... but there's a long way to go as Labour's new self-described 'coach' tries to mould a winning team from the Bad News Bears of previous years

After The Nation's Labour leadership debate in Hamilton a few weeks back, I said to some of my colleagues, 'if Little doesn't win this, he should be given the strategy job of making Labour relevant again, that's what he seems most passionate about'. Well, he did win the race and his early work as leader suggests he's given himself just that job.

On The Nation this weekend, Little talked about himself as a "coach", and that seems to be at the heart of his leadership style thus far. He'll be taking the big picture view, rotating his talent, and using Annette King (the Dan Carter of his team) as his deputy while Labour's Barretts, Crudens and Slades try to earn their place.

It's very, very early days, but it's hard to miss a new air of competence around Labour this past week. The early set pieces – first press conference, first long form radio and TV interviews, new front bench – have all been notable for the sense of, well, sense about them. Nothing catchy or inspirational, but nothing self-destructive or flash-harryish either.

When I spoke to Little over the weekend he acknowledged he wasn't the performer someone like Cunliffe was, but reckoned New Zealanders like the solid, decent type and he'd grow on voters.

Certainly he has time that his previous two predecessors didn't have – or weren't given.

The new front bench announced today certainly makes the best of the limited array of fresh faces available to him; Carmel Sepuloni is the 'bolter' coming in at number 7. Jacinda Ardern drops down, perhaps a little surprisingly, but the workhorses have been rewarded, notably King and Phil Twyford (just about the only Labour spokesperson consistently outperforming his opposite number). Nanaia Mahuta has got her reward for being bold enough to stand for the leadership and then delivering her backers to Little. At four, she has to show she can achieve outside of the Maori world and has a year to do it.

The next generation of stars have been given a chance to run with the ball in hand, especially Kelvin Davis and David Clark (and to a lesser degree, Iain Lees-Galloway). Sue Moroney and Louisa Wall (that's disappointing in Wall's case given the tortured rugby analogy I seem to be running with for this post).

Robertson seems an obvious number three, but it's notable Little described him at the announcement as an "intellectual powerhouse" rather than an economic one; not know for his financial heft he will have some hard work to do.

From that line-up, I'd say Robertson, Ardern and Davis are competing for the number two job come Christmas 2015.

The cunning part is that by putting them all on notice that all their positions will be reviewed in a year, it may just stop them making mischief and gives them something to focus on other than the polls and internal politics; it also compels their buy-in and means they have to take some responsibility for whatever happens over the next year

But for all the talk about the fresh faces up top (it'll be a relief for voters not to have to see so much of the same old, same old) don't forget that seven of the 17 ranked MPs have been either leader or deputy leader of Labour within the past six years. That's either valuable expertise or a destabilising battle of egos.

Little's team-building skills will be put to the test. Because Little's Labour this far doesn't look terribly risky, it's fraught with risk. The newbies could drop the ball, the egos and international competition could flare up and we could all come to see over the weeks and months ahead why Little has been unable to win at the polls in any of the elections where he's stood. Given time, we may get to see whatever it is that the people of New Plymouth have seen.

Worst of all, voters could simply decide they still don't care about any of what Labour's up to.

Little's first job, which he seems to be acutely aware of and not to be rushing, is to simply make a couple of hundred thousand voters just glance at Labour again. He doesn't have to score a run-away try in the first ten minutes, but he needs to win some yards and get them in a try-scoring position.

The assumption is that he'll attack down the left (he's often described as from the left of the party because of his union affiliations). But since deciding to stand, every utterance has indicated he'll take on Key right up the middle.

Matthew Hooton has been drawing comparisons between Little and Brash, given neither are amongst the most charismatic of men. But there are Key comparisons as well. He seems to have a post-ideological approach to policy; while he "believes" in a capital gains tax he says two elections have shown voters aren't buying so he wants it ditched. He does not seem prone to silly mistakes or sloppiness. He cuts across the aisle. And he's not tied to any existing clique in his party.

The 'lefty Little' claims are a sign of lazy thinking, given his pronouncements during the primary. He spoke most about being aspirational and speaking for the tradie who had started his/her own business, as well as the apprentice. He said on the weekend he didn't care how many houses you owned as long as the tax system was fair (avoiding the temptation to engage in any class warfare) and has even suggested a willingness to sacrifice some freedoms for security in this troubled world and has little truck with identity politics.

Remember, as a union boss he was initially unpopular with many because he was a new era of manager-bosses rather than sabre-rattling battler of the Jim Knox-school.

So I don't see Little trying to change the rules of the game as Cunliffe (and Brash) did or move the centre to the left with some radical thinking; if Little retains the discipline and solidity of these early days, it could be a low-scoring game that turns on who makes the fewest mistakes.

In a sense, that's as much of a gamble as Cunliffe's attempt to win by taking National on from the left. It relies on attrition, rather than attraction. National is the All Blacks of the current political scene – it has a knack of scoring when it needs to and knowing how to win. Labour is more like Wales and has a lot of work to do before it can seriously challenge. (However what must be forgotten is that MMP politics is not much like rugby, but more like tag-wrestling. Labour doesn't have to beat National on its own and can rely on the Greens and New Zealand First to put in a few tackles and score a few points).

But Labour's problem remains that if voters are content enough and aren't lured by the appeal of something new, why would they bother to change at all. Little still has to find a point of difference.

It could be in his down-to-earth (dour?) personality, which is at odds with Key's easy popularity. Or something else. As I say, Little doesn't seem to be in a rush.

It's a game of 80 minutes and there's still plenty of time on the clock. So far, Little's team seems less inclined to knocking on inside its own 25 and looks a little like the Bad News Bears, but whether the new coach can take them up a level or two to be real contenders is still a very open question.

Comments (7)

by Katharine Moody on November 24, 2014
Katharine Moody

National is the All Blacks of the current political scene – it has a knack of scoring when it needs to and knowing how to win.

But with the full release of Gwyn's findings;

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11363702

It becomes a very dishonourable way to win - don't you think?

by Katharine Moody on November 24, 2014
Katharine Moody

To use your analogy - a bit like..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6r4iOOjOWL4

 

by Charlie on November 24, 2014
Charlie

Tim: You're dreaming!

This is a shadow cabinet with zero talent and zero background in their allotted portfolios.

So bad, it's scary!

This is not the ABs versus Wales, it's the AB's versus a primary school XV.

 

by Tim Watkin on November 25, 2014
Tim Watkin

Katharine, I think the report shows some serious problems. I could be facetious and say the ABs were always famous for some dodgy work at the bottom of the ruck and there's always Haden's famous dive... equally politics has hardly been as pure as some have tried to paint it. This government is not the first to have indulged in dirty tricks, and there's a good argument to be had about which might have be worse. Muldoon's? Seddon's? But I don't want to minimise the seriousness of today's report and buy Key's attempt to dismiss it today. It's hard to disagree with anything in this:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11364204

 

by Tim Watkin on November 25, 2014
Tim Watkin

Charlie, there may be something in what you say, but you don't have to scratch very deep before you find the limits of the talent in the current cabinet. To be fair, there are some talented and experienced folk in the Labour line-up. And the interesting thing about the new faces on Labour's front bench is that we don't know how they'll perform in these 'stretch tests' Little has set them. Wait and see, lest in two or three years time you find yourself having to eat your words.

And remember, voters tire of governments and replace them for all kinds of reasons, least of all the talent of the new lot.

by Katharine Moody on November 26, 2014
Katharine Moody

Tim, a quick question - does the PM give out his mobile phone number to lots and lots of people? It just seemed strange to me that he'd recently received a text from Cameron Slater, when last year he changed his mobile number after the Rawshark posting;

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/10460563/Dirty-Politics-latest-...

I find it surprising that JK obviously intends to keep in touch with CS given his new mobile number was passed on (assuming by JK himself).

by John Hurley on November 27, 2014
John Hurley

Rearrange the deck chairs all you like.  This is the party that set out to smash the old NZ. What have they delivered working people?

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