Politics

Claire Szabó named new Labour Party president

The Labour Party has elected its new president, with Claire Szabó beating out Tane Phillips to the top spot. Laura Walters reports on proceedings at the party's annual conference in Whanganui.

Labour has elected NGO executive Claire Szabó to be the new party president, in the wake of sexual assault allegations that rocked the party and led to the resignation of the former president.

The election was announced on Saturday night at the party’s annual conference in Whanganui, after former president Nigel Haworth was forced to resign due to poor handling of sexual abuse allegations.

Szabó is the chief executive of Habitat for Humanity and received the support of Jacinda Ardern and a large portion of the caucus, giving her campaign an extra boost in support.

As the conference neared, it became clear Szabó was pulling ahead, and on Saturday once the ballot opened, party members at the conference were confidently picking her as the winner.

The general feeling from the party faithful who spoke to Newsroom was that Szabó ticked all the right boxes: her experience running a large organisation, her experience in Labour, and the fact she's a woman.

But it wasn’t a one-horse race, with Labour’s Māori vice president Tane Phillips having the backing of the party’s Māori caucus.

The Māori caucus and section of the party - Te Kaunihera Māori - fought hard to put Phillips in the president's seat, but as soon as Szabó was announced as the winner, all sections of the party united behind her.

Te Kaunihera Māori chairman Rudy Taylor stood in the packed hall in Whanganui's War Memorial Centre to signal unity, so everyone could leave the room as one.

"This year we have all been on a journey and we have learnt some incredibly important lessons."

"In a democracy world from our Labour Party... there's always excitement, but at the end of it, there's always a smooth road," Taylor later told Newsroom.

"That's how we should do it... gather our people together now, we've made that decision, let's move forward, we've got a leader in front and that's what's going to win us 2020."

He said the Māori caucus and Te Kaunihera Māori backed the two women at the head of the party.

Ahead of the vote, Szabó talked to delegates about her upbringing in the Labour movement, and she was seen by many as having a much-needed outside perspective, following the past couple of rocky years.

Szabó’s speech to members directly acknowledged the recent sexual assault allegations, which have rightfully plagued the party, including at the Young Labour summer camp, and later those involving a staffer.

She told delegates she had "the confidence and competence to tackle the party's immediate challenges and longer-term issues".

Szabó pulled ahead as the clear frontrunner in the contest for party president. Photo: Facebook 

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern also acknowledged the problems in her short opening speech to the conference, saying Labour was not a perfect organisation.

"This year we have all been on a journey and we have learnt some incredibly important lessons...

"We may be a political organisation but that should not be the lens we use to treat our members. People first - politics second," she said.

And Labour MP Poto Williams led a closed-door session with delegates, on how to identify unsafe or harmful behaviour, and what to do in that situation.

While Szabó has the experience and credentials to do the job, the fact she was a fresh set of eyes, and a woman, no doubt helped her election.

But after the announcement, the 41-year-old mother-of-two played this down.

“The role of the president is a job and we have to do that job well. I don’t think there’s any particular group that has a monopoly on skills," she said.

“I think young women have played roles in the Labour Party traditionally, I don’t think that’s particularly new. The fact two young-ish women are playing leadership roles in the party is actually unremarkable.

"I think there’s plenty of precedent for two people of the same gender to play leadership roles in a party," she said.

Some longtime party faithful say the announcement of Szabó as president signals a shift to a younger generation; a changing of the guard, in keeping with Jacinda Ardern as party leader. Photo: William Booth/Getty Images

The president was elected on Saturday through a preferential voting system, where all constituent bodies, MPs, members of the New Zealand Council and elected local body officials cast a ballot.

The winning candidate had to secure 50 percent, plus one vote, to win. The results were not made public.

Lorna Crane also ran for the top spot, against Szabó and Phillips. Crane, from West Coast-Tasman, ran on a platform of stability, being a calming influence and a person to unify the party.

The majority of the current members on the governing body have been automatically re-elected because they were unopposed. But the council's women's vice president position was contested, with incumbent Fleur Fitzsimons (a Wellington City Councillor) going up against nurse Monina Hernandez.

The results on the reviews of how the Labour Party handled the sexual assault allegations are expected to be made public in December.

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