Improving Labour’s leadership selection systems

Another very interesting session today, facilitated by Deputy Leader Grant Robertson and complemented by a very well researched presentation from Trevor Mallard.

Grant spoke in favour of opening the leadership election process to include members. Obviously in a forum like Labour’s Summer School, the participants were very much in favour of this. He did also offer a word of caution – we only have to look at the Republican primary to realise how an internal free-for-all can be so damaging.

Trevor laid out four potential ways the leader could be selected…

  1. A new leader may simply emerge informally, possibly from outside of Parliament.
  2. An electoral process where the leader is selected by caucus.
  3. A process where the leader was selected by conference or a specific leadership conference, presumably through conference’s delegate system.
  4. The direct election of the leader through a ballot of members – and there are many ways this could be done.

Note that none of these options are fully fleshed out, and different permutations of one or more of these options would be possible. Our current leadership selection process fits firmly under the second category, where as the British Labour Party and Canada’s NDP use a combination of the third and fourth options.

The feedback from the members was near universal. We need to establish a set of criteria as to what the leadership process needs to achieve and then evaluate our options against them. Of course, we all wanted the membership to have a say, but there was also a recognition that MPs, given their insider knowledge of caucus, must continue to play an important role, and we also need to consider how our affiliate members are engaged in this process.

It was a very thorough, positive debate, and people on all sides seem to keep the positives and the negatives in mind. Good stuff.

My own personal view is that a model similar to the one the UK Labour Party use, with an electoral college system divided between the Parliamentary Party, the membership and the affiliates, would be suitable. We would need to tweak elements of it to meet the New Zealand conditions.

The last point to consider is how we achieve change, particularly with the ongoing organisational review. Grant made the point that changes to the leadership selection system cannot be made in a vacuum. Opening up the selection of leader will bring with it a can of worms we only just began to see with the 2011 leadership contest. We cannot be afraid of constructive dissent. We must be able to be confident to disagree with each other without devolving to personal attacks.

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