How should Labor elect its leader?

With a ballot for the leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (FPLP) happening tomorrow morning, it’s timely to examine how its leader is currently elected and whether change is desirable.

How is the leader currently chosen?

The power to choose the leader is held by the parliamentary party. A leadership ballot can be called by the parliamentary leader or a third of Caucus members signing a petition. Other than a brief period under Jack Lang, when the power to determine the NSW parliamentary leader was given to Conferencei, the parliamentary wing has always held the power to choose the leader at state and federal levels.

Historically, the largest faction (usually the Right) has held the leadership of the party with the smaller faction receiving the deputy leadership (usually the Left). However, in recent years this has changed as shown by MPs from the Left faction holding the state party leadership in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria where they do not constitute a majority.

Caucus selection is not actually the norm in Westminster systems

While Australia has a parliamentary system, all parties have run increasingly presidential-style campaigns. The parliamentary leader is usually at the centre of the election campaign and often personifies the party to the public. A party’s electoral success or failure is often linked to the success of its leader.

Yet despite the parliamentary leader being increasingly central to a party’s electoral fortunes and direction, rank-and-file members have no say at all in who that person is. What is rarely discussed is that this is an anomaly across English speaking countries with a Westminster system. All parties in Canada and the United Kingdom, and most in Ireland, allow rank-and-file members to have input into the leader election process. A recent paper by William Cross and Andre Blais highlighted that only major parties in New Zealand and all parties in Australia are hold outs on direct participation.

A mood for change?

One of the few positives about the current soap opera in the Federal Labor Caucus is that it may encourage greater discussion and debate over the direct election of party leader to avoid a repeat of the current situation. The fact that NSW ALP General Secretary (and NSW Right faction convenor) Sam Dastyari has made recent comments about a ‘revolving door’ and indicated lukewarm support for the idea of rank-and-file participation in leadership selections says a lot.

While the Australian Democrats are invoked as a reason not to go down the path of direct elections, the success of direct elections in Canada, the United Kingdom and France and growing concern about declining membership mean that a move towards some form of direct election is possible as Labor seeks to address shrinking membership base and rebuild from Opposition in a number of states.

Cross and Blais identified that where major parties have moved to a degree of direct election, it tends to be after a poor electoral result. Authority shifts away from the parliamentary party and the pent up demand for change that is contained while in Government is released. The importance and urgency of rebuilding after a loss means that parties want to seem more responsive to their rank-and-file who will be needed and want to show the broader electorate that they are changing.

The catalyst for change in Labor will be electoral self-interest, firstly to show stability in the party leadership to regain public confidence and secondly, to grow party membership. The adoption is likely to start at a state level where a heavy defeat has occurred and there is a strong push to reform to re-engage members and supporters such as in New South Wales.

Stable leadership

Undoubtedly there is an increasing need to have more stable tenure for leaders and to show that the leadership is not a revolving door, particularly in New South Wales. Since 2001, there have been five leaders of the FPLP and since 2008, there have been four leaders of the NSW PLP. A direct election would strengthen the mandate for the leader and give confidence to the electorate that a party leader will not be suddenly replaced.

Leadership changes would be minimised unless absolutely necessary. Creating momentum through underhanded tactics to replace the party leader would be far harder with an expanded pool of electors. The cost and time to conduct a leadership election would also be a deterrent to happening regularly and immediately.

The campaigning abilities of potential leaders could also be tested before they are elected. Public reaction to potential leaders over a period of time could be gauged before they are elected leader. This would address one of the key reasons why leaders are replaced under the current system.

Building an army of campaigners

The successful sandbagging of Maroubra, Marrickville and the close contest in Balmain at the 2011 NSW election shows that election campaigns can be won by on-the-ground campaigning. The future will be a greater reliance on members and supporters for campaigning and resources as a result of the moves towards capping expenditures and donations. Members will only join if you can give them a good reason to and stay and participate if they have a sense of ownership. A say in the leadership for every member will do this.

There will be resistance to implement the structural change necessary to give members a say, however, the banning of trade union affiliation fees (which has happened in NSW and is likely to occur elsewhere) is likely to be the factor that forces this to occur.

How would direct elections operate?

It is unclear what model of direct election would operate in practice and would be up for considerable debate. Amongst potential models, immigration Minister Chris Bowen has flagged a half Caucus/half rank-and-file. while Alex White has previously outlined a potential model based on the British Labour Party. Sam Dastyari is also on the record as a fan of the Conservative Party model where the parliamentary party shortlists two candidates.

The experience of the Australian Democrats is likely to rule out a pure One Member One Vote system and maintain some level of parliamentary party input in any immediate change, however this would still be an improvement on the current system.

While the logistics and cost of a direct election may be raised, the conduct of the National President and the NSW Labor Policy Forum ballots are two examples that show direct elections can work in the Labor Party. Potentially the cost of holding the election could be recovered if individuals were given the immediate right to vote when they join during the leadership election period similar to the small fee paid to participate in the Socialist Party presidential primary.

The future

The only positive that may come from this Rudd/Gillard power struggle is an impetus for rank-and-file participation in leader selection to strengthen their mandate and curb the ability of members in the Caucus to destabilise.

However, this is unlikely to occur until a loss of Government occurs and after Coalition Governments ban affiliation fees. Even then, it is likely to be adopted state-by-state first and only after a protracted push and realisation that it is necessary to rebuild party membership.

Even so, the coming debate about directly electing the party leader under the umbrella of Labor Party reform would be an important step for democratising all political parties in Australia.

UPDATE 27/02/12: A good summary of the procedures of this morning’s Caucus meeting.

UPDATE 21/03/13: At their Congress last year, New Zealand Labour adopted a 40/40/20 electoral college model for electing their party leader.

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