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The Labour Party’s bid to change the way it elects leaders is only going to cause it more problems, says historian Michael Bassett.
Dr Bassett was a Labour MP from 1972-75 and 1978-90 and a leading minister in the fourth Labour government.
He has also written a biography of former Labour leader Peter Fraser, insider accounts of both the third and fourth Labour governments and extensive other writings on New Zealand political history.
The changes form the backdrop of the caucus showdown scheduled for 4pm today at Parliament between leader David Shearer and New Lynn MP David Cunliffe.
A weekend party conference was dominated by leadership bid rumours by Mr Cunliffe and a constitutional change which will give members and unions more say over the leadership from February next year.
Mr Shearer called today’s emergency meeting to try to stop further damage to the party.
“The constitutional changes are bizarre,” Dr Bassett told NBR ONLINE.
“Anything which departs from the notion that those who work most closely with a leader or potential leader are the best to choose the leadership – anything that departs from that is fraught with peril.”
There had been a similar effort in the early 1980s, when David Lange replaced Bill Rowling as leader, he says, and there was a public push for Lyttelton MP Anne Hercus for the deputy role.
“There was a great lobbying campaign. People would bail you up in the street, and when it came to the deputy vote she was bottom of the poll. That tells you something.”
Similarly, he says, the majority of the people who worked with Mr Cunliffe in caucus since he came to Parliament in 1999 made it clear they did not want him when he ran for the leadership last December.
“It’s exactly the case now with Shearer – I mean, people have made an assessment. I frankly don’t know that he’s any great shakes but I don’t think Cunliffe is either."
Some people have drawn parallels between Mr Shearer and the Bill Rowling era and there are some similarities, he says, although the differences are also large.
“Rowling, of course, had had a ministerial career, although not a long one. And he was an incredibly steely individual and had proved himself, even though he wasn’t really a leader.
“In Shearer’s case, he has been in Parliament for barely four years. He is really pretty new to the game and I think it shows.”