By New Zealand Herald

Even the most crusty trade unionist, contemplating the generally positive response to the Labour Party's new leader, must be having second thoughts about the election system they and left-wing party members foisted on its MPs five years ago.

That system gave the members and affiliated unions as much say as the caucus in the choice of leader. It resulted in two leaders, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little, being elected without much support among Labour MPs.

Only if the leadership was vacated within three months of the next election would the choice be made by the caucus alone, which is what happened on Tuesday.


Jacinda Ardern was elected unopposed, as somebody had to be if Labour was to go into the election campaign united.

As deputy the job was hers if she wanted it, but her election as deputy had been a decision of the caucus alone.

Clearly she has the confidence of her colleagues who would have assessed not just her leadership qualities but her appeal to the public.

That latter quality is the one that union delegates and left-wing activists probably do not rate as highly as they should.

MPs are in a far better position to make that assessment for two reasons. They work with each other day in, day out and know which of their colleagues copes well under stress, provides encouragement when it is needed, gives the team self-belief and possesses a clear-headed sense of priorities and direction.

But the second advantage of their position is even more important. Their careers, and in some cases their seats, will depend on the decision they make.

Unlike unionists and party activists, MPs stand to lose personally if they get it wrong. Unlike unionists and activists, they will not be swayed simply by hearing a leadership seeker express sentiments they want to hear.

The MPs will be trying to assess the contender's capacity to persuade undecided voters of the merits of those sentiments and broaden the party's appeal in the middle ground where elections are decided.

The unions and the wider party lost faith in their MPs' judgment in 2012 when David Shearer, elected by the caucus the previous year, was struggling to make a public impact against Sir John Key in his second term.

The party conference that year set up an "electoral college" to choose the leader from contenders who would campaign in a fairly public manner.

When Shearer quit in 2013, the membership chose the ambitious Cunliffe over caucus misgivings that were borne out at the last election.

Following the election, Cunliffe stepped down and Little was chosen by the same method. Like Shearer, Little has not made it to the next election. Both were conspicuously decent, able, diligent public servants who would grace any government's Cabinet.

Little might yet do so. But they were not blessed with the personality needed to win an election against an established Government enjoying the fruits of fiscal discipline in a growing economy.

Labour MPs now look confident they have a leader with the necessary public appeal. If she can lift their fortunes in this election she might restore their power to elect the leaders they know.