The Labour Party is doing itself no favours with the way it has decided to elect its leader. Even before its "primary" begins, the presence of four aspirants in the race when nominations closed this week was an admission that the caucus lacks an obvious leader.
Late-entry Nanaia Mahuta of Waikato-Tainui has been in Parliament 15 years and most New Zealanders would not recognise her face in a crowd. Yet she must rate her chances against Grant Robertson, David Parker and Andrew Little.
Even three candidates is probably one too many. In the normal course of politics an unsuccessful party leader will be challenged by someone of obvious leadership potential, and if the incumbent stands aside the obvious replacement may face a contest with a flag-carrier for another faction. But the normal course is for the contest to be a vote in the caucus room. The wider Labour Party lost confidence in its caucus' judgment after it chose David Shearer in 2011 and the following year its annual conference adopted the procedure that bedevils the party now. It has forced the issue before the caucus was ready to consider a replacement for David Cunliffe.
Mr Cunliffe forced the issue himself, as early as election night. But if he had not been in such a hurry to put the issue to the wider party, the constitution would still have required a post-election caucus review of the leadership. Good leadership decisions cannot be rushed in this way, especially when there is no obvious successor.
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Mr Robertson, the caucus choice when the wider party and unions backed Mr Cunliffe, looked the likely successor. Mr Little's entry forced Mr Cunliffe out of the race by taking his union votes, thus relieving Mr Robertson of an awkward public contest with an incumbent. But having done that service Mr Little is staying in the race, and he is challenging policies that Mr Parker strongly advocated at the election.
Mr Parker had accepted interim leadership on the understanding he was not standing, but now he is standing. Mr Cunliffe's withdrawal, meanwhile, has allowed his loyal supporter Nanaia Mahuta to chance her arm.
Mr Robertson is the only one who stepped up immediately and with conviction, but the fact that others have come in suggests he is not quite the caucus golden boy the public has been given to believe. He ran second to Mr Cunliffe last year and beat him in the caucus vote. Since then Mr Cunliffe has given party members and affiliated unions good reason to reflect on their own judgment, giving Mr Robertson a reasonable chance of getting their endorsement this time. But he would need the caucus solidly behind him. Clearly it is not.
Labour needs to get it right this time. Having changed leaders three times in the past three years it needs to find somebody who can strike a chord with the public. Unfortunately, a vote of active members and union affiliates is not a good test.
As a former party adviser, Phil Quin, pointed out in our pages last Friday, it is not a "primary" on the American model where the public can take part, it is more like American "caucuses" where only loyal party members can vote and they have a habit of choosing candidates who do not appeal to a wider electorate.
Labour's diminished caucus has only five list MPs, two of whom are standing, Mr Parker and Mr Little. The other 27 represent electorates, which keep them in touch with a wider community. They are best placed to choose an electable leader. They need to unite behind a candidate who might also convince the party to ditch the rules that have put them in this mess.