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Party leadership selection: the NZ Labour Party

Readers may recall my four posts looking at various aspects of Canadian MP Michael Chong’s proposed Reform Act (if not, you can catch up: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, and Post 4). Mr. Chong has since significantly amended his bill in order to better its odds of being adopted by the House of Commons. Many political commentators believe he has rendered it rather pointless.

As I discussed that final post on the Reform Act, many critics of the bill were concerned with the original provisions allowing a party caucus to trigger a confidence vote in the party leader. I would urge you to read Post 4 in its entirety in order to grasp this issue, but allow me to sum up by repeating the following points:

  • Canada is an outlier when it comes to party leader selection because our political parties allow their members to elect the leader;
  • most of the major parties in the UK, Australia and New Zealand leave the matter largely or exclusively under the control of the parliamentary caucus.

The New Zealand Labour Party changed its rules around leadership selection two years ago. Before the changes, it was the parliamentary caucus which could dump the party leader and which would then select a new leader. Party members had no involvement in this process.

The changes adopted after very acrimonious debate on the party’s constitution at its 2012 annual conference now allow for a more democratic process for electing a party leader, and make it more difficult for the caucus to rid itself of the leader. Labour MPs can trigger a leadership vote only if more than half of them sign a letter to the party president seeking one. Election of a new party leader is by a weighted system: the party membership has a 40% say in the choice, trade unions a 20% say and the party’s MPs 40%.

The first party leader elected under the new system was David Cuniliffe in 2013 — even though the majority of the party’s MPs did not vote for him and, apparently, disliked him intently.

Labour did quite poorly in 20 September 2014 general election, losing two seats and finishing well behind the National Party. Cuniliffe was under great pressure from his caucus to step down as leader. According to media reports, it was believed that he had the support of only 6 of the 32-member caucus. Under Labour’s new leadership rules, within three months of a general election, the current leader must be re-endorsed by a motion  put to the caucus. If the motion fails to get the support of 60% of the caucus plus one MP, then a new leadership contest is automatically triggered. It was quite clear that Mr. Cuniliffe would not win the support of his caucus, and so on 27 September 2014, a week after the general election he announced that he was resigning as party leader… But that he would run again in the leadership contest. Cuniliffe was banking on being able to win support in a party-wide vote which would allow him to stay on as leader – even though it was quite clear that Labour MPs did not want him.

Luckily, Mr. Cuniliffe was finally talked out of this course of action and on 13 October, announced he would not seek re-election.

This real life example simply serves to illustrate the concerns I had raised in my earlier post about the Reform Act, namely that it sought to give MPs more control over getting rid of a party leader without giving them any control over selecting a leader. I do understand why people argue that the way Canada’s political parties select their leaders are democratic, but it rather misses the point. The leaders aren’t truly accountable to anyone, certainly not to their caucus. While most party members have little if any direct contact with the leader, the party’s MPs have to work day in and day out with him or her. The leader has to have  their respect and confidence; and if that confidence is lost, MPs should be able to easily remove that leader and replace him or her with someone in whom they do have confidence.

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