Little is the Labour leader despite weak support from his caucus. But they now have two choices: unify or die. And Little has the scope to rebuild from the ground up

So Andrew Little gets to lead the Labour Party, something that many wise heads only a year or two ago would never happen. The promise with which he'd entered parliament seemed to have withered on the New Plymouth vine.

Not any more. He's now Leader of the Opposition.

For me, that was a strong first press conference; he had a no-nonsense air about him that will go down well with New Zealanders. He's never going to be charismatic, so he has to be stubbornly decent and dependable and real to win over voters. And more than else, the party has to utterly unite behind him, however he appoints to senior positions and the policies they all settle on. It's unity or death for Labour now.

And, whatever he might have said publicly, hopefully Little realises deadwood does have to be cleared from caucus and fresh faces – and faces from diverse walks of life – have to be on the list and in winnable seats by 2017.

The one thing the devastating result has done is make every Labour person I've spoken to realise they are out of touch and don't look like winners. Little now has a huge opportunity to reshape the party, root and branch. It will be an immense amount of work, but he's got about as blank a page as any major party leader could hope for.

What's interesting is that he didn't have to – or didn't choose to – tack to the left to win the base, so he doesn't have talk of a "red" party hanging over his head the way Cunliffe did. Little was arguably the most centrist of the candidates and so is well placed to build from the centre, as Labour needs to do.

Little more than any other candidate laid the blame for the woeful 2014 election on Labour's policy choices. From the week after the election he spoke of voters' fear of a higher retirement age, capital gains tax and more. He said the party had too many policies, many of which were too complex.

He has a point about the range and complexity of policies and the lack of a cut-through vision of a different New Zealand under Labour; no-one saw any need for change or any gain in getting rid of National, which is always key to Oppositions winning elections in this country.

But I disagree with him about CGT and the higher super age. Whether they are right or not (and at a first principle level both are right – we should pay tax on all kinds of wealth not just income and the superannuation scheme has to start changing in the next decade and a half), that's not what cost them the election. It was trust and disloyalty and division and looking like a pack of school-kids.

As I say, unity or death.

Little's initial problem will be over-coming the sense that he hasn't earned it. Not only has he never won an election in a seat, he won this one on the back of the unions.

He was dead last – behind even last-minute candidate Nanaia Mahuta – in the first round of the caucus vote. The people who work with him every day didn't reckon he had the chops; they wanted Grant Robertson. That's a Cunliffe-esque problem his opponents can keep throwing at him and voters will worry about. 'What do those caucus folk know that we don't?', they'll ask.

And he was only ever second with the party members. So National will go out its way to paint him as an unpopular dinosaur and union hack from an era that no longer exists or is relevant.

Really, as democratic as it is, Labour's new voting system has now landed two new leaders with a monkey on their back before they even start.

What can Little learn from his predecessors? Get a clear message in your head and don't over-think it, which is something Shearer struggled with. And don't waste the first few months of your leadership and make bad appointments, as Cunliffe did.

But more than else, what he has to do to stand apart from those men is not make the sloppy mistakes they did. Get your numbers right, discipline yourself in what you say, always remember your audience and, for that matter, your sense of humour.

Still, whoever won it was going to have a tough road ahead. Labour is a wounded brand and the chances of any of those four beating John Key inside three years would be less than 50 percent at this point.

But this post was really to give you a chance to debate the pros and cons of this selection. So what do you reckon?

Comments (3)

by Lesley Ford on November 18, 2014
Lesley Ford

You could surmise that the caucus wanted someone they could control rather than someone who could truly lead. Maybe they saw in Robertson someone malleable to their whims. Just maybe Little actually does have the leadership skills to deal to the rubbish that went on over the last year

by barry on November 18, 2014
barry

I don't think being centrist is an advantage necessarily.  But whatever the stance Labour now takes they have to look like they mean it.  National have proved that you can get away with unpopular policies by being staunchly behind them.

by Tim Watkin on November 19, 2014
Tim Watkin

Lesley and Barry, you both make good points. Who knows the machinations going on in that caucus, but you're right that the past suggests the votes may not simply have been cast for who they think is best for the party. Not that I think Grant is malleable, but Little does seem to be slightly more outside the conflicts of recent times.

And Barry, I agree with you in part. As I said, I don't think policy was the main reason Labour lost this election and there are 'left' ideas the public could accept if the party looked unified and ready to govern. But the political reality is that Key discarded some unpopular policies when he came to power for a reason – you need to be responsive to 'the centre' or the most voters possible, and you have to be seen to be responsive.

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