There’s the right way… and then there’s the caucus way.

It has been an interesting year for Labo(u)r parties on both sides of the ditch. Both parties have held leadership elections that engaged the membership in previously untapped ways, giving them a say in who would be their next leader. In New Zealand, Labour got David Cunliffe, while the Australian Labor Party got Bill Shorten.

Both parties should be applauded for their readiness to open up to their members, making the leadership selection process and therefore the parties themselves that much more democratic. The processes that we have recently witnessed are infinitely better to the decision being made behind closed doors, by boards or the caucus alone.

However, I disagree with the fundamental principle that caucus should have as much influence as they do in electing the leader of their party. I know that these people are our elected representatives, and that they have to work with/ tolerate their leader on a day to day basis. However, the leader is ultimately elected to represent the wider membership, and potentially all of New Zealand/ Australia if they become Prime Minister.

MPs do not share the same day to day issues of the public. While we worry about paying the rent, they worry about paying the nation’s deficit. While we worry about passing University, they worry about passing law. Because of this, when we vote for a new leader, our reasons are very different to those of the caucus. The membership of a party votes for the candidate who they believe will represent them to the highest levels of government, making their lives, and the lives of their countrymen a little bit better in the process. I’m not saying at all that MPs don’t care about this, but there are always other deals going on within the caucus. For instance, when I vote for a specific candidate I don’t have the potential to become Minister or Spokesperson for Finance. MPs on the other hand do, and this opens up the potential for the caucus to vote for someone who offers them perks that the public can never get. While this is great for the new holder of the Finance portfolio, it may not be great for the membership and wider public, because that leader may not be the best choice for them or their party.

A case and point is David Shearer. Shearer was elected when the decision still lay squarely with caucus, because he was able to form a bigger faction than David Cunliffe. Many of the Shearer faithful got given cushy, high up rankings and portfolios. However, as Cunliffe and Shearer travelled around the country to speak to supporters it was evident that they supported Cunliffe. But the membership couldn’t vote in 2011, and the caucus elected David Shearer, the man that they personally liked more. The many thousands of members were left with the leader that they didn’t want, because of the high school politics of a handful of people.

The rest is history. Shearer’s ill-fated leadership stumbled through twenty months of low polls and low hopes. He was never able to fully win the faith of the membership, and eventually became one of the few Labour leaders that never made it to Prime Minister. What David Shearer did do however, was oversee the constitutional changes that gave the membership 40% of the vote, an equal share to caucus. And what did they do? Promptly elected the man that they wanted in the first place. Again, the majority of caucus rallied around Grant Robertson, but Cunliffe took over 60% of the membership vote, and over 70% of the Affiliates vote, thereby sweeping the leadership election despite his 30%ish polling from caucus.

In the few weeks since becoming leader, Cunliffe has overseen a rapid rise in the polls for Labour, as well as a general resurrection of optimism and faith in the Labour Party from membership and public alike. This is the man that caucus have twice tried to sabotage, succeeding once. Does this not show that a) caucus may not be the best suited to choose their leader, and b) caucus are not fully representative of the membership that elected them?

This brings me to Bill Shorten. He won the ALP election fair and square under the party rules. However, his opponent Anthony Albanese won 60% of the membership vote, while Shorten was able to win off his strong showing in caucus. From my previous examples I have demonstrated that the caucus’ choice for leader is not always in the best interests of the public, who they are supposed to represent, while the choice of the membership has yielded positive results for the party. In this way, the ALP now risks the leadership of a man who will not motivate the membership or the public. If Bill Shorten goes the way of David Shearer, then this hypothesis is reinforced. Of course, Shorten may be wildly successful and I may be proved wrong. However, I strongly believe that if 60% of the membership of the ALP chose Anthony Albanese, then he would be a better man to lead the party.

It is this thinking that leads me to conclude that caucus should not have as great an influence on leadership elections as they do. As I have explained, the decisions of MPs come with the weight of special interest, which can lead to weak leaders who have no support amongst the wider party and public. My suggestion in terms of a practical solution would be that the NZ Labour Party changes its leadership election rules to give the membership 50% of the vote, the caucus 30% and the affiliates 20%. This would allow the membership the influence they deserve in choosing the right leader, while not entirely minimising the importance of caucus. For the ALP, I’d say that they should take on an affiliates vote, like their New Zealand partner has. This at least would allow the grassroots of the party to have a bigger say in their leader.

The fact that these parties have adopted any kind of democratic process at all is incredibly positive. It’s great to see the importance of the membership being recognised and facilitated. I know that from here, the process of choosing leaders can only become more accountable and democratic, and I strongly believe that this will be done by maximising the ability of the party membership to choose, as they have a far more unbiased and open view of the candidates, allowing a leader to be chosen who is right for their party, and right for their country.


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