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Andrew Little / Rohan Lord
Andrew Little / Rohan Lord

PoliticsMay 23, 2017

Yes, ‘white, middle class’ Rohan Lord would have lost the election. So?

Andrew Little / Rohan Lord
Andrew Little / Rohan Lord

Labour candidate Rohan Lord announced yesterday that he was withdrawing from the East Coast Bays race, blaming his low placing on the party list and the barrier to progress which is being a white middle-class man. So much for party loyalty, writes Ben Thomas.

Rohan has pulled out of East Coast Bays. That’s bad news for white middle-class men in politics. Bad news for democracy.

Rohan Lord, for those who haven’t heard of him (roughly 100% of the population until today), has retired from his placing at 72 on the Labour party list and its East Coast Bays candidacy, citing the difficulty of advancing in the party as a middle-class white man.

He gave a relatively thoughtful interview on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report, admitting that quota for women and aspirational policies to promote diversity within Labour were probably good things, before concluding that for him, “wrapping it all up really, there’s probably limited future prospects.”

Indeed. Forget the future prospects of a government that more closely reflects the values you hold as a New Zealander. Forget the future prospects of policies you support becoming law. Instead, let’s look at the democratic process as an elaborate summer internship programme that only has meaning insofar as there’s the promise of a job at the end.

Andrew Little / Rohan Lord

Seeing that as a political novice he would not be parachuted into parliament on his first go, despite a no doubt momentous personal decision to “make a difference” at some point between 2014 and now, Lord pulled the plug on his nascent political career. Opponents of “PC Labour” rejoiced that someone was telling the truth about that party. Others on the right who had experience with our own Rohan Lords just yawned at the public death notice of a stillborn Aaron Gilmore.

The Labour Party doesn’t owe anyone anything, except as its internal rules dictate. But a more important truth is that deciding you want to be a person who runs things in this country is not a bold and selfless act that deserves admiration from others and the guarantee of a $170,000 a year sinecure, whether gifted by a political party or the taxpayer.

The race issue is a red herring – Willie Jackson also threw his toys when his list placing wasn’t as high as expected, but was placated and has now thrown himself into the bigger picture of winning for the team. And as far as the prospects for white, middle-class men in Labour go, let’s look at a useful counterpoint to Lord.

Thirty seven year old Michael Wood was elected for Labour in Mt Roskill last year – after dutifully standing as electoral cannon-fodder in unwinnable seats in 2002, 2005 and 2014, plus a bonus, all-consuming by-election in Botany in 2011. During that time he served on innumerable internal committees and piled up a few ultra-marathons worth of leaflet deliveries around Auckland.

On the other side of the aisle, Nikki Kaye wore out multiple pairs of shoes knocking on the door of every Auckland Central voter – twice! – in the lead up to the 2008 election, where as a marginal list placing she could only be assured of a place in Parliament by winning that seat for National for the very first time.

There’s a tension here for political parties dealing with the lower card candidates like Lord. The very act of standing for election as an MP requires a mindset that few of the rest of us can understand – an inherent belief that in any random sample of 37,500 New Zealanders, the best qualified person to make decisions on behalf of everyone else is most certainly you. Without this very specific variety of loose screw appearing in the population, we’d have no politicians at all.

Contrast that with the reality of being a candidate which is, on the whole, a hopeless exercise. Labour has around 75 places on its list, and exceeding all expectations can hope for no more than 42 MPs. The situation is even bleaker for the electorate candidates who turn out for New Zealand First, the Greens and Act, knowing their work will go unrewarded.

Standing in an unwinnable seat is quite literally an act of charity. Asking what you get out of it makes as much sense as enquiring about the return on investment for a donation to Oxfam. And the answer only makes you sound like a sucker if you’ve forgotten entirely what politics is meant to be about.

Fortunately, the psychology of candidates tends to be self-healing. They get to talk to Party HQ about strategy. They are welcomed to formal events, and lead volunteers. And after a few days of being warmly or at least indifferently received by members of the public in supermarket carparks and corner meetings, it starts to seem as if the tide is turning. More cars seem to be honking in support. Maybe that last couple they spoke to will tell their friends and family. Perhaps the upset is on!

There is always a delicate balancing act for parties trying to keep spirits up in the field while also patiently explaining that bussing in teams from around the country to tip East Coast Bays red is not the best use of resources. Rohan Lord has at least postponed that hard discussion.

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