Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsSeptember 15, 2023

How to run for parliament (and win)

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The two main paths to success? If you’re left-leaning, get involved in student politics, then become a political staffer. If you’re on the centre right, leave New Zealand, become a corporate high-flyer, then move home.

There are a lot of reasons “why” people run for elected office. There are a lot of reasons why some people drink to excess and engage in unhealthy, risk-taking behaviour. You spend enough time around both types of people, which is just spending time around politicians, and you’ll see their “why” is fairly consistent. And rehearsed. 

Asking a politician why they want influence and attention is as illuminating as a black hole. “How” people run for parliament is much more telling than anything they might tell you. 

Consider the case of Gore mayor Ben Bell.  

There’s a big difference between the narrative that the “boy mayor” flew home, saw his town needing leadership and put his hand up, versus the less charitable story pushed by his opponents that his mum put him up to it so she could settle a score with the council’s unelected chief executive. 

This is the “how”, and it matters for more than just narrative reasons. 

There are tried and true “hows”. If you’re looking for a way, and time is still on your side, you too can enter parliament by following one of these paths to success. 

What do Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson all have in common besides political success? An almost identical CV. 

Each started at university, getting involved in student politics under the Labour Party banner, running for student union roles. 

With this step taken, the next one is a political staffer role where you join fellow aspirants and forge close bonds that will serve you when a choice seat is ready for their ascendancy. 

It’s a fairly limiting strategy in terms of life experiences – there’s no place for leaving to start a business, other than a lobbying one, and it relies on good timing as much as clear talent. 

This won’t work for everybody – ask anyone who has spent time around Young Labour activists following this path and you’ll hear stories of 20-year-olds (or younger) who repeat party points as their own beliefs. This path is a long one and has often made followers as deep a puddle. 

What do these two have in common? Almost identical CVs (Photo: Martin Melville/Getty Images)

For those of a more centre-right leaning, I present the “John Key/Chris Luxon guide to success in the cutthroat deep blue waters of National Party politics”.

You don’t need to start at university, but ideally you need a background in finance or law.

Next step: Leave NZ. 

The most recent National Party selection committees have shown a borderline fetish for corporate jet-setters who have left New Zealand. 

You might move for a high-flying job – like Key or Luxon – or a degree from a prestigious institution – like Simon Bridges – to “prove yourself” on a bigger stage. 

You’ll then move back with your young family, let National Party grandees pick your electorate… regardless of any connection, or lack thereof, to it. Do this and you’ll be parachuted into a new town, a new job, and a new life constantly talking about roads. 

The challenge with both of these options is you really need to start preparing early. 

There’s also the need to get along with people and appear normal enough to electorate boards, pass vetting, and get enough party members to support you if you end up needing a good list ranking. 

Christopher Luxon speaks at the National Party election campaign launch
Corporate high-flyer turned National Party leader Christopher Luxon (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Other parties are options too, but they have much lower rates of success and also run the risk of you becoming the worst thing an aspirant can become: a perennial candidate. 

Chlöe Swarbrick showed a path to success for an “outside candidate”: run a smaller local government campaign to build support, then stand in a general election seat as a member of a smaller party and hope that your mix of being a vocal local, having a distinct point of view and a lot of luck, eg no popular sitting MP to run against nor any nationwide vote swing against your party, will work.

This is incredibly hard to achieve, and failing to pull it off after two or three elections runs the risk of you becoming a dreaded perennial candidate. 

A perennial candidate is a person who frequently runs for elected office and rarely, if ever, wins. Calling someone a perennial candidate is a criticism similar to pointing out that someone is “always a bridesmaid…” 

These people may start out with the best of intentions. Clear heads on their shoulders. But if they keep publicly flagellating themselves to zero success, interest turns to apathy and looks of embarrassed disdain. 

It’s cruel to just dismiss people as foolish but in politics, where there are politically right and wrong solutions, we need our politicians to be able to differentiate between what people want and what is achievable. 

This is why the “how” matters. The “how” can tell a lot about the seriousness of a candidate. Yes, no one should have to abandon a normal 20s experience to become an MP, but it seems to help. 

The “how” is more illustrative than the “why”, because it is honest. 

Keep going!