Labour’s inner circle will ideally want this Sunday’s caucus meeting to end with a sole nominee for party leader and their deputy.
Grant Robertson’s withdrawal from consideration for the leadership, however, shows that nothing can be taken for granted over the next few days.
What Labour will hope to avoid is a contested election which would require a three-week campaign and give 60 per cent of the final vote to party members and affiliated unions.
By last night there were no confirmed contenders though Chris Hipkins and Michael Wood were both said to be interested.
There was speculation that Kiri Allan might put her hand up, but that idea would be unlikely to find much favour from senior members of the Government.
Hipkins and Wood have to be the leading contenders.
Wood, who entered Parliament only six years ago, has won considerable support from the union movement, an important constituency within Labour, over the way he has handled fair pay agreements and from the green left of the party over his administration of his transport portfolio with an emphasis away from roads and cars.
He is an old-fashioned working-class Labour MP, smart and unflashy, a sort of Kiwi version of Anthony Albanese.
Chris Hipkins is the favourite.
During the years when the left-wing David Cunliffe led the party, Hipkins was a member of the “ABC Club” – anybody but Cunliffe. Though he is not a hardline right-winger like Stuart Nash, he is considered to be to the right of Wood.
He is a Wellington MP (Remutuka) and has a keen appreciation of the way the public service works and how the whole Governmental machine joins together.
He has long been named by people close to Ardern as a potential successor.
There are those who would prefer a Hipkins/Wood leadership duo. They would cite Key/English as a precedent.
But whether Labour in 2023 could go into an election without a woman in the leadership team and even without a Maori or Pasifika in the team is a valid question.
That then raises the possibility that Megan Woods or Carmel Sepuloni could make it through as deputy.
But where would that leave Wood?
He has a big card to play in that under the party’s arcane leadership election rules; if there is a contest, it must go to the membership and union affiliates.
The Caucus votes only counts for 40 per cent of the final total. Wood could expect to get a sizable chunk of the membership vote (40%) and probably all of the affiliates’ vote (20%).
The argument against that is that the last thing the party needs is a three-week leadership election contest nine months from election day.
Resolving those questions will be the focus of the party’s inner circle over the next 72 hours.
Ardern is likely to favour Hipkins as her replacement (though she probably preferred Robertson ahead of him), but yesterday she gave no hints as to who she wanted as she lauded the talent in the Labour caucus.
“They have been some of the best people I’ve ever had the privilege of working with, and they are well placed to take us forward as we continue to focus on our economic recovery with one of the strongest economies in the world,” she said.
“They are also a team who are incredibly well-placed to contest the next election.
“In fact, I am not leaving because I believe we can’t win the election but because I believe we can and will.
“And we need a fresh set of shoulders for that challenge.”
She sounded confident that the Caucus would reach a quick decision.
“ I see it as my role to help navigate the party through the next steps,” she said.
“ I can tell you, having met with the caucus this morning, I am confident that they will do that swiftly, decisively, with good grace.”
Labour needs that as it will now count down to the election on October 14, a fortnight before the Rugby World Cup final.
Opinion within Labour circles last night was divided as to whether Ardern’s resignation would aid or harm its election chances.
Prior to the resignation, the expectation within Labour (and also among many in National) was that Ardern would out-campaign National Leader Christopher Luxon, who would need to go into the campaign with a commanding lead over Labour to counter that.
Labour sources last night argued both ways; some thought a new leader, presumably Hipkins, would not have any advantage over Luxon, while others thought Hipkins’ political judgement and skills would give him a boost.
Meanwhile, National reshuffled its caucus spokespeople yesterday.
There were some interesting moves:
- Judith Collins is rehabilitated to rank ten as spokesperson on Science, Innovation & Technology though also giving her foreign direct investment could re-open questions about Oravida.
- Todd Muller is confirmed as agriculture spokesperson and picks up climate change off Scott Simpson. Muller negotiated the original bi-partisan climate change agreement with Labour. This move will signal to Groundswell that the Nats do not support them.
- Todd McClay gets “hunting and fishing”, which brings back memories of Sir Robert Muldoon appointing Rob Talbot as spokesperson on “small seeds and grains.”
- Simpson also loses resource management to Chris Bishop but picks up water which should cover three waters.
- Michael Woodhouse becomes shadow leader of the House with Simeon Brown in a new role as his deputy; perhaps an indication that Woodhouse would become Speaker if National won the election.
- Penny Simmonds becomes the first “class of 2020” to make it into the top 20 as spokesperson on Tertiary Education & Skills, Workforce Planning and Early Childhood Education.
- Outside the top 20, Barbara Kuriger is now just spokesperson conservation, and new MP Tama Potaka is the spokesperson on Maori Development, foreshadowing a probable Cabinet post if National get into Government.
The reshuffle speaks to a more harmonious caucus than we have seen in recent years in National, with both former leaders (Collins and Muller) given substantial roles.
Achieving the same harmony will be the challenge for Labour over the next three days.