Cat, pigeons: A layman’s guide to Labour’s new voting rules and their possible consequences

Next Monday, Labour MPs will take a vote of confidence. Under new rules, it could trigger a leadership challenge, and a wider electoral college contest involving party members and affiliated unions.

On Monday, 4 February 2013, members of the Labour Caucus will take a confidence vote on the leadership of the parliamentary party. This happens in the middle year of each electoral cycle, and generally passes without note.

Not so on this occasion.

November’s Labour Party Conference put the cat among the pigeons by deciding that this confidence vote would be held under unique conditions.

In past electoral cycles Labour Party rules required the leader to gain a simple majority of the mid-term vote  to retain the leadership. That will also be the rule in future. However, this year is a one-off: the leader needs 60% of the vote plus one. That means David Shearer needs 22 of the Caucus of to vote for him on Monday.  Should 13 or more of his colleagues vote against him, it will trigger a leadership contest.

Monday’s vote is a secret ballot. There will be independent scrutineers, usually senior members of the Labour Party such as the General Secretary and the President.

Previously the Caucus alone voted on the leadership, but the party wrested that absolute power out of its hands at the last conference. From now on a Labour Party leadership contest will be decided not by Caucus alone, but by an electoral college which includes the party members and its affiliates.

After the conference last November the Labour Party announced that ‘a copy of the revised Constitution and Rules of the Party will be circulated and on the website by the end of the year.’ So far it has not appeared on the website.

But this is how it will work:

A leadership vote will happen if there is a vacancy for the position, if it is requested by a simple majority of caucus at any time, or if the Leader fails to obtain the support of 60%-plus-one of the Caucus in a confidence vote held within three months of a general election.

A candidate for leadership must be a member of parliament.

The Electoral College will comprise:

  • Labour Party members – 40% of the vote
  • Labour Caucus members – 40% of the vote
  • Affiliates (the unions) – 20% of the vote

Every party and caucus member will have a vote; the affiliates will decide on their own voting systems. The administrative rules around the vote have yet to be announced, but it is expected that the Electoral College will publish results as percentages rather than actual numbers of voters in each category. This will allow the public (and the members) to know what the split was in each section of the college.

Labour hopes that these new rules will lead to greater strength and unity within the party. There is a danger, however, that the Parliamentary Party could in future be presented with a leader who gains a majority of Labour Party member support, but little support from within his or her own Caucus. Publication of the percentages will make this clear to both the Caucus and the public. This is likely to trigger a media frenzy that will make last year’s manufactured ‘leadership crisis’ look like a kindergarten picnic.

Back to Monday’s vote: this is the only time a Leader will ever require 60%-plus-one in a mid-term confidence vote.

In future, apart from the post-election vote which will always be 60%-plus-one, a leader will be safe with a simple majority. Forty per cent may seem a very low threshold for a leadership spill, but in other countries the threshold can be as low as 20%.  A leader who wins an election should carry the more testing post-election confidence vote with ease; a leader who loses is probably toast and will often jump before being pushed.

The mid-term confidence vote in opposition is a different animal altogether. Unless the polls and the media are positive, unless victory can be glimpsed on the horizon, a Leader will be vulnerable.  Requiring a 60%-plus-one majority makes the current leader particularly vulnerable. This is not a united Labour caucus and the 40% required for a spill – just 13 votes – could come from more than one faction. Some MPs favour David Shearer as Leader; some favour Grant Robertson; some favour David Cunliffe.

The media are currently pursuing Labour MPs, wanting (and occasionally demanding) to know how they will vote.  Tempting as it may be, journalists do not have the right do this – it is a secret ballot and no MP should be asked to reveal how s/he will or did vote.

There are several issues for the Labour caucus to consider in this vote, but these are probably the major ones:

Can Labour under its current leadership win the 2014 election with sufficient party votes to have the strength to control and contain its coalition partners?

The Greens are on a roll, and NZ First is looking secure. A weak Labour Party would have to give away too many Cabinet seats to be effective, and ambitious Labour MPs, forced to languish on the back benches, would not make for a happy Caucus. Remember the 1996 National-NZ First coalition and its subsequent disintegration?

Unification of the caucus and the party as a whole must be a priority this year; there have been factional and ideological splits since 2008 and the leader must weld these factions together. If this doesn’t happen, if the right and left-wingers within the party continue to do battle, it may be impossible for Labour to deliver on the social and economic platform it’s currently rolling out. That could spell a one-term government and possibly the end of Labour as one of the two major parties.

There is a big job ahead for the Leader of the Labour Party, building bridges and garnering voter support. It’s going to require strength, courage and political skill; it’s going to require the confidence of both the Caucus and the Party; it’s going to require a united front that will quieten the media and reassure the public.

That’s what Monday’s confidence vote will have to address.

Commentator and media trainer Judy Callingham blogs at Brian Edwards Media.

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