Labour conference 2012: the roaring forties

by Toby Manhire / 18 November, 2012
The 40-40-20 rule makes a lot of sense. The 40% caucus trigger not so much. And the pressure on Shearer builds.

As anyone, David Cunliffe included, will tell you, he who wields the sword tends not to wear the crown. And in the extraordinary case of the New Zealand Labour Party, an altogether different kind of swordplay appears under way. Death – if you’ll indulge the mixed metaphor – by a thousand remit paper cuts.

Motivated by what list MP and former party secretary Andrew Little called “contemporary anxiety about leadership”, members voted at the Labour party conference in Ellerslie yesterday, in effect, to demand a re-run of last year’s leadership contest, but under new rules.

The major new rule makes a lot of sense. An electoral college split, which gives 40% to the parliamentary party, 40% to the party membership and 20% to affiliates (ie unions) will engender a wide and robust contest.

I witnessed the last UK Labour leader race, following Gordon Brown’s departure. There, the vote is split three ways, with equal weight to parliamentary party, party membership and affiliates. If anything, the process was too protracted – with more than 50 hustings held around the country. But there was no skimming over the issues, and Ed Miliband, the surprise victor, was a hell of a lot better prepared to lead the opposition after the process than he would have been at the start. Had Shearer fought and won a contest under similar circumstances, he, too, I reckon, would have been much better equipped.

Much less certain, however, is whether he would survive, or even participate in, the full-blown leadership battle that could be triggered by a caucus vote next February. In a much more questionable move, delegates voted by 264 to 237 (that’s less than 53% of members voting for or against) to change the rules so that such a contest would commence with the backing of 40% of MPs (in the current caucus, 14 MPs) in the February following a general election.

I missed most of the debate in the hall yesterday, and understand there was a lot of block voting – both in allegiance to branch and union, so there appears to have been a level of coordination. But while the 40-40-20 thing makes a lot of sense, the 40% trigger is all a bit puzzling.

It means that a challenger – hypothetically, cough, speaking – might be strongly opposed by more than half of his or her parliamentary party colleagues, yet force a challenge, spark a drawn-out (at least six weeks, you’d think) race, and win the leadership. In theory at least, that new leader could return to the same caucus, which could vote by a simple majority to trigger another lengthy contest. Unlikely. But not impossible.

Next February will not, of course, follow a general election. But in a very contemporary sting, let’s call it, in the tail, party members voted to require such a vote to be held in early 2013, given it hadn’t happened in 2012. Combine the import of that anomaly with David Cunliffe’s response to questions about his ambitions (go watch Paddy Gower’s report if you haven’t already) and it is no exaggeration to say that Shearer is under attack.

For John Armstrong, writing in this morning’s Herald on Sunday, if Cunliffe can collect those 14 votes in caucus, “Shearer’s position as leader will become untenable and he will have to resign.”


His only option is to convene an emergency caucus meeting and secure a motion bringing forward the vote on his re-endorsement, which, if held now, he would win.

He instead risks becoming a victim of his own passiveness.

The spotlight was already on Shearer’s speech this afternoon. Its beam just got turned up to 11.
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