Labour tiptoes towards perception change

VOTE SHARE: David Shearer is the last Labour leader to be elected solely by caucus with new rules spreading the vote cast wider.
VOTE SHARE: David Shearer is the last Labour leader to be elected solely by caucus with new rules spreading the vote cast wider.

It's not exactly a rush to emulate the United States way of picking presidential nominees, but Labour's organisational review is tiptoeing in that direction - even to the point of giving "non-members" a small say in who leads the party.

Along with a shift to give locals greater sway at candidate selections and a revamped list selection process, it marks a significant change; albeit one more likely to change perception than reality.

The public may see the changes as a step away from control by party bosses, but it is unlikely to reverse the steady decline in party membership.

The review has highlighted a couple of inbuilt contradictions. The first is how to involve members without imposing on the caucus a leader it does not want?

It is not just a theoretical question, as last year's leadership spill showed.

Inside the caucus, the anti-Cunliffe faction was strong, and helped propel David Shearer into the top job.

In the wider party, there is little doubt Mr Cunliffe was more popular. Even now some inside the party still hold a standard for him.

Just who will get what votes in a leadership ballot has not yet been settled, and the party's national council will take a step closer to a final decision this weekend. But it is likely MPs would hold about 40 per cent of the vote, members a similar proportion, affiliates - mainly, but not exclusively unions - up to 17 cent and registered supporters, who are not members, 2 to 3 per cent.

As senior party figures see it, caucus's view is crucial. But if the members are to be involved, their vote has to be meaningful.

So how to achieve that balance?

If a candidate - let's call him David 2 - lost a narrow vote in the caucus but had the overwhelming backing of party members, he would probably be acceptable. But if David 2 was strongly rejected by the caucus, it would destabilise the parliamentary wing if he were foisted on MPs by the party.

One way around that would be to make the caucus vote a bloc vote. So whether it was 22-18 or 35-5, all 40 per cent would be cast for David 1. In that way the caucus vote, in theory, would not be decisive ... though in practice it could dominate.

The second inbuilt contradiction is how to handle the powerful union vote, in a way that recognises its part in the party's history without turning off centrist voters and non-union candidates.

Unions will probably be given a significant voice in the leadership, through a set percentage - though smaller than the 30 per cent reserved for unions in the British Labour Party.

That will both ensure and define union influence and - cunningly - "corral" it within that proportion.

The proposed changes at local electorate level should go down well with the party rank and file. Essentially, they give a strong electorate with a good membership a potential majority on the selection panel; say, four locals and a "straw poll" of members present on the night against just three head office appointees. (At the moment the head office nominees can dominate, although unions have wielded less power than anecdotes suggest.)

The proposed changes to the list selection process arguably go the other way; towards greater central power. At the moment, regions rank their candidates and they are pulled together into the final list by an unwieldy "knitting committee" meeting, where power bases promote their candidate and they are voted on for each list spot.

Critics inside Labour say that effectively applies a first-past-the-post process to an MMP list and ignores the bigger picture; how to get the gender, ethnicity, work background and geographical representation needed.

Damien O'Connor may have been overstating it last year when he said list selection was dominated by "self-serving unionists and a gaggle of gays"; the low Labour vote was the main reason the likes of Stuart Nash and Kelvin Davis missed out in 2011. But it makes sense to have a smaller group with a "strategic overview" to ensure both diversity and a representative mix of candidates.

It is hard to see it making a huge difference, but if John Key is right and "perceptions are reality", then the perception of a more democratic party can only help.