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Chris Hipkins, Michael Wood, Kiri Allan – the frontrunners to replace Jacinda Ardern? (Image: Archi Banal)
Chris Hipkins, Michael Wood, Kiri Allan – the frontrunners to replace Jacinda Ardern? (Image: Archi Banal)

OPINIONPoliticsJanuary 20, 2023

Labour’s leadership dilemma

Chris Hipkins, Michael Wood, Kiri Allan – the frontrunners to replace Jacinda Ardern? (Image: Archi Banal)
Chris Hipkins, Michael Wood, Kiri Allan – the frontrunners to replace Jacinda Ardern? (Image: Archi Banal)

Examples of the destruction caused by parties infighting in public abound. But that doesn’t make obsessive secrecy a good idea either.

Update: Labour has outlined the process for electing a new leader, which could see a new appointment as soon as Saturday morning. For more see here

Like cardinals at a conclave choosing a new pope, the magic number for the Labour caucus is two-thirds. At least 43 MPs will need to back one candidate to succeed Jacinda Ardern as leader and in turn prime minister of New Zealand, to release the white smoke from parliament on Sunday, thereby avoiding a wider contest involving the party membership and affiliated unions. 

At this stage that smoke is looking so thick, however, that we barely know who is running. As I write, a total of zero Labour MPs have confirmed they’re seeking the leadership. That includes Chris Hipkins, the putative frontrunner, who was collared by Newshub this morning in Napier, while out for a quick spread of the legs in a tracksuit, cap and wraparound shades. He did say this: “I absolutely think by Sunday we will have a new leader in the Labour Party.” And: “I think if we can reach a consensus and then really unite as a team behind a new leader that’s going to be far better for New Zealand.”

The party president, Jill Day, was on the same page. She told Morning Report the task was appointing a new leader “quickly and decisively”, adding: “I’m very confident that this caucus will be able to coalesce around a candidate.”

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Easy to understand the line: as if the evidence from the blood-splattered leader roulette in both National and Labour across the last dozen years wasn’t compelling enough (Hipkins yesterday called National Party leadership tussles “the Hunger Games”), the Conservative Party of Britain has in recent times offered an object lesson in the way party contests can explode into gory self-destructive psychodrama. 

As in the UK, the leadership contest involved electing not just a leader but a prime minister. For the most part in recent decades our political parties have reserved their disembowelments for opposition. So the need for discipline, unity and all that is greater. But so, too, are the stakes, for the wider Labour Party, and the public interest at large. 

We haven’t had anyone rule themselves in, but plenty have ruled themselves out, including deputy leader Kelvin Davis, senior minister Megan Woods and, most consequentially Grant Robertson. The deputy prime minister, finance minister and close friend of the outgoing leader is easily the best qualified and most politically astute. But he insists he’s sticking with his 2014 decision not to run again for the leadership. 

While Ardern said she was standing down having determined she didn’t have the necessary energy to commit to a potential four more years as prime minister up to 2026, the question now in the interests of the Labour Party for those considering a tilt at the job is whether they have the energy for almost a year as prime minister then, more likely than not, at least three years as opposition leader. My guess is that was Robertson’s calculation. 

Assuming he cannot be talked around – and his decision to issue a clear and unambiguous statement immediately amounted not just to ruling himself out but ruling out having his decision ruled out – Robertson may play a part in attempting to shepherd a big caucus of more than 60 people towards a unified decision on Sunday, alongside other senior figures such as Woods, Nanaia Mahuta, Kelvin Davis and Willie Jackson. Those conversations are likely to cover not just a new leader, but a leader and deputy, even if Robertson is likely to remain as deputy prime minister. 

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern and finance minister Grant Robertson make their way to the house on budget day 2021 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

With 48 hours to go, the wind seems at the back of Hipkins. Though he may not be one to set pulses racing – notwithstanding the inevitable new tracksuited Hipkster trend – but that’s kind of the point. Labour may not yet be nearing save-the-furniture mode, but this is a year of furrowed economic brows and Serious Times, for the capable, safe-pair-of-hands Hipkins rather than Chippyphoria.

Or is it? Maybe Labour’s best hope is a breath of fresh air, a sense of generational change. On that basis, Michael Wood or Kiri Allan come into the picture – both of them eloquent, relatively new ministers, with fire in the belly and compelling backstories.

Those will be some of the conversations under way. It would be a shame if they took place completely out of sight. The party rule change instituted a couple of years ago ensures that a candidate overwhelmingly backed by caucus should prevail. Fair enough, too. But if, say, there is a stitch-up that says, let’s decide before the formal meeting begins and ensure an appearance of lockstep unity, or would-be contenders are strongarmed out of the running, well, that would be a betrayal at least of the spirit of a Labour constitution that opens by declaring “all political authority comes from the people by democratic means”. 

It is a bad idea, very obviously, to wash your dirty laundry all over the 6pm news. But that doesn’t demand an obsessive pursuit of secrecy. Is it really in the public interest to elect, in effect, a new prime minister without even revealing who is putting their hands up?

Whatever colour the smoke is on Sunday, it would pay to chuck on the caucus table a sacred text, a cautionary tale for the Labour cardinals to leaf through. Blue Blood, published last year by Andrea Vance, chronicles the years-long anguish that not so long ago befell the National Party. The opening chapter of the book: the unexpected decision by a popular leader to resign. 

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