Do the results in Mt Albert, Wellington Central and Christchurch East amount to thumbing noses at head office, or are they a sign of party strength?
Across three Labour selection contests in three high-profile electorates over the last fortnight, candidates have succeeded from local foundations in seeing off rivals considered to varying degrees to be the preferred options of the party’s head office. While selection battles in Mt Albert, Wellington Central and Christchurch East were all expected to be close, taken together they give the appearance of an assertion of local member strength, a clearing of the throat.
In Mt Albert, there were striking similarities on the CVs of the only two nominations to succeed the former prime minister and holder of the biggest electorate majority in the country, Jacinda Ardern, as Labour candidate for 2023. Both former employment lawyers. Both list MPs. They even share a Ponsonby Road office. One was widely considered, however, the choice of the top party brass.
Helen White, who lost out to Chlöe Swarbrick in Auckland Central in 2020, had made it to parliament from No 48 on the list. Camilla Belich ran in the David Seymour stronghold of Epsom, heading to Wellington with a list placement of 30. Belich was the establishment candidate: a popular caucus member, she had recently been promoted to junior whip by Chris Hipkins; on the eve of the selection, she reportedly shared endorsements form the most towering of Labour and Mt Albert figures, Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern.
White was determined to prevail, however, drawing on longstanding campaign work in the electorate and heavily emphasising more than three decades living in Mt Albert (Belich lives in Auckland but outside the seat boundaries).
The influence of party HQ may have subsided in recent times. “When I was president, head office was often much more influential than it is now,” said Mike Williams, who held the post from 2000 to 2009. But the Mt Albert result was nevertheless resounding. According to Herald senior political correspondent Audrey Young, who has reported on countless selection contests across the years, it “appears to have ended the era of head office riding into town determined to get the outcome it wants”.
Down in Wellington Central, another high-profile selection race was playing out, again sparked by the departure of a top Labour minister, with Grant Robertson opting to go list-only after five terms. Here there was just one list MP vying for the candidacy, Ibrahim Omer. He was nevertheless thought to be second-favourite to Claire Szabó, who recently completed an accomplished tenure as party president – a status which made her look every bit the head office choice.
Omer, a refugee from Eritrea, prevailed against the odds, buoyed by a compelling personal and political story, links to the electorate in which he once volunteered for his mentor, Robertson, and the backing of E tū, the largest of Labour’s affiliated unions, where he worked as a full-time organiser before becoming an MP.
Robertson was careful not to say anything that could be construed as an endorsement during the selection process, but was effusive in his praise of Omer when it was complete. For his part, Omer, who faces a challenge from Green councillor Tamatha Paul, for whom James Shaw made way, downplayed suggestions Labour head office had been rebuffed. “I feel like it’s a bit exaggerated, the talk that the establishment has been shaken up,” he said.
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Selection for another Labour safe seat, Christchurch East, was completed in the last fortnight. While it would be stretching things to suggest a strong head office preference, the success of Reuben Davidson, a Banks Peninsula community board member, over list MP Dan Rosewarne, fits a pattern: local credentials trumping political status.
‘Parachuted candidates don’t do that well’
The Labour selection process takes place largely behind closed doors, with contenders exhorted to share in public nothing more than the fact of their nomination. Under the party rules, the selection committee typically comprises seven votes. Three are members appointed by Labour’s governing body, the NZ Council (in the current selection process, typically President Jill Day and two others). Two members come from the LEC – that’s local electorate committee. One is elected by local members and union affiliates from the floor of the selection meeting and another is determined by ballot from the floor.
Despite Ardern’s preferred candidate losing out, what happened in Mt Albert was “a reflection of the success of the Ardern government”, said Williams. The sway of head office was at its greatest when LECs were low in number and lacking in engagement. “An uptick membership of the Labour Party tips the balance in favour of local choice,” he said. Where the head office agenda differed, he said, it tended to be less a question of philosophical direction and more of time frame. In his experience, the NZ Council panel members were “thinking about the longterm future of the party. That’s how you get people like Jacinda.”
In Mt Albert, where a large turnout of members descended on Western Springs College for selection decision day, there was some sentiment that after many years of MPs reaching Aotearoa’s highest political office, a focus on local matters was a priority, as well as a mood that the decision should come from the ground up.
Ahead of the contest, Mt Albert branch party member and founder of the pro-Labour blog The Standard, Lynn Prentice, said: “Last time we had a high places push in Mt Albert we got David Shearer. No experience at running campaigns and absolutely no interfaces into the local electorate. It showed during the  byelection and it showed even more in subsequent elections … Good candidate, but he really didn’t fit the electorate.”
Writing on The Standard, Prentice said: “Parachuted candidates don’t do that well usually unless they have an affinity with the local members or have a crazy campaigning work ethic (think Helen Clark in 1981).”
While the results in Mt Albert and Wellington Central might have been upsets, they weren’t necessarily “embarrassments”, said Williams. While there was sometimes a tension between head office and the local branch, a victory for the local sentiment was the system working, he said.
‘It’s the activity on the ground that saves your arse’
“I was surprised at those two outcomes,” said Williams of the Mt Albert and Wellington Central selections. But an active and committed local branch “indicates a good thing in a close election – it’s that activity on the ground that saves your arse, that gets you that last per cent or half per cent that gets you over the line.”
Darien Fenton, a union advocate and former Labour MP, rejected the idea the results were any cause for alarm. “I think what it shows is that Labour’s processes are working well and local Labour organisation is strong, which in the end is what parties rely on to win elections,” she said. “The vote is weighted in support of locals.”
Fenton said: “I think what it shows is local Labour Party members are keen to have an electorate MP who is for them, who is grounded in the electorate and has a history of standing up for them in various ways. For example, Helen White has lived in Mt Albert for 30 years where she has been active in Labour for years. Ibrahim Omer has his list MP office in central Wellington and is well connected – not only to ethnic communities, but also to workers and unions. His whole history since he came to NZ as a refugee has been in Wellington Central.”
Nor should “head office” be imagined as a monolith, she said. While the three NZ Council votes represented the biggest bloc, they did not necessarily arrive at the selection meeting with a predetermined position. When an overwhelming local branch mood in favour of a particular candidate is palpable at a selection meeting, the head office reps could usually read the room.
“There will of course have been discussions, but … the NZ Council, as elected representatives, are there, just like many, with their own views, backgrounds, influences and opinions,” said Fenton. “I would say their job is to listen closely to what the locals say. I am not aware of any processes where ‘head office’ decide on a preferred candidate, though no doubt there will have been informal discussions.”
While head office and local members could sometimes butt heads, conflicting views could transcend those categories, said Williams. In some close-run tussles, the floor diverged from the LEC, such as in the selection of a young hopeful who pulled off an upset win in 2007 to succeed Paul Swain in Rimutaka (now Remutaka). “Chippy got both of those [floor votes],” recalled Williams of the now prime minister. “Bloody good choice, too.”
And whatever influence might be exerted from the top, it was not in the form of edicts from the leader’s office, he said. “In all my times, Helen Clark never expressed a preference for a candidate. She stayed well clear of that.”
By design, the process keeps sitting MPs off the panel. “It is not uncommon for candidates to seek support from a former MP, as in Mt Albert, or other high profile people, hoping that will influence the local votes,” said Fenton. “But in the end, they only have as much influence in voting as any other ordinary member – if they turn up to the selection meeting. That is a good thing.”
To the list
That local voices prevailed was something to celebrate, said Fenton. “But, that said, the candidates who didn’t win are great people. Watch out for them on the list, which is where the head office and the leader have more say.” That backstop, the list component introduced with MMP in 1996, means party bosses now have had an alternative means to ensure their favourites, as well as a sufficiently diverse cohort, ends up in caucus.
Both Belich and Szabó seem assured of high list placings. Rosewarne, who was ranked 58th on the Labour list in 2020 and entered parliament last year when Kris Faafoi resigned, can be much less confident. Competition for high places on the list, finalised by a committee of the NZ Council and three MPs including the leader and deputy following input from regional branches, will be tight this year, after the bonanza of 2020.
“A lot of those list MPs simply are not going to be back, so the way out of that is to grab yourself the safest possible seat,” said Williams. If that doesn’t work out, a list place dramatically higher than 58 will be needed to stand a chance of making it to parliament.