Replacing Jacinda Ardern: Labour Party leadership rules on agenda at first post-election conference

Labour’s first conference since the 2020 election kicks off on Friday night and the biggest order of business will be how the party elects the leader who will replace Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

There will be none of the usual hoopla or celebrations of the party’s historic win and gains since that 2020 election – the Delta outbreak and ongoing lockdown has forced the party to hold the entire conference online.

Ardern’s speech on Saturday afternoon will be the centrepiece, and the only part of the conference which will play out in public.

The rest will be held in closed session, including a vote on the biggest change proposed at the conference: the way Labour will elect its leader when the time comes for Ardern to go.

A proposal being put up by Labour’s ruling Council would allow a new leader to be elected by caucus alone if more than two thirds of caucus voted for a new leader within a week of the job coming up.

The change was first revealed by the Herald in September, and would mean bypassing an electoral college vote by party members and affiliated unions.

The change is not yet a done deal and could cause some unease among party members concerned about diluting the influence that the electoral college system gives them.

Party president Claire Szabo said two potential changes had been put up by delegates for voting on. One would seek a threshold of 75 per cent caucus support rather than two-thirds. The second was for the caucus-only provision to be used only when Labour was in government.

Szabo said most members seemed to recognise there was a good reason for allowing the caucus-only vote when the party was in government and a smooth handover to a new prime minister was needed. However, she conceded some were not convinced the same merit applied in Opposition.

“What we are seeing is people buying some of it, maybe not all of it, but we will have that debate.

“There would be a reasonable and high expectation from the public if there is an unexpected vacancy for a leader who was the prime minister that we would be really efficient.”

She said a good reason to allow it in Opposition was caucus unity. “Anytime the caucus can be encouraged to build unity is a good thing, and I think we are seeing that on the opposite side of politics at the moment.”

Former leaders David Cunliffe and Andrew Little were both elected by the college, but were not the caucus picks. Ardern was elected by caucus, because Little resigned within the three months before an election.

Szabo said when the electoral college was introduced in 2012 while the party was in Opposition, it was partly to showcase the candidates, getting media coverage and trying to build up the membership. The same issues did not apply in government.

“We are now finessing the system, not trying to burn the house down. We are trying to build a more nuanced view of a range of situations.”

Szabo said other changes were also being sought, including better representation of youth and those with disabilities in caucus, and using online methods more for candidate selection and list ranking processes.

The party delegates will also be debating policy remits, including drug law reform, infrastructure investment and government oversight, and relationship status and benefit levels.

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