Rodney Hide: Rudderless time not a good look

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Deputy leader Grant Robertson is vying for the position of leader. Photo / Michael Craig
Deputy leader Grant Robertson is vying for the position of leader. Photo / Michael Craig

"The King is dead, long live the King!" That's how monarchy does it. The new leader is declared before the old leader is cold.

Monarchists know the danger of a leadership vacuum. Not so the New Zealand Labour Party. Last year they opted for participation over speed in choosing their new leader.

Previously, a quick caucus vote would be had and the new leader anointed before the old one was out the door.

Not any longer. The members get to vote. The unions get to vote. There is a drawn out campaign to be leader.

It's fantastic for political junkies. It's bad news for Labour.

1. They are leaderless. They say a week is a long time in politics. Well, how about four weeks without a leader? It's not that the Deputy Leader can step up: he's busy campaigning for the job. National have been feeling the heat.

Labour have now gifted them a much-needed respite.

2. Labour has struggled to connect with voters. Instead of reaching out they are now spending a month looking in. Meanwhile John Key gets to look good, getting on with running the country.

3. There will be blood. The party president has told the candidates to play nice. They won't. They are in for the fight of their lives. MPs and activists have a lot at stake and they will get nasty. A bit of blood and guts will spill into the public arena. That won't be a good look for the party.

4. It will cost, big time. The candidates will be spending on the contest and the party will be spending to administer the vote. These are the precious dollars the party needs to defeat National. A quick caucus vote for leader is costless.

5. The leadership contest highlights the power the unions wield over the party. The six affiliated unions carry 20 per cent of the vote. And CTU boss Helen Kelly has been clear that union bosses dictate the union vote. The candidates for leader will be promising the unions whatever they want to secure the union vote. It's a bad look to have union bosses holding Labour's prospective leaders over a barrel.

6. The party will be further divided. Since the departure of the formidable Helen Clark, Labour has lacked unity. The contest for new leader will deepen and entrench divisions. Party activists and MPs will be out campaigning for their man. That will inevitably bring them into conflict. There will be winners and there will be losers and the hurt will linger.

7. The leadership contest makes the job of new leader tougher. His big task will be to unify the party. Does the new leader promote his former opponents or does he reward his supporters? Members who feel bitter that their chosen candidate lost need to be massaged and kept within the party. The new leader must spend weeks settling down the internal stuff. And that's at a time when the leader should be taking it to John Key to prove that he has what it takes.

8. News reporters will be lining up MPs against one another to see who is on whose side. That makes for good stories. It also makes good stories reporting how the various MPs fare under the new leadership. And how they feel about it. That continues the theme of Labour gazing inwards and being a party divided.

Helen Clark built Labour into a sure-footed political machine. Since her departure it's been nothing but bumble-footed. The decision to go for a drawn-out contest for leader is Labour's biggest misstep.

I write with some passion and experience. Such a primary was the process I went through to become Act leader.

The old lags in Labour know the fun they had at my expense.

It's a shame for Labour that they weren't listened to.

- Herald on Sunday

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