Goff’s “gaffe” gives grief

Audrey Young blogs today about Phil Goff’s statement on fringe TV that he would be a candidate for the Labour Party leadership were Labour to lose and Helen Clark voluntarily to resign. He also allowed on the show that, “sure there is a prospect of defeat.”

Young tries to beat this up into an incredible “gaffe”. Goff is said to have “breached political convention” in an “extraordinary lapse”, and so on. “It is not done speak aloud about alternative leadership or admit the possibility of defeat… That is politics 101”, she opines.

Well, she’s half-right, sort of.

She’s wrong about admitting the possibility of defeat. If Goff had said, “All is lost, we’re toast”, that would have been a major breach of political convention. Why vote for someone who is bound to lose?

That said, party leaders are always wary of their activists and voters becoming complacent, and warning that victory is not assured. What’s the difference, Audrey?

On the other hand, open talk about standing for the leadership does raise eyebrows, no matter how carefully qualified.

I don’t think that this is a gaffe. Goff is one of NZ’s smartest and most experienced politicians. He is also one of the coolest heads in Parliament.

Assuming that Goff knew what he was doing, it raises the inevitable question, is there a leadership challenge imminent? I doubt it.

Goff can read the polls as well as anyone. He was also closely involved in the last ditch efforts to save the Fourth Labour Government in 1990 by substituting Mike Moore for the ineffectual Geoff Palmer. Moore, a close friend of Goff’s at the time, did get to fight another election in 1993, but lasted only weeks thereafter.

A change of leadership this close to the polls would be seen by the electorate as a desperate move. It would therefore be about as likely to succeed as Mike Moore’s stand in 1990, even though there are very big differences between the situation in 1990 and now. The time for a leadership change, mooted with no little prescience by Chris Trotter last January, has passed.

What then to make of it? The party list is yet to be determined, and this intervention will simply reinforce the determination of the left of the party to place their own people as high up the list as they can. But they were always going to do that anyway. (Goff was given such a derisory place in 1996 that he withdrew from the process altogether, so he’s under no illusions about how these things work.)

Perhaps Goff is trying to raise his profile within and without the party in preparation for the inevitable leadership contest (not challenge, note.) He has been ruthlessly marginalised over the years, particularly given the paucity of cool heads and competence in Parliament, so he needs the profile, and, at the same time, owes Clark nothing. Whatever his game, it’s a risky strategy.

Update: I see that Colin Espiner has drawn similar conclusions to mine, summarized on kiwiblog. Also, norightturn is emphatic in denouncing Young’s hyperbole, but seems to miss the point that Goff also discussed his leadership ambitions, which is bound to cause a stir.

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