David Farrar

The week in politics with centre-right blogger David Farrar

David Farrar: Labour set to give members a vote for Leader

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Labour leader David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour leader David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Labour Party has proposed that any future contested leadership elections no longer be decided solely by their Members of Parliament, but by an electoral college consisting of MPs, members and unions.

The initiative to give members a say in future leadership elections is a good thing, in my opinion. Both the UK Conservative Party and the UK Labour Party do so, as do the Canadian political parties. Most readers will also be familiar with the months of primaries in the United States, where party members vote to select their effective party leaders (their presidential candidates).

Political parties without active members lose touch with the community, and struggle to attract votes and funds. Some parties treat members as adjuncts to the all-knowing all-powerful leader (think Jim Anderton, Graham Capill, Winston Peters), but good political parties treat members as their best resource.

The challenge for political parties is to recruit and retain members. In the 1970s membership of a political party was widespread. Today, only one political party has a membership of over 15,000. Many organisations provide benefits for people who join them. Political parties tend to be the opposite - they take your time and your money and give no personal benefits. So people who tend to join are motivated to do so because they believe in the values and policies of the party.

In our political system, party leaders are very powerful. They become Prime Minister if they win the election. They have more influence over policy for a party than any other person. With a very strong leader, they can unilaterally determine policy. They get to rank their colleagues, assign portfolios and set the general direction and strategy of the party.

Hence allowing party members a direct say in the leader of their party should provide a good incentive for people to both become and remain a member. It also will encourage MPs who aspire to the leadership to ensure they support the party and its members.

There is a risk that the party members could elect a leader who does not have the support of the caucus. For example David Cunliffe had obviously more support from Labour members than David Shearer. It is possible under the rules proposed by Labour's NZ Council, that Cunliffe would have won the last leadership election. This could have posed challenges for a caucus that seemed to have a majority in the ABC (Anyone but Cunliffe) faction. However they would just have to accept that he had won, if he had.

The proposal is that the MPs make up 40% of the electoral college. With 37 MPs, that effectively gives each MP 1.1% of the vote. It is not known how many members Labour has, but if we assume 5,000, then each member gets only 0.008% of the vote. That may not sound a lot, but consider in general elections your vote counts for about 0.00004% - yet most of us still vote.

The affiliated unions get 20% of the vote. There are five affiliated unions. This means on average each union gets 4% of the vote. It is not clear if the unions will have the union boss cast their vote in one bloc, or if they will split their votes according to an internal ballot. However either way it will make union leaders very very powerful, and no aspiring labour leader is likely to win without their endorsement.

We saw this in the United Kingdom where unions endorsed Ed Miliband, and even sent out his promotional material for him in the same envelope as the voting ballot! Miliband went on to win due to the union vote. He got only 47% of the caucus vote and 46% of the party members vote yet got 60% of the union vote. So the UK Labour Party has a leader whom the majority of his caucus and members voted against.

So while the proposed changes by the NZ Labour Party to give their members a vote for future leaders is, in my opinion, a good thing, I do think it is regrettable they give the unions a direct vote. It would be far better if unions just encouraged their members to join Labour directly, than give unions voting rights for the leadership.

But overall the proposed reforms for Labour should result in a stronger party for them. It will be interesting to observe the first leadership election under their new rules, whenever that may be.

- NZ Herald

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