79 days to go

In 79 days it will be the first Tuesday of February, when under Labour’s new rules David Shearer must win a secret ballot of his colleagues to prevent a party-wide leadership ballot. David Cunliffe needs to get only 13 votes (plus his own) in 79 days.

It is worth recalling that Shearer has promised to have a reshuffle of his front bench and in fact overall caucus responsibilities and portfolios. He needs to make significant changes, but can he afford to do so?

Claire Trevett at the NZ Herald reports:

Labour MP David Cunliffe has left little doubt that he intends to overthrow David Shearer as Labour’s leader – a job made easier by a surprise change to the party rules.

The rule change was part of a chaotic day at the party’s annual conference in Ellerslie, during which delegates ignored the pleas of several senior MPs and voted to allow just 40 per cent of caucus to force a full leadership vote. All it would take is a vote from 14 of the current 34 MPs.

That puts Shearer’s leadership on much more precarious ground, and last night sources indicated the leader could move to bring matters to a head by forcing a vote, rather than letting it fester over summer.

Shearer can force a vote early. But as I understand the new rules, that in no way removes the constitutional requirement to also have a vote in February. Also an early vote would have a different threshold to the February 2013 vote. An early vote would only trigger a leadership election if 17 MPs voted against him. The Feb 2013 vote needs only 14 MPs.

Shearer’s supporters were clearly rattled by the change, but also confident he would secure the support – one stating they would easily “head (Cunliffe) off at the pass”.

Of 13 other MPs spoken to, most including Andrew Little, Clare Curran, Grant Robertson, Trevor Mallard and David Parker, said they would support Shearer in February’s vote.

Louisa Wall would not answer the question: “It’s irrelevant for me now – we’re in the middle of the conference.”

Phil Twyford said he supported Mr Shearer “because he is our leader now” but his vote in February would be a secret because it was a closed ballot.

The key words are “now” and “secret ballot”.

Charles Chauvel – who was a supporter of David Cunliffe last December – said he did not want to talk to the media.

How unusual!

Vernon Small at Stuff reports:

In its headlong rush to give grassroots members a greater say in future leadership votes, the Labour Party may have just pushed its current leader over the cliff.

Even if the damage to David Shearer isn’t fatal, it has made the party’s already difficult job that much harder.

However good his speech is today – and he was already under pressure to deliver a blockbuster full of core policy and “mongrel” – for the next three months he is the man on a knife edge.

If just 14 of his 33 caucus colleagues opt for change, the first two months of 2013 will be steeped in Labour bloodletting.

Possibly more than two months.

That’s the upshot of constitutional changes passed by delegates yesterday after an impassioned debate that exposed a bitterly divided party. It was the most extraordinary internecine political warfare since Rogernomics split the party in the 1980s, all played out on the conference floor.

In general the left, the unions and the north – let’s call it the Cunliffe camp – heavily backed the 40 per cent trigger with Wellington, the right and most MPs backing a simple majority that would have given embattled Shearer much greater protection.

It is manna from heaven for John Key’s fraying political machine that has just negotiated another week from hell.

Now National can run the line hard that if Labour wins in 2014, a minority in the caucus backed by dark forces in the party could, in just a matter of months, replace the people’s choice of prime minister.

This is an issue not yet fully focused on. Even if Labour win an election, the Leader will now be able to be toppled by just 40% of Caucus the February after an election. Now you might say, that would never happen. But it is well known that in 1993 Helen Clark was plotting to roll Mike Moore well before the 1993 election, and even if Labour had won (which they almost did) Clark was going to roll Moore – and would have had the numbers to do so.

The delegates could have controlled the damage to Shearer’s leadership by not insisting on a caucus vote in February, leaving it till the next cycle in 2014.

Senior MPs Trevor Mallard and David Parker tried to steer them that way but they were simply not listening.

Because in the end this was not just about a new constitution to make the party more open and democratic. It was also about the Cunliffe camp’s revenge for being ignored after last year’s primary race when the caucus installed Shearer as leader.

This is also a key point. The ongoing requirement is just for a scheduled vote after each general election. Now Labour have already had one of those – they had a leadership contest in Dec 2011 and Shearer won. But the conference explicitly voted to have a non-regular vote in February 2013. This can only be seen as directed at Shearer. If they had not passed that resolution, then you would need 50% of caucus to force a party wide vote on the leadership instead of 40%.

Cunliffe all but confirmed his interest in a challenge after his victory on the conference floor although, as one senior MP observed, “more than 60 per cent of the MPs voted for the trigger to stay at 50 per cent” – suggesting Shearer is safe for now – a spill cannot be ruled out even before February.

And then what? A new leader with a majority in the wider party but with a caucus that opposed him? And a dreadful bloodletting during the 2014 candidate selection process – which is already so fraught the party postponed its reform till late 2013?

In the meantime, Shearer’s leadership, already under pressure, will suffer a thousand speculations.

He has yet to show his hand and may think he can drink from the party’s poisoned chalice and survive. But his inner circle were late yesterday contemplating his next move.

The nuclear option would be to call Cunliffe out, confront him, demote him or put his unspoken challenge to the party now so February’s vote becomes a formality.

I’m generally a fan of nuclear options 🙂

I would point again out that an early vote doesn’t remove the requirement to also have a vote in February 2013.

Patrick Gower at 3 News reported:

David Shearer’s leadership of the Labour Party is under threat from his rival David Cunliffe.

The challenge emerged today at the Labour Party conference on the eve of what was meant to be a major speech for Mr Shearer.

Mr Cunliffe is putting his hand up, refusing to rule out a challenge to Mr Shearer when the Labour leadership comes up for grabs in February.

Cunliffe could have killed these stories dead by saving clearly “I will be voting in favour of David Shearer to remain Leader at the first caucus meeting of 2013, and will be urging all my colleagues to do the same. He will be the next Prime Minister”.

By the way if anyone is still doubting my contention that all those blog posts and columns last week calling for Shearer to go were a coincidence, I still have that bridge for sale!

UPDATE: Vernon Small reports:

Shearer is moving to put his leadership to a caucus vote as early as next week in an attempt to end speculation about his position and draw out challenger David Cunliffe.

Shearer’s lieutenants were today meeting to consider ways a vote could be taken early under caucus rules.

That would likely not replace the scheduled vote in February at which only 40 per cent of the caucus could trigger a run-off according to new uses approved by the Labour conference yesterday.

But if the caucus gave him a strong endorsement, possibly in a vote that was made public, that could make the February vote more of a formality. No caucus meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday, but an urgent one may be called.

There are also rules that require at last a week’s notice of a leadership ballot, but that may not be needed to simply endorse Shearer.

It is understood if Shearer wins the backing of caucus he will move quickly to demote Cunliffe.

It will be fascinating if he sacks Cunliffe off the front bench and from his portfolio. Cunliffe has a lot of support from the activists, and sacking him may go down very badly with them.

Also the move to have an early leadership vote appears to be an attempt to ignore the rule that the conference explicitly voted for. The conference said that they want a leadership ballot unless Shearer has over 60% support of caucus. They did not vote for 50%.

I guess the strategy is that a sacked Cunliffe will not be able to gain 40% come February. And it is possible he won’t be able to. But it does mean Shearer will have a ongoing significant disaffected faction in caucus and definitely in the wider party.

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