Party has nothing to lose and much to gain from its changes to the rules on selecting its leader.

It is very much to Labour's credit that it has put in place a more democratic set of internal rules and that the outbreak of democracy now applies to the election of the leader as well. The events of recent days, however, suggest the party has yet to understand fully or feel comfortable with the new procedures.

The new electoral college, which extends the power to choose a leader to party members and affiliated bodies as well as to MPs, is modelled fairly closely on the procedures of the British Labour Party.

In the UK, though, the leader faces an annual election; and it was the need to protect the party against frivolous or vexatious challenges to the leader that led to the requirement that a challenger would have to secure the nominations of at least 20 per cent of the parliamentary party. It was that requirement I had to meet when I made my bid for the leadership in 1992 after the resignation of the then leader, Neil Kinnock.

In the UK and more particularly New Zealand, though, MPs have given up their exclusive power to elect the leader with some reluctance. The fear is always that the wider party electorate could saddle the parliamentary party with a leader who did not enjoy the confidence of MPs.


We saw something of this in the provision put to last week's conference to the effect that the new democracy would apply only if 60 per cent of MPs agreed that there should be an election.

It was always unlikely that this restriction would survive long. You cannot show the dog the rabbit then expect it to accept, as the rabbit is put back in the hat, that it was only for show.

Delegates to the conference were virtually certain to twig that, under the proposed rule, the caucus had retained for itself the virtually unassailable power to decide whether democracy should apply or not.

When the eminently predictable happened, however, and the delegates asserted themselves by demanding a lower barrier to the new democratic process, many in the party - and most in the media - were apparently taken by surprise.

The result was that a state of extreme excitement was engendered overnight. Suddenly, what had seemed a distant and uncertain prospect became - in the minds of many - a virtual certainty; there would be a challenge to David Shearer's leadership.

Sadly, many who should have known better enthusiastically played the roles assigned to them by slavering media. Victims and villains were quickly identified and condemned. "Strong" action was urged. Personal antipathies and grievances were widely aired.

No better case for a wider electorate than the caucus could have been made. On this evidence, a significant role for the party membership is long overdue, since they are less concerned about their career prospects or personal rivalries and are more likely to focus instead on the need to elect a Labour government.

Let us remind ourselves of where we have got to. There will be, irrespective of whether there is any challenge, and as the rules provide, a vote in February to confirm or otherwise David Shearer's leadership. After his achievements so far, and the fact that he enjoyed a good conference and made an excellent speech, he should and will feel confident about the outcome of that vote.

But the provision that there should be such a vote at least once in three years is there advisedly. The fact that it is to take place is in no sense evidence that a challenge is imminent. But, at the very least, it provides a safety valve - an opportunity for any disaffection to be expressed in a secret ballot.

If David Shearer is endorsed in that vote, the absence of any disaffection will have been established. Only in the unlikely event that the leader loses that vote will be there be a new election and only then will we know which contender (or more likely contenders) will put their names forward. And let us remind ourselves that harbouring leadership ambitions is hardly in itself a hanging offence.

If these are recognised as the outcomes that are presumably desired and intended and they are handled with calmness and good sense, the Labour Party has nothing to lose and much to gain from the new procedures.

The party will in February most probably confirm that it has the right leader to take it into the next general election, or will elect a new leader who it thinks could do a better job.

In either event, the focus must be on replacing a government whose tribulations this year and parliamentary arithmetic both strongly suggest is there for the taking. Party members should breathe through their noses and enjoy the process that they have ordained; it is, after all, democracy in practice.

Bryan Gould is a former Waikato University vice-chancellor and British Labour MP.