Factional race to replace Labour’s president heats up

After the resignation of Labour's president over mishandling of sexual assault allegations, the party will elect a replacement this month. But the race to replace Nigel Haworth could expose factions within the party.

It is fair to say the battle for Labour’s presidency has not often captured the public’s attention.

Even the party’s membership has not appeared that enthused at points, with a number of presidents elected unopposed in recent years.

But the race to replace Nigel Haworth in Labour’s top governance role at its annual conference this month is different - both for the manner of his departure and the potential factions that could be highlighted by those who have put their hands up.

Haworth resigned in September following the party’s mishandling of sexual assault allegations made against a staffer, with a number of inquiries into the issue now underway.

There are already several candidates who have publicly signalled their candidacies to replace him, in what may be an unusually competitive race.

The biggest splash so far has been made by Tane Phillips, Labour’s Māori senior vice president since 2016, who announced his candidacy for the presidency on RNZ.

In his mid-50s, Phillips has held various positions within the party for years, having served as chairman of the Waiariki Labour electorate committee and the policy representative for Te Kaunihera Māori, the party’s Māori council.

As secretary of the Pulp and Paper Workers’ Union in Kawerau, Phillips describes himself to Newsroom as “a blue-collar unionist” and says it is important for Labour to remain true to its working-class roots.

“[Labour] is a very broad church but I believe that it is the natural home of the working class...if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be in the party.”

Labour presidential candidate Tane Phillips (left), pictured with Willie Jackson, has been the party's Māori senior vice president since 2016. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Having lived in regional New Zealand for most of his life, Phillips says he has a good appreciation of both the struggles that many had faced and the changes that are starting to take place.

“I see hope: if you go to Kawerau now, there’s houses being built that haven’t been built there since the early 80s, there’s a dairy plant that’s just been built with the different iwi in that area…

“It’s pretty simple eh, it’s about trying to get people that will get up at 8 o’clock in the morning, but giving that energy to get up and putting that support there for them.”

The current term has not been an easy one for the party’s Māori caucus, who have faced pressure from their constituents over the Government’s handling of Ihumātao and the uplifts of Māori children by Oranga Tamariki, as well as a broader concern about whether their voices are being heard by the wider caucus.

“Māori voters do put pressure on: a lot of them have such personal contact with their MPs, or know them through their whānau connections, tangi connections, all that kind of stuff,” Phillips acknowledges.

But he argues the Government has done well for Māori, noting both targeted funding in the latest Budget and more universal measures like minimum wage increases which would deliver larger benefits for Māori.

“He’s got lefty politics but he’s not extreme or anything. He delivers a real working-class perspective - you always know where you stand with Tane.”

Labour MP Willie Jackson, co-chair of the party’s Māori caucus, describes Phillips as a “sort of middle of the road type”, comfortable working with both Māori and the caucus as a whole.

“He’s got lefty politics but he’s not extreme or anything. He delivers a real working-class perspective - you always know where you stand with Tane.”

Jackson says Phillips played an important backroom role in Labour’s successful campaign to claim all seven Māori seats at the last election, supporting him in winning over voters with a message that both Māori and non-Māori could support.

Phillips is confident Labour can retain those seats, but is clear it is no sure thing: “Complacency is our biggest enemy, we can’t be complacent, we cannot take the Māori seats for granted.”

With a 13-strong Māori caucus keen to show their influence ahead of election year, the party will be under pressure to improve its history of Māori representation at the governance level; there has been only one Māori president in the party’s 103-year history, military leader and public servant Sir Charles Bennett.

However, Phillips will face a formidable opponent in Claire Szabó, the chief executive of Habitat for Humanity NZ and a former Labour candidate who has confirmed to Newsroom she is entering the race.

Habitat for Humanity chief executive Claire Szabó has confirmed she will enter the race for Labour's presidency. Photo: Facebook.

Szabó, NZ Management’s Young Executive of the Year in 2010, ran refugee and migrant support agency English Language Partners before obtaining a Masters in Public Administration at Harvard University.

After returning to New Zealand, she stood against National Party incumbent Maggie Barry in the safe National seat of North Shore at the 2014 election, with Barry increasing her majority but the party vote swing against Labour marginally smaller there than nationwide under David Cunliffe’s disastrous leadership.

With Phillips holding a senior role in the Labour council at a time when the judgment of its representatives has been called into account, Szabó could be a closer fit for the new blood and fresh thinking that some in the party leadership are said to want.

However, Phillips backs his broader track record within the party while noting that he was not heavily involved in the investigation and complaints process and will do whatever is necessary to ensure a similar incident cannot happen again.

While women have been better represented than Māori in the Labour council’s top job, there has been only one female president in the last two decades (Moira Coatsworth, from 2011 to 2015) which could be a consideration.

Like Ardern, Szabó has spoken to media about the importance of workplace equality and flexibility, telling Stuff last year: “Once you've experienced the challenges of pregnancy, breastfeeding and parenthood in the workplace, it's a lot easier to reflect that in your leadership.”

The 41-year-old is taking a low-key approach to her campaign, confirming her nomination when approached by Newsroom but reluctant to comment further.

That may be the caution of a frontrunner, with a number of people within the party seeing Szabó as the most likely victor.

It is not just Phillip and Szabó facing off: former spin doctor Kevin List told Stuff he would be putting his name forward as a self-admitted wildcard.

But it is those two who are the most likely successors to Haworth, and whose campaigns will have to be carefully handled to avoid any bitterness after the final result.

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