different image to the National Party can solve this problem.
At the heart of it, Labour needs to diversify. Labour represents six of the seven Maori seats, is overwhelmingly backed by Pacific and Maori voters, and makes policy targeting women and children. However, you wouldn’t know that looking at the caucus. It’s all well and good to choose white, male people who are very competent to lead Labour, but people who those policies are benefiting are looking at the party at seeing people that are not like them, and will probably never understand what it’s like to be them. Nanaia Mahuta provides that diversity and that link.
No one should even dare to think about saying that Labour would choose Mahuta as leader solely because of her race and her gender. She has more experience than all of the other contenders, she has the ability to connect with vital groups of New Zealanders, and she will bring the revitalisation that the party needs.
The direction that Labour has been heading has not worked. Nanaia Mahuta will bring Labour a new direction.