Editorial: Labour's power struggle remains

Last updated 05:00 21/11/2012

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OPINION: David Shearer has been reconfirmed as leader of the Labour Party. Given that even his caucus critics declared in advance their intention to vote for him that is hardly surprising.

However, far from being the resounding victory claimed by Mr Shearer's cheerleaders, yesterday's caucus vote served only to lay bare the deep divisions within the party. Those divisions are between the pragmatic, centrist MPs such as Phil Goff, Annette King and Trevor Mallard who have installed Mr Shearer as their standard bearer, and the wild-eyed idealists who forced a rule change through the party conference at the weekend enabling caucus malcontents to force a leadership vote in which party members and unions will have the final say.

It says much about Labour's present difficulties that they are the same idealists who championed remits seeking gender quotas for company boards and Parliament, the reintroduction of a universal family benefit and a reduction in the voting age.

The reason Mr Shearer has not scrapped some of Labour's sillier 2011 election promises is now apparent. Labour is in the midst of a power struggle between those who recognise that spending promises have to be paid for and those who do not understand that capital and skills are mobile. Increase taxes beyond a certain point and both will depart for greener pastures.

Neither yesterday's vote nor the demotion of Mr Shearer's putative challenger David Cunliffe to the backbenches resolves the question of Labour's leadership. The real contest, if there is to be one, will come in February on ground not of Mr Shearer's choosing.

Then, just 13 or 14 of Labour's 34 MPs will be able to force a party-wide vote if they choose to. That is a recipe for dysfunction. Leaders must be able to lead without forever glancing in the rearview mirror. They must also command caucus respect.

However, under Labour's new rules, New Zealand could end up with a prime minister unable to advance her or his agenda because she or he cannot win Cabinet or caucus debates.

Of course leaders should be broadly in tune with party policy. Of course they should pay heed to members' views. However, leaders also have to govern in the interests of all. Sometimes that requires them to make difficult choices. They should not be dissuaded from doing so by the fear a minority of their colleagues can trigger a leadership spill.

The reasons for the changes to Labour's rules have been well-canvassed. The party has history. Members still have nightmares about the Lange-Douglas government heading off in a direction totally at odds with the majority of members between 1984 and 1990. In addition, members are angry about Mr Shearer being chosen as leader ahead of their preferred candidate, Mr Cunliffe.

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However, parties cannot straitjacket their MPs. It was done by the Alliance and failed spectacularly. The only way for a party to ensure its MPs stay true to the party's values is to select candidates who subscribe to those values.

- The Dominion Post

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