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OPINION: As February's scheduled leadership ballot looms, Labour leader David Shearer and his rival David Cunliffe have some tough strategic decisions to make.
Since last November's annual conference and its controversial aftermath many Labour members have demanded that the February vote be transferred from caucus to the party's newly established Electoral College. Only in this way, they argue, can the sins of David Shearer and his minions be washed away. The unspoken assumption behind these dissidents' demands is that the college will return not Shearer but Cunliffe as Labour's leader.
Now we learn from the pseudonymous "Eddie", writing at The Standard - New Zealand's third-largest, and Labour-leaning, blogsite - that Shearer may be preparing to call Cunliffe's supporters' bluff by giving them the Electoral College vote they've been clamouring for.
Though indisputably a bold and potentially game-changing move, Shearer cannot be unaware of the many and serious strategic and tactical risks associated with this course of action.
The most obvious risk is that once an Electoral College vote is arranged, the likelihood of the contest being limited to just two candidates is extremely remote. Once the process is set in motion, Shearer's supporters have no way of preventing Grant Robertson or Andrew Little from adding their names to the ballot paper. Should that happen, the political calculations become much more complex.
Labour's new Electoral College is required to tally the votes cast by the parliamentary caucus, ordinary members and trade union affiliates and re-calculate the results so the votes of the caucus account for 40 per cent of the total, ordinary members 40 per cent, and affiliates 20 per cent. It is unclear if the contest will be decided on a simple plurality of the votes cast, or according to some form of preferential voting system.
If it's the former, the margin separating Shearer and Cunliffe is likely to be very narrow. But if some form of preferential system is employed, neither Shearer nor Cunliffe is assured of victory. Supporters of the principal contenders are most unlikely to put their candidate's rival anywhere but last on their list of preferences. Shearer and Cunliffe could thus face early elimination, leaving the field to Robertson and Little. The smart money in that fight would be on Robertson.
Demanding the leadership question be decided by the Electoral College in February is, therefore, the worst possible move Cunliffe's supporters could make. Because even if he emerged victorious from the calculations of the Electoral College, Mr Cunliffe's problems would be far from over.
His greatest challenge would lie in persuading those colleagues who have repeatedly demonstrated a quite irrational animosity towards the New Lynn MP's leadership ambitions to swing in behind the Electoral College's choice. If their past actions are any guide, the "Anybody But Cunliffe" faction would immediately set about undermining Cunliffe's position. Secret caucus debates would be repeated verbatim to favoured members of the parliamentary press gallery and senior Labour MPs would not shrink from vicious public criticism of their leader's favoured policies.
Such a public display of political disunity would quickly reduce Labour to a laughing-stock. Subjected to unrelenting media criticism and with its poll numbers collapsing, the Cunliffe- led Opposition would be judged to have very little to offer the electorate.
Therefore, Labour's leadership, secured too early, is much more likely to destroy, rather than enhance, Cunliffe's chances of becoming prime minister. The gift they are most anxious to bestow is, paradoxically, the gift Cunliffe's followers should, for the time being at least, withhold.
Shearer should think very carefully before confirming "Eddie's" rumour. It was, after all, the same pseudonymous writer who kicked off the discussion about Shearer's leadership deficiencies immediately before last year's conference. That discussion, which suddenly - and without justification - morphed into the media-driven accusation that Cunliffe was mounting a leadership challenge led to his relegation to the back benches.
Now "Eddie" is at it again. Were Shearer to allow himself to be goaded into an early vote in the Electoral College it is possible - indeed it is quite likely - both he and his most serious rival, Mr Cunliffe, could find themselves manoeuvred out of contention.
I have learnt that at about the same time "Eddie" was mounting his first assault against Shearer, a representative of at least one of the trade union affiliates was sounding-out fellow unionists' opinions of a Robertson candidacy. (It is important to note here that Robertson emphatically denies any involvement in, or knowledge of, such soundings). It would, however, be cruelly ironic if Shearer and Cunliffe were to beat each other to death - for Robertson.
- © Fairfax NZ News