It's probably no surprise to you that I know a few people in the Labour Party. Not the sort who get their names in the news generally, but party members who participate in good faith in the grassroots political process. Some of them are part of the discussion community here, but others are people I respect who have started talking about their active membership as the election campaign has begun.
They're decent, intelligent people with a clear idea of why they're doing it. They give lie to doomy prognositications about the party's wellbeing. And I feel sympathy for them whenever the Parliamentary party -- Labour's public face -- fails to do their efforts justice. I felt a particularly acute form of that sympathy when Labour's Rangitata candidate, Steve Gibson, hit the headlines yesterday.
As you probably know by now, Gibson made a comment in a Facebook discussion in which he compared John Key to Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in The Merchant of Venice. The comment, which also declared that "many here have no idea what [Key's] connection to the GFC is", was the kind of thing you'd expect from some nameless idiot on the internet, not a major party candidate. But the Shylock comparison, with its anti-semitic undertone, was something else.
Gibson insists he was unaware of that undertone, so the best-case scenario is that he's simply a fool. But how does such a fool get selected as a major party candidate? Quite simply because no one else applied. When the former candidate, Julian Blanchard, tired of competing in an unwinable seat (which has become even less winnable with recent boundary changes), the Rangitata LEC seems to have collapsed and Gibson, who had only recently even joined the party, became the new candidate.
It's not like the signs weren't there. When Andrea Vance travelled to Pleasant Point, where Labour leader David Cunliffe grew up, last month, she got this quote:
David Cunliffe just can't catch a break. Even his oldest childhood friend doesn't fancy his chances in September's general election.
''The local candidate [Steve Gibson] for the Labour party is a complete and utter idiot,'' Pleasant Point sheep farmer Andrew Steven tells the Labour leader. ''I'd like to support David but I can't support the local candidate,'' he says.
With hindsight, it's clear that if Labour couldn't find a better candidate than Gibson, it should not have stood a candidate. Cunliffe could have visited a few times as local-boy-made-good and drummed up the party vote. That's a tough call for a major political party, but it would have avaoided undermining the real vitality of the party in the places where it is strong and smart. Maybe the thinking needs to change.