Minister for Social Development and Employment Carmel Sepuloni is a possible contender. Photo / Alex Burton
Speculation has coalesced around four names as likely candidates in Labour’s shadow leadership race, which could be over as soon as Saturday morning at 9am if one candidate is able to persuade the others
that it is not worth putting themselves forward for nominations.
Agreements within caucus mean none has declared their intent openly, but all four are believed to be either putting themselves forward or are being seriously touted by their colleagues.
Three names were on everyone’s lips the moment Jacinda Ardern announced her intention to resign: Chris Hipkins, Kiritapu Allan, and Michael Wood.
A fourth name has emerged as a potential deputy and power broker: Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni.
One of Cabinet’s high, but quiet, achievers, she has presided over Labour’s multiple increases to benefit levels and welfare system reform. The Covid-19 wage subsidy, which ran very smoothly, was run out of her Ministry of Social Development (compare that with the cost-of-living payment, which ran anything but smoothly out of the Inland Revenue Department).
Helen Clark’s Government went through Ministers of Social Welfare like they were going out of fashion (four in nine years – although one held the job twice). Sepuloni, by contrast, has held the Social Development portfolio since 2017 and has succeeded there.
She’s an outside chance, and not as far ahead as the other names – but she should not be ruled-out either.
As day two of the campaign draws to a close we know little more than we did on Thursday. Big names, Grant Robertson, Megan Woods, and Kelvin Davis are out as far as leadership is concerned, but that was pretty clear on Thursday.
Caucus will probably be presented with a leader-deputy ticket involving a combination of those four names. Labour leaders appoint their deputies (in contrast with National, which elects a deputy, although the deputy tends to be the person the leader wants elected).
That ticket will represent a combination of factions within caucus and will seek to answer the question posed by Ardern’s departure: How does the caucus solve Labour’s problems and retain power in 2023?
The precise formulation of the ticket put to Labour’s caucus is difficult to see at this point.
Hipkins represents continuity and experience, but as former Covid-19 Response Minister, is burdened with much of the baggage that brought down Ardern. So does he pair himself with Allan as deputy, perhaps shoring up the support of the 15 or so votes in the Māori caucus?
But that ticket has another problem. Hipkins and Allan as one and two, plus Grant Robertson retaining the finance portfolio (everyone appears to want this) would mean Labour’s top team would all hail from south of Hamilton.
None would come from north of the Golden Triangle, particularly Auckland, where half of New Zealand lives, and where Labour desperately needs to win back support.
In fact, one of the biggest hidden constituencies in Labour’s caucus is comprised of Auckland MPs, both those who hold electorates and those who sit on the party list. These MPs don’t caucus together, but they are worried about their jobs, given the long 2021 lockdown siphoned off significant support for Labour.
A Hipkins and Wood combo is far too white and male for 2023 and is something of a non-starter.
Sepuloni would solve Hipkins’ Auckland problem, but that would bump Māori representation in Labour down to number four on the list, below Robertson who would likely remain at number three.
Having senior ministers at spots one, two and three is also probably not the fresh approach Labour needs.
A Wood-Allan ticket is a possibility. Allan would bring with her the votes of the Māori caucus, while Wood would bring Auckland. Combined, those two voting blocs would have nearly enough to clinch the 43-odd votes necessary to win the leadership.
Wood apparently has good relations with the Māori caucus, which may help him be part of the winning ticket – possibly better than Hipkins, who might have been too Wellington-focused in his attention (he represents the Remutaka electorate, north of Wellington) and is perhaps too closely associated with the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, of which Māori have been fairly critical.
However, having two first-term ministers as leaders is probably not what Labour needs either. It mightn’t be enough to make the “experience” argument against National that Labour had planned to run this year.
Sepuloni-Allan is another combination of the four, although it is not one I have heard touted by Labour MPs or insiders so it seems unlikely.
As for the process. The next big phase comes on Saturday. First comes the deadline for nominations, which is at 9am on Saturday. There’s every chance that only one person will have the numbers to put themselves forward for the leadership. If they can prove this to their colleagues on Friday night, there’s every chance that Labour will announce by press release on Saturday morning that only one candidate has put themselves forward and they will face an effectively ceremonial vote from caucus on Sunday.
If not, Labour will announce that multiple names are in the ballot, but caucus will not say what those names are.
The second set piece on Saturday is a meeting of the Māori caucus.
If the Māori caucus is able to coalesce behind a candidate or a ticket, that will solidify over a third of the votes necessary to get over the line.
The preferred outcome of the contest is becoming clearer today, and that is that everyone concerned wants an outcome by Sunday.
Both party president Jill Day and outgoing leader Ardern expressed a clear desire for caucus to select a leader on Sunday and for the race not to go to a wider vote involving Labour members and affiliated unions.
“This process was deliberately set up for situations such as this and I have full confidence that this caucus will work through it,” Day told RNZ’s Morning Report.
“I’m very confident this caucus will be able to coalesce around a candidate,” she said.
Leaving Napier, Ardern said the indication from caucus is that it will select a candidate on its own.
“I expect them to deliver a result, everything I’ve seen from the caucus and heard from the caucus is they are very determined to make their decision on Sunday,” Ardern said.
That puts pressure on MPs to sort themselves out before Sunday. Caucus rules allow multiple ballots to be taken, meaning caucus has multiple opportunities to find a leader amongst themselves before kicking the contest to the wider membership.
If they can’t get their act together on Sunday, caucus has a week to continue balloting from when Ardern resigned to find a leader. That gives them until next Thursday.
Officially nominating a candidate a day prior to the ballot is significant to this race.
It appears Labour is keen to vaguely follow the example set by National in its last leadership contest, in which Simon Bridges and Christopher Luxon were both clearly running for the job, but neither officially declared. Bridges pulled out before taking the race to a vote, allowing Luxon to emerge with the unanimous support of caucus.
Labour’s policy of forcing candidates to announce in advance makes it more difficult. We’ll know on Saturday morning whether Labour has been successful in coalescing around one candidate before the vote, or whether multiple MPs have put themselves forward and decided to take the battle to caucus.
At this stage, however, it’s difficult to see whether that is not just possible, but likely.
What we can say with some certainty, as the shadows lengthen on Friday afternoon, is that there appear to be four names and it does seem likely that one of them will be Labour leader by Sunday night – caucus seems keen to have this over as soon as possible.
For more from Thomas Coughlan, listen to On the Tiles, the Herald’s politics podcast