The upsides of a Labour leadership contest

Since the Herald Digipoll came out showing Labour at under 30%, there has been renewed speculation about rolling Cunliffe. Much of this can be put down to speculation, but if it were to happen, would there be any advantages? In this post I’ll examine some of the advantages of Labour running a leadership contest prior to the election.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that it’s a good idea to do so. But I haven’t seen anyone discussing the upsides of such a bleak situation, so I thought I’d fill the gap. I am NOT suggesting Labour should do it.


Owning the news 
The first and most obvious advantage of a leadership contest would be dominance of the news. It would provide an opportunity for Labour to drive the political discussion (although ‘Labour are screwed’ is obviously going to be a popular headline too). Labour would be able to raise issues and thus put National on the back-foot.

Promises that don’t require keeping
A further benefit of a leadership contest is that it allows Labour leadership to make attractive promises that don’t need to be kept. Candidates can advance policies that draw media attention, but only the winner’s promises are expected to be kept.

Showing both flanks
A leadership contest would almost certainly be between Shane Jones and Grant Robertson. It would give the party opportunity to demonstrate its potential appeal. Jones would talk centrist and blokey, speaking particularly to the majority of kiwis who are not university-educated or living in a city, while Robertson would play the leftist and appeal to the base. In doing so, they could demonstrate leftist credentials and centrist sensibility, thus reminding voters that Labour is (meant to be) a broad church.

Consolidating the party
Another way a leadership contest could benefit the party is by providing opportunity for consolidation. This would partly depend on whether Labour’s far left actually wants to win elections, or merely advance its position in a long march through the party institution. If the far left of the party cannot be brought into line, then the party runs the risk of leaving more of the political centre to National.

In any case, the party needs to avoid becoming further trapped in a dynamic where losing factions/candidates sharpen their knives, undercut the leader, and pray for more failure. Similarly, Labour needs to avoid a Chris Trotter-esque ‘Rooibos tea party’ response, where it claims ‘we lost because we weren’t left enough’.

No, you lost because people are voting for John Key.

It’s a pretty bleak situation. Finding advantages in a leadership contest prior to the election is not easy. Good luck, David.


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