• A Win for Labour and Democracy

    It is very much to Labour’s credit that they have put in place a more democratic set of internal rules across the board and that the outbreak of democracy now applies to the election of the leader as well. The events of recent days, however, suggest that the party has yet to understand fully or feel comfortable with the new procedures.
    The new electoral college, which extends the power to choose a leader to party members and affiliated bodies as well as to MPs, is modelled fairly closely on the procedures of the British Labour Party. In the UK, though, the leader faces an annual election; and it was the need to protect the party against frivolous or vexatious challenges to the leader that led to the requirement that a challenger would have to secure the nominations of at least 20% of the parliamentary party. It was that requirement I had to meet when I made my own bid for the leadership in 1992, following the resignation of the then leader, Neil Kinnock.
    In both the UK and more particularly New Zealand, though, MPs have given up their exclusive power to elect the leader with some reluctance. The fear is always that the wider party electorate could saddle the parliamentary party with a leader who did not enjoy the confidence of MPs.
    We saw something of this in the provision put to last week’s conference to the effect that the new democracy would apply only if 60% of MPs agreed that there should be an election. It was always unlikely that this restriction would survive long. You cannot show the dog the rabbit and then expect it to accept, as the rabbit is put back in the hat, that it was only for show. Delegates to the conference were virtually certain to twig that, under the proposed rule, the caucus had retained for itself the virtually unassailable power to decide whether democracy should apply or not.
    When the eminently predictable happened, however, and the delegates asserted themselves by demanding a lower barrier to the new democratic process, many people – and most of all the media – were apparently taken by surprise. The result was that a state of extreme excitement was engendered overnight. Suddenly, what had seemed a distant and uncertain prospect became – in the minds of many – a virtual certainty; there would be a challenge to David Shearer’s leadership.
    Sadly, many who should have known better enthusiastically played the roles assigned to them by slavering media. Victims and villains were quickly identified and condemned. “Strong” action was urged. Personal antipathies and grievances were widely aired.
    No better case for a wider electorate than just the caucus could have been made. On this evidence, a significant role for the party membership is long overdue, since they are less concerned about their career prospects or personal rivalries and more likely to focus instead on the need to elect a Labour government.
    Let us remind ourselves of where we have got to. There will be, irrespective of whether there is any actual or potential challenge, and as the rules provide, a vote in February to confirm or otherwise David Shearer’s leadership. On the back of his achievements so far, and the fact that he enjoyed a good conference and made an excellent speech, he should and will feel confident about the outcome of that vote.
    But the provision that there should be such a vote at least once in three years is there advisedly. The fact that it is to take place is in no sense evidence that a challenge is imminent. But, at the very least, it provides a kind of safety valve – an opportunity for any disaffection to be expressed in a secret ballot. As with any secret ballot, the participants have no obligation to disclose their intentions to the media, and certainly not three months in advance.
    If and when David Shearer is endorsed in that vote, the absence of any disaffection will have been established. Only in the unlikely event that the leader loses that vote will be there be a new election and only then will we know which contender (or more likely contenders) would put their names forward. And let us remind ourselves that harbouring leadership ambitions is hardly in itself a hanging offence.
    If these are recognised as the outcomes that are presumably desired and intended and they are handled with calmness and good sense, the Labour party has nothing to lose and much to gain from the new procedures. The party will in February most probably confirm that they have the right leader to lead them into the next general election, or will elect a new leader who they think could do a better job.
    In either event, the focus must be on replacing a government whose tribulations in 2012 and parliamentary arithmetic both strongly suggest is there for the taking. Party members should breathe through their noses and enjoy the process that they have ordained; it is, after all, democracy in practice.
    Bryan Gould
    21 November 2012

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 23 November.

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