Why NZ Labour’s Leadership Primary is a terrible idea

One of the most hilarious interviews I’ve ever seen, was on CNN’s Crossfire – when a hack interviewer with Republican leanings asked Jon Stewart whether John Kerry was “the best the Democratic Party could do.”. Jon Stewart shrugged and said “according to the process”. His shrug belying the fact that the real answer was probably: no.

American primaries are dirty gladiatorial contests where every candidate relies on every other candidate splitting their opponent’s vote, and Ron Paul supporters flood online polls for the sole purpose of using them as ‘evidence’ that their candidate can win. These contests frequently end with the eventual candidate pretending they didn’t say anything they were caught on camera saying on the primary campaign trail, and Ron Paul supporters claiming that the whole thing was rigged (but that they’ll still be back next time).

In other words, US political primaries are a politics geek’s wet dream. Unfortunately, the wet dreams of political students do not win elections.

Except “overseas”, apparently. One of the Murphy’s Laws of NZ politics is that every terrible idea almost always works perfectly overseas. Although those perfect overseas examples are also almost always dubious upon closer inspection. The Conservative Party of the UK, for instance, has allowed its members an almost absolute-vote over who their leadership candidate should be since 1965. Yet, in recent history – and after a decade of not being in power – the most successful candidate this process produced, was a leader who had trouble defeating Gordon Brown.

Yet politics-geeks needn’t look to the other end of the globe to find an example of this system in action. The ACT Party has held US Presidential-style primaries since 2004, and this spectacle has either brought out all kinds of nutjobs, or exposed the fact that everybody in ACT hates Rodney Hide. Again, the contests proved a great spectacle for politics-watchers, but were also enough to convince voters that they should never ever cast a vote for a member of the ACT Party(or sit next to one).

The attitude of the general voting public to the inner workings of political parties are a bit like their attitude to what goes on in their parents’ bedrooms. Everybody knows that their parents probably have all kinds of marital spats and awkward sexual problems – they just prefer not to be reminded of this fact.

Right now, the Labour Party is choosing the opposite route. Over the next few weeks we’re likely to hear all about Uncle Shane’s tastes in BDSM pornography, Cousin Grant’s dalliance with that scandalously male waiter the other day (and how that absolutely positively doesn’t bother us in the slightest), and how Grandpa Cunliffe has never experienced anything other than missionary position before.

At the end of it, they’ll be forced to get back into the same bed and pretend they never made those comments about the size of the other guy’s penis (incidentally, doesn’t anybody find it weird that there are absolutely no female candidates in this race?). Because, after all, this is a parliamentary democracy, and all of these guys sit in the same caucus.

This, of course, is the crux of the matter. All of New Zealand’s political parties exist in a Parliamentary Democracy, not a Presidential system. At the end of the contest Rick Perry doesn’t just pack up and go back to Texas, he sits next to you on the campaign bus and runs things. This, after all, isn’t an election for a potential President, but a way for the Members of Parliament of a political party to choose their leader and head representative. Does it really make sense to have an open primary that makes the divisions in your party public for all to see? Will the factional divisions that form up around each of these candidates actually vanish so easily afterwards? Or will they harden – like the Hillary Clinton supporters who stayed away from the polls, or the Cunliffe fans who never gave up?

If it’s all for the purposes of fairness then people clearly didn’t see the UK Labour Party Primary last time around. I remember watching it in an airport lounge and being bored and confused all at once. In the interests of demonstrating to us that she hadn’t singlehandedly rigged the election, the lady reading out the results insisted upon tediously reading out the raw data behind each round of preference voting. Then – as if to make a point about the British educational system – she made the listeners add up the totals in their heads(prompting a great wall of silence when she finally finished and everybody’s arithmetical skills were put to the test). The ultimate result? Ed Miliband got elected over his opponent – David Miliband – by a thumping 1.3%. This, despite the fact that the majority of the party’s members had voted for his brother David. Luckily for Ed, his brother dropped out of British politics, preventing any awkwardness, and allowing Ed to fail all on his own.

The winner of the NZ Labour Party primary may not be so lucky.


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