Labour has established its new leadership voting rules. As expected, caucus and the membership will have 40% each, the affiliates 20%. More interestingly, and positively, the attempt to effectively neuter the membership’s new power by setting a high bar of caucus support for a leadership vote to be triggered failed. It will take 50% of caucus to trigger a vote in ordinary times, and a 60% caucus endorsement of the leader to avoid a leadership vote in the compulsory mid-term caucus motion.
What does that mean in practice? It means that when there’s a motion in the first caucus of next year, David Shearer will need 21 MPs to endorse him as leader (3 more than voted to make him leader last year) to prevent a leadership vote in which the membership and affiliates get to vote as well as the MPs.
That’s as it should be. Even MPs who want a change of leader won’t lightly choose to trigger a leadership vote, any more than they lightly attempt coups now. But when a significant number of MPs, not to mention the membership and affiliates want change, then it shouldn’t be possible for a simple majority of caucus to prevent a vote on the issue. If a simple majority of caucus can block a vote, it’s little different from the existing situation where the leader survives as long as they have a majority in caucus – that would have stymied the democratic intent of these reforms.
So, it’s great that they’ve chosen democracy.
Now, will anyone try to trigger a leadership contest next year? Like I say, it’s not a thing to be done lightly. 40% of caucus is unlikely to vote for a leadership race unless a contender or contenders have already put their names forward, at least on the quiet around caucus. And it gets complex if there are two contenders (cough Cunliffe cough Robertson cough) – do their supporters vote for a leadership race that the other side might win? It’s serious politics this – whether or not Shearer can get 21 votes it’s likely to determine not only the direction of Labour but also who is Prime Minister of New Zealand in two years time.
John Key will no doubt try to make hay of the supposedly ‘instability’ of bringing democracy to the Labour Party. But he shouldn’t smile too widely. Because, one day, when the falling polls send enough worried backbenchers into Collins’ camp, he’ll discover some instability of his own. And he won’t get to contest her in a fair and open debate in front of the members… he’ll get a knife in the back when he’s at his weakest… the only question is whether she’ll leave him to realise his worst nightmare and lose the election first.
[Update: I was unaware that there was another undemocratic move to prevent the new rules applying in 2013 - that, too, has been defeated. A good day for the membership, a bad day for the entrenched old guard in the caucus]