Brian Edwards Media

Confidence in the House: a layman’s guide to Labour’s new voting rules and their possible consequences.


WitchOn 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.

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

    Surely the 40:40:20 split absolutely precludes that kind of compromise to achieve a united front?

    Every faction will vote in its own perceived interest only – as surely as night follows day.

  2. The seems like a very thorough summation. But I can see one major problem with all this.

    I don’t see any current MP in the Labour caucus who woul dbe capable of repair all the damage within the party, who could unite almost everyone and who could lead with credibility.

    There are many critics of Shearer and his lack of progress, but I don’t see the alternatives named here, Cunliffe or Robertson, or anyone else, being able to unite and lead the caucus with their full support, let alone the party.

  3. 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.

    1. The right to refuse to answer a question is fundamentally different from the right to ask a question.

    2. Do you think political polling should be illegal?

    JC: 1. But the question itself is put ‘in public’, and refusal to answer will be interpreted by the media and the public as meaning a lack of support for the leader, when it may simply be a matter of principle. I contend that this is inherently misleading and outside the brief of the political journalist. Should a politician (or anyone) wish to reveal how they vote, that is for them. Otherwise a secret ballot should remain exactly that, and no-one should be pressured, particularly in public, to reveal their voting preferences.

    2. Illegal? Get a grip, Graeme. If I’m approached by a pollster and choose to talk to him/her I am not going to have my voting preferences published or broadcast. That’s the difference.

  4. The fact is that with any system, the media will demand to know who is voting for who, whatever the ethics of the ‘secret ballot’. In my mind it comes with the territory, and the more ‘democratic’ your system the more it will generate this type of interest.

    I think its great the party gets a say, but I wonder about the union affiliations. What point does this serve?

    Also I think a clear distinction needs to be made between the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary party. They are quite different groupings who serve quite different purposes. This new system muddles it up a bit and confuses the public.

    Good Luck to them, I say. It won’t be straight forward..

  5. “The media are currently pursuing Labour MPs, wanting (and occasionally demanding) to know how they will vote.”

    I don’t see that as bad as, for example, Labour MPs pursuing Labour MPs wanting (and occasionally demanding) to know how they will vote. Or offering incentives and especially disincentives.

    There is some perception that that could have been happening as far back as the conference.

    MPs can politely tell media they won’t answer. But within the caucus there is potentially much more at stake.

  6. Chris Trotter over on Bowalley Road has a good take on it. I don’t always agree with Chris’s blinkered views but the outcome he predicts in February will most likely happen.

    Shearer as PM will ultimately leave Matthew Hooton with egg on his face. Key is an abject failure that even Hooton is prepared to admit, however Shearer is not the right wing clone Hooton thinks he is.

    Roll on 2014 (just for you Kimbo!)

  7. Is Shearer good at herding Kats? Because that is surely what he will have to do if he is ever PM. He will be a minority faction inside a minority party inside a coalition of madcap wildcats.

  8. David Shearer is ‘VERY’ good Alan, just like Paul Holmes is to those that know him. The right have been remiss to their motley supporters in there feigned support for David Shearer. Ha Ha Ha I say.

  9. The Labour Party is made up of minstrels, wastrels, vagabonds and drongos. They are beyond hope, no matter who is leader.

  10. Chris Trotter made a good point a couple of months back on the weekly Citizen A panel discussion on the Tumeke website that the fault line between the left and right doesn’t run between Labour/Greens/Mana on one side and National/Act/etc on the right but through the Labour Party itself. This is why Labour has to eventually decide as a party where its future lies. We are moving into a world where sitting on one’s hands in the middle is not tenable any more. There’s too much at stake, not least to do with the environment. Labour will inevitably have to move to the left but it may take a few more years of “earthquakes” before it finally gets there.

  11. So Kat, di you also agree with what Trotter had to say in his latest article. That is a glowing endorsement for a future prime minister.

    “Like the unlamented Stalinists of the old Socialist Unity Party, Mr Shearer’s backers would rather keep control of the losing side – than lose control of the winning side.”

    “A leaden rehearsal of policy announcements already months old, written in exactly the same unconvincing and uninspiring style as every other speech he has delivered since becoming leader (at the very least you’d think Mr Shearer might have found a better speech-writer!)”

  12. As I said Ben, I don’t always agree with Chris Trotters ‘blinkered’ views, even though his most colourful melodramatic writings could be interpreted as mischievous, almost Machiavellian, musings designed to stir the pot.

    Chris and Matthew Hooton should be given a slot on prime time, together they would be the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore of political commentary.