Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: National may sneer, but their leader election rules look out of step

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The Three Amigos (from left) Shane Jones, David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson.
The Three Amigos (from left) Shane Jones, David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson.

The Prime Minister jets off for the motherland on Tuesday, destination Scotland. He's dossing at the Queen's bach. But he'll hang off departing, he delighted in announcing this week, until Parliamentary Question Time is done. Because the new leader of the Labour Party will be there, and he wants to give the guy a warm, John Key welcome. If it's David Cunliffe, I hope he does so in a dozen languages.

Key will wonder aloud about vengeance in the Labour caucus. He'll scoff at uncosted promises scattered about over the last three weeks by leadership contenders Cunliffe, Shane Jones and Grant Robertson.

Should he find himself short of material, his hardworking apprentices, Judith Collins and Steven Joyce, will have plenty to hand. So eagerly have the pair been snorting at the Labour wannabes, in Parliament, on the radio, on Twitter, you could easily think it was they who were competing.

This week, Collins' efforts extended to writing a guest post for the obscure blog The Ruminator on the "self-indulgent warbling of Labour's Three Amigos". Joyce was nowhere to be found in the blogosphere, but to be fair to him he was in Japan, busily trying to emulate his leader's Twitter modus operandi by posting 26 tweets in three days, the majority of which - I'm not making this up - included pictures of the minister Looking at Things.

It was going to be a dirty fight, foretold everyone from the hyperventilating pundits of the right to the Waldorf and Statler sages of the left, who were so entertainingly flummoxed by the sight of a proper leadership contest in defiance of their demands for a tidy stitch-up. But the bloodsport never came about. Lawn bowls, more like.

Reporters have torn hamstrings this week in their heroic efforts to tease out a good bit of conflict. But, confoundingly, there's been barely a sniff of it. And even if it was often boring, at least it was short. The British Labour Party's similar exercise a few years ago comprised 56 hustings over four months. Really.

Maybe it was the boringness that gave rise to the introspection in parts of the fourth estate. And when I say introspection, I mean, of course, titanic self-absorption. "Labour's leadership being decided by media pundits," reckoned one headline above a media pundit's piece on the Herald site the other day.

Here's an outrageous thought: the Labour MPs and members and affiliates have been casting their votes according to who they think will be the best leader. Yes, they've considered the opinion polls. Yes, they've noted the enthusiasms of those media pundits, but mostly they've made up their own minds, based on their experience of the candidates over the years and their performances in the contest.

This isn't a general election, decided in large part by amiable zombies in the centre-ground - the voters here are people, pity them, sufficiently interested in politics that they became members of a political party.

If I were a member of the Labour Party, I'd be, on balance, pleased with the roadshow of the last few weeks. If I were a member of the National Party, I'd be wondering: how come I don't get to vote on the leader of my party? Take it from Judith Collins: while excoriating Labour's "foolish exhibition of faked friendship" this week, she also observed that "political parties should always be about their members".

Labour's change in rules to allow a directly elected leader is not at all unusual. It's becoming the norm. A study by Canadian academics William Cross and Andre Blais observes a clear trend over recent decades towards involving party membership in the leader's election across English-speaking Westminster-style democracies.

It goes for parties of the right as well as the left. Grassroots members of the conservative parties in both Canada and Britain get a vote on their leader.

The National Party probably won't change their system until they lose. The evidence, note the Canadian authors, is that a groundswell to give members a vote on the leader almost always follows an electoral defeat.

But they also observe "a strong contagion effect". That is, "once one of the major parties in a system expands the leadership selectorate others are likely to follow".

When John Key and National's dream run comes to an end, National Party members are likely to want to have a greater say. Chances are it won't happen in time to see Judith Collins against Steven Joyce square up in their own roadshow, but we live in hope. Maybe Simon Bridges thrown in there for a bit of croaky sex appeal. And Tau Henare, obviously. If one thing's certain, at least that contest wouldn't be boring.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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