Fifteen years ago, Helen Clark stared down a party coup mounted by her eventual successor, Phil Goff. But her victory came at a huge price for Labour. Phil Quin, one of the plotters, offers an insider's account.

About six weeks before Helen Clark finally cemented her grip on NZ Labour - one which she maintains to this day, even in absentia - I had finally convinced Phil Goff to topple her.

It was Easter Weekend, 1996, and Goff was tramping with his family, in and out of cellphone range. We had been speaking every day, often many times a day, for several weeks. The topic was always the same: under Clark's leadership, Labour was heading into an electoral buzz-saw. Something needed doing.

Nothing focuses the mind of a politician like the prospect of losing a seat, and this was doubly true for Goff who had fought back to retake Roskill after losing in 1990. The opinion polls were bad enough under Clark that Goff was afraid of another defeat despite contesting a safer seat under new MMP boundaries. He was far from alone. A growing number of backbenchers gravitated to Goff's door, often at my urging, panicked at the prospect of an historic electoral drubbing.

After decapitating Mike Moore in the days following his strong showing at the 1993 election, Helen Clark failed to connect with Kiwi voters. Her media performances were wooden. She seemed aloof, and her intelligence came across as arrogance.

However dismal Clark's public standing, Goff had resisted earlier attempts to recruit him to a challenge. He respected Clark personally, and understood that, unpopular as she was in the country, she was a colossus within the party itself.

The party's membership had declined drastically in reaction to perceived extremes of the Fourth Labour Government. Many hardcore activists bolted to New Labour with Jim Anderton. Many more simply resigned in disgust.

By 1990, the Labour Party, a shadow of its former self, was ripe for a takeover - and a small group of activists, bound primarily by loyalty to Clark, stepped into the breach. Margaret Wilson, Ruth Dyson and other loyalists aligned with trade union affiliates and left-wing branches to wrest control of the party's governing bodies and candidate selection processes.

Given that the party's internal elections are conducted on a winner-takes all basis, this nexus of unions, disaffected (and dilapidated) branches and the increasingly powerful women's lobby secured near-total control of the party for the Clark forces. It remains resolutely in charge today.

The ascendancy of the Clark-Left was thus achieved more through reduction than expansion: she bided her time while enemies, left and right, wilted and disappeared.

As Anderton led an exodus from the Left, Labour's neoliberal reformers - Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and their ilk - also drifted from the party, some to later found ACT, others choosing less troublesome paths to obscurity (remember Clive Matthewson?).

By 1990, then, Clark had gained unrivalled influence over the Labour Party except for the parliamentary caucus, a lagging indicator. Enough "right-wingers" held their seats to re-elect Mike Moore as leader. Clark, who had been deputy to both Moore and his predecessor Geoffrey Palmer, would have to wait, but not for long.

In 1993, Mike Moore managed to lead Labour to within two seats of clinching an unlikely victory over Jim Bolger just three years after the 1990 rout. But Moore was despised by large sections of the party, especially its senior women, who derided him and his circle of young, male advisers as misogynist buffoons.

Moore's tireless campaigning in 1993 helped engineer his own downfall because Clark's allies had installed candidates in almost every winnable seat. They campaigned alongside Moore primed to vote against him in the coming post-election face-off with Clark. The irony was not lost on Moore himself.

A few days out from the election, he had arrived back at the hotel after a non-stop tour of suburban Auckland marginals.

He had noticed to his disgust that the Alliance hoardings far outnumbered Labour's.

He dragged a bunch of staffers, me included, to the home of Labour's candidate in Onehunga, Richard Northey, who seemed to be hosting a small dinner party for friends when we arrived unannounced at his door.

"Where are your signs?" Moore asked the startled candidate, who led us to his garage containing dozens of freshly pressed hoardings.

Exasperated, Moore helped load the car with "Northey for Onehunga" signs while the candidate returned to his friends and mid-range pinot. "If he wins on Saturday," Moore told me, in near-disbelief, "he's one for Helen." He did, and he was.

After previous stints in 1990 and 1993, I had gone back to work in the Labour Research Unit in early 1996 at the behest of Lianne Dalziel who was health spokesperson at the time. I broached with Dalziel in our first discussion my fears for the party at the coming election.

Dalziel, reliably of the party's left flank, made clear that she would rather sink with HMNZS Helen than contemplate Goff or the unspeakable alternative (Moore). It seemed wise not to raise the subject with her again.

Despite Dalziel's reaction, I wasn't done plotting - and soon encountered a more receptive audience.

The key to toppling Clark was flipping six or so of her former supporters, and the early signs were encouraging: Paul Swain (Eastern Hutt), Mark Peck (Invercargill), Rick Barker (Hastings) and Martin Gallagher (Hamilton West), all of whom backed Clark over Moore in 1993, were ready to jump ship.

Peck and Barker soon emerged as key protagonists in the efforts to unseat her. Phillip Field (Otara) was also wavering, and we suspected a number of others - Janet Mackey (Gisborne), Chris Carter (Te Atatu) and even the sopping-wet John Blincoe (Nelson) - might succumb to fears over their own seats and cast their secret ballots against Clark.

"Phil, I need to tell people you're in," I told Goff during our Easter weekend call, perhaps for the hundredth time. "OK then, I'll do it," he said, without a hint of enthusiasm.

The challenge against Clark shifted into top gear. Frontbenchers Michael Cullen, Jim Sutton and Annette King took command of strategy along with Goff, while Peck and Barker worked the backbench. Meanwhile, I oversaw phone surveys under the fictional auspices of "Data Research" in places where we felt the MP might be swayed by proof that Clark was toxic with voters.

Chris Carter's numbers were so bad he thought I had made them up. "Nope," I told him, "Helen is leading you over a cliff."

Sutton, Cullen and King were nervous about promoting the largely unknown Goff so close to the election, and also feared the electorate might recoil from his hardline reputation as a Rogernomics-era Minister.

At the same time, a couple of Maori seat MPs were willing to vote against Clark - but for Moore, not Goff.

In a caucus of 41 we counted 18-all with five undecided. Every vote weighed a tonne. The decision was made to proceed with an ambivalent Mike Moore on the ballot. Goff, it has to be said, was noticeably relieved.

Fearful of a leak, I argued for haste. Speculation in the press could rally party members in support of Clark just in time to coincide with the election-year Congress scheduled for May.

By this time, however, strategic caution had taken hold, and the elder statesmen made two fateful decisions.

First, they opted to wait until after the Party Congress to force the issue because they believed, quite rightly, that it would descend into an unrestrained chaos if Clark was dethroned beforehand. As it turned out, this decision gave Clark a prized leadership platform and deprived the plot of critical momentum.

Worse still, the entire exercise was derailed almost single-handedly by Anne Collins, Michael Cullen's wife and a former MP, who loudly told Clark's chief of staff during the Congress dinner that it was time to pack her bags.

The second decisive call made by the coup generals was to avoid a straightforward leadership vote. Peck, Barker and I argued that ballot secrecy was a huge strategic advantage for us - allowing nervous MPs like Carter and Field to vote self-interest over factional allegiance - but we were overruled again. A 21-20 outcome either way was, by their reckoning, the worst possible outcome. Clark should be given the chance to exit with dignity.

Former Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton drafted a letter urging Clark to stand down. It circulated among the caucus, attracting around 17 signatures, including that of Janet Mackey who, swayed by Clark ally Pete Hodgson, later attempted to recant. (My precise recollection of the number of signatories is hazy, although I believe the original letter, which was never handed to Clark, remains in Goff's possession).

On May 27 1996, a delegation of Labour frontbenchers - Cullen, Sutton, Koro Wetere, King and Goff - met Clark to ask that she act in the party's best interests by stepping aside.

Clark was in the loop by then, and corralled several of her key supporters, including Maharey, Jonathan Hunt and Judith Tizard to stare down her critics.

She didn't blink or budge. Bring it on, went the message, loud and clear.

In a stroke of genius, Clark persuaded her deputy, David Caygill, to make way for Michael Cullen, a key Moore backer, whose personal ambition, she correctly surmised, would outgun his factional loyalties.

This threw the challenge into disarray. Undecided MPs went to ground as Cullen emerged as an unlikely advocate for the status quo.

Coup d'etat, meet coup de grace. Twenty-one votes was suddenly beyond reach. It was over.

Clark had survived.

These events, from which she emerged with newfound authority, confirm that Helen Clark is a politician of exceptional toughness and guile. She astutely decided against purging her frontbench of coup plotters, even promoting a reluctant Mike Moore to the front bench.

Would the Labour Party have been better off if Helen Clark had fallen in May 1996? Would New Zealand?

The answer is probably no.

Even if (as seems likely) Moore had performed better than Clark at the 1996 poll and in subsequent coalition talks with Winston Peters, the party would have been in turmoil. It had become by then a vehicle for Clark's ambition, pure and simple. The leadership of anyone other than her - let alone Mike Moore of all people - would have sparked such intense and active hostility among the party's power elite that it would surely have fractured. To the Clark-left, winning without her was not winning at all.

Instead, this culture of fealty and unity-above-all served Labour well after Clark claimed the Beehive in 1999.

Policy and politics were handled by the PM and her inner circle, filtering down through a compliant and grateful network of ministers, backbenchers and party apparatchiks. What little dissent that occurred was easily quelled.

Phil Goff, a politician of great skill and energy, now wrestles with the job he agreed to seek 15 years ago.

But he remains entangled in Clark's political apparatus, and therefore lacks the authority to usher Labour into a new era.

The party is moribund, with few members and even less money. The power to select MPs and distribute favours rests with a tiny elite who jealously guard their majority control over an ever-shrinking entity.

Labour cries out for reforms that will allow it to regain relevance as a forward-leading agent of progressive change. It needs to lower the barriers to membership and adopt expansive, as well as inclusive, means to promote people and policy.

It must embrace new technology, not as a gimmick or a sideshow, but to fundamentally reconfigure the way it interacts, communicates and makes decision.

Before any of this is possible, however, it needs to abandon its Helen-knows-best ethos and overcome its paralysing fear of dissent.

Phil Goff faces an impossible task as long as the Labour Party remains frozen in time, circa May 1996, as an institution whose primary function is to facilitate the ambitions of a now departed leader.

* Phil Quin, a New York-based writer and columnist, worked in the Labour Party research unit on and off between 1989 and 1996. His blog is

The conspirators
* Martin Gallagher

* Janet Mackey

* Chris Carter

* Rick Barker

* Phillip Field

* John Blincoe