There's a lot of smart money going on Andrew Little's bid to lead the Labour Party, but the numbers in New Plymouth don't lie. So what are they saying?

There's a lot of talk about "listening" in Labour circles these days. Announcing his bid for the party leadership, list MP Andrew Little named as his top priority "getting the process underway to listen to the voters who have abandoned us". Grant Robertson agrees, telling reporters last week "as we emerge from our heavy election defeat, we must now take the opportunity to listen".

I suspect Little and Robertson have in mind some version of a “Labour Listens” tour (as Neil Kinnock did in Britain in 1987 and Gordon Brown did in 2010), a series of carefully staged outreach events involving a great deal of ostentatious nodding and taking of things on board. This is all well and good, and may even help in the long run, but there’s no reason to wait for a bus trip to start the process. 

New Zealanders have said a great deal already, and in the most unequivocal terms imaginable: they have voted.

As it turns out, electors in New Plymouth haven't left much to the imagination when it comes to Little. Labour’s performance in the seat since he became the party’s local standard bearer has been disastrous. It seems worth analysing Little’s record in light of David Cunliffe's endorsement, not to mention his own acknowledgement that the next party leader will need to arrest the party’s decline by rebuilding the party and reconnecting with voters. "We don't have a choice,” Little told Lisa Owen on The Nation last weekend, “We've lost three elections in a row. Our vote has been going down. We're down to 32 MPs. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel”.

He should know. In the two elections since Little became Labour’s candidate in New Plymouth, National's party vote margin in the electorate has more than doubled from 6,600 to 13,000 votes. After a 5.8 percent two-party swing from Labour to National in 2011, there was a further 6.3 percent swing in New Plymouth this year – roughly three times worse than the nationwide average.

As the electorate candidate, Little also attracted 6,500 fewer electorate votes than in 2008 when the previous Labour member, Harry Duynhoven, lost the seat. After three years of resources and profile as a list MP based partly in New Plymouth, Little managed a 7.8 percent swing against him on the electorate vote this year, to compound the 6.7 percent he suffered in 2011. 

(The swings are slightly exaggerated by minor boundary changes prior to the 2014 that increased National's on-paper margin by 1.5 percent).

It’s true Labour is doing badly overall across electorates in provincial New Zealand, but not as badly as Andrew Little. Contrast Little’s record in New Plymouth with Hamilton West’s Labour stalwart, Sue Moroney, whose knack for delivering larger and larger majorities to her opponents has been dubbed the ‘Moroney Effect’ by National Party insiders. In both party and electorate vote terms, the two-party swing away from Labour and Moroney in Hamilton West in 2011 and 2014 was less drastic than for Little in New Plymouth: the two party swing to National was 5.7 percent in 2011 and 3 percent in 2014, while the electorate vote swing away from Moroney’s was 5 percent and 2.3 percent respectively. 

As a campaigner, Andrew Little is a known quantity in exactly the kind of electorate where Labour needs to make inroads. There are empirical grounds to assess whether he has the kind of attributes needed to turn Labour’s fortunes around – and it’s a grim picture.  

I am full of admiration for Andrew Little. He has dedicated his life to serving the aspirations of working people. He has a great deal to offer as a Labour frontbencher for many years to come.  

But numbers don’t lie. As Labour’s candidate in New Plymouth – a seat the party held six years ago and should aspire to again – Little has reliably underperformed both in party and electorate vote terms. He has helped turn a knife-edge marginal into a National Party fortress.

Labour needs a leader capable of driving the party’s vote from 25 percent under Cunliffe to as close to 40 percent as humanly possible. The media frenzy surrounding his well orchestrated leadership announcement notwithstanding, Andrew Little’s campaigning record strongly suggests he is not that leader.

Comments (29)

by Bruce Ellis on October 15, 2014
Bruce Ellis

The stark comparison of election results does not show the full picture. My understanding of the electorate was of a change in the boundaries that provided an added boost for National and significantly contributed to the swing. If New Zealand went for National on the back of at least perceived well-being under John Key, then this is amply reflected in New Plymouth with the district doing extremely well economically on the back of investment in and results from the energy and dairy sectors. IMHO I think Andrew was on a hiding to nothing and probably, in all the circumstances, did as well as could be expected.

by Greg Presland on October 15, 2014
Greg Presland

For completion your rationale should be applied to various members of the Labour Caucus.  Grant Robertson may have won Wellington Central but lost the party vote heavily to National and the Greens and the pursuit of electorate votes at the cost of party votes is very silly to put it mildly.  And members of the ABC grouping did not do very well with Mt Albert, Mt Roskill and Hutt South showing the largest drops in party vote levels in the country.  And we had an MP who was elected on the list who seemed to be campaigning only for the electorate vote.

Also according to your logic Nanaia Mahuta should be the preferred candidate.  After all she did increase the party vote in her electorate by a very healthy 1,500 votes.

by Phil Quin on October 15, 2014
Phil Quin

The 2014 boundary changes to which Bruce refers added 1.5% to National's margin, which I should have mentioned. I will attempt to amend the post accordingly.  Don't think it really undermines the argument, though.  

by Tim Watkin on October 15, 2014
Tim Watkin

To you all: Sorry but the formatting is playing up and I can get the pars to separate. Apologies for a less than ideal reading experience.

by Charlie on October 15, 2014

What surprised and pleased me on election night was the tactical savvy of the voter.

In more than electorate a well-liked Labour MP was returned to office with a fat majority whilst there was a massive party vote to National. It seems many voters ticked the box for the Labour candidate and then ticked the blue party box.

These voters were saying "We really like this individual but the party is not fit for office".

That is not the case with Andrew Little....

by Keir on October 15, 2014

Greg, that's a pretty big claim you're making, and one that's pretty offensive to a lot of hardworking volunteers. Do you have any evidence to suggest that Grant was pursuing electorate votes at the expense of party votes? Or is this just yet another attempt to smear your opponents in the party as disloyal?

Because frankly, I think it's disgraceful, and I think you need to really reconsider where you're at, if that's the way you're engaging with the party at the moment. It's really unpleasant, especially given there's absolutely no evidence to back it up --- even the Green campaign manager in Wellington Central will say Grant was running a two tick campaign.

I think Charlie's explanation is a lot more likely, and doesn't require unheard of campaigning skills bordering on the miraculous from any Labour MPs.

by Andrew Geddis on October 15, 2014
Andrew Geddis

To you all: Sorry but the formatting is playing up and I can get the pars to separate. Apologies for a less than ideal reading experience.

Well then, it's just lucky that there's a somewhat competent adult in the room to deal with this sort of stuff. Fixed.

by Mark Murphy on October 15, 2014
Mark Murphy

I agree on Little. New Plymouth is the sort of place Labour needs to be appealing to (provincial, middle of the road), that it needs to re-win, or order to grow beyond itself. Andrew sounds like a great organizer, networker and advocate, but his personal/electoral  appeal hasn't got off the ground. Do Labour want a fresh start so badly that it would chose someone so lacking in charisma?

Nanaia Mahuta has not been tested beyond the Maori electorate, where she has done very, very well. So that would be a big gamble. I'm open to being convinced.

If Labour's strategy is to re-take the centre and grow to 40% plus (which seems obvious to me, though many members hold a different 'standard'), David Parker looks the most promising. He took the old seat of Otago, which should be safe Nat territory, a few moons ago, so can clearly muster support in the provinces and in the centre. Grant's biggest handicap is not his sexuality for me (NZers have voted in non-hetero Labour candidates in more conservative urban and rural seats....Louisa Wall, Georgina Beyer, Meka Whaitiri), but the fact he is the MP for Wellington Central. I think Nzers have more of an anti-capital city, anti-beareucracy prejudice than anything else. Grant's biggest asset is his immediate perosonal warmth, his ability to connect with a crowd. I would advise him to get in front of as many people as possible. Do a Winston through. Avoid the media, get in front of people. Speak in as many town halls up and down the country as possible. He could be someone the people fall in love with - cheeky, witty, warm, sincere - but he sometimes comes across as rather cautious in media.


by Ross on October 15, 2014

As it turns out, electors in New Plymouth haven't left much to the imagination when it comes to Little. Labour’s performance in the seat since he became the party’s local standard bearer has been disastrous.

In other words similar to Hekia Parata who suffered a humiliating loss in the Mana electorate. The last I heard she has retained the Education portfolio.

by Mark Murphy on October 15, 2014
Mark Murphy

Ross, that's not a very flattering comparison - for Little.

by Greg Presland on October 15, 2014
Greg Presland

@ Keir

It is nothing of the sort.  The problem with energetic electorate campaigns is that Labour then loses party votes.  The net effect is it goes backwards.  In 2005 Labour won 43% of the party vote in the electorate.  In 2014 it was 23%.

I am sure Grant ran a really energetic two tick campaign but what I am suggesting is there is a disconnect between good local campaigns and party vote success.

All MPs should campaign for the party vote and nothing else.  This is what National does.  They do not have a 10% point gap between their party vote level and their electorate vote level.

by Ross on October 15, 2014

Ross, that's not a very flattering comparison - for Little.

I wasnt comparing Parata to Little. I was pointing out that a big defeat doesn't stop an MP from becoming a Minister. Lets not forget that a Minister can achieve more than an Opposition leader. So, a Ministerial portfolio is more important than Leader of the Opposition.

I am surprised that Phil and others aren't questioning Parata's appointment, unless there's a double standard involved.

by Tim Watkin on October 15, 2014
Tim Watkin

Greg, National certainly has shown the strength of a focus on the party vote; Kirk as president was famous for banging into her MPs the importance of the party vote above all else.

Having said that, National can afford to do that now because the party brand is strong and they confidence in the party is high given the popularity and trust in the leader. Labour doesn't have that luxury. Perhaps to rebuild the brand it needs to show it can deliever in what Peters would call "the town and hamlets of NZ".

Why does it have to be either/or? A popular local MP that has delivered – or many of them – would help voters doubtful that Labour looks ready to govern and might convince them to give the party the benefit of the doubt. Looking competent at a community level is hardly going to make people think you're less competent nationally, unless there's a lack of faith in the leader.

by Mark Murphy on October 15, 2014
Mark Murphy
@ Ross: Whether or not a minister can achieve more than leader of the opposition, to be a minister you don't need to be popular with the NZ electorate, you just need to connected to a polular party and well-liked within that party (i.e. 'the Parata effect'). But to be leader of the oppositon, and to put yourself forward as Prime Minister, you really need to be very, very popular with the electorate (= why Andrew Little is a poor choice for leader of the Labour party). 
by Keir on October 15, 2014

Two points, Greg. One, that's not what you said. You said "the pursuit of electorate votes at the cost of party votes is very silly", and you specifically discussed the so-called "ABC" MPs. This is the same weak slur DC went on Campbell Live to run, and it's just as weak here.

Two, putting that aside, and more fundamantally, are you seriously suggesting that the 20 point drop in the Labour party vote between 05 and now is due to electorate candidates not campaigning hard enough for the party vote? Like for actuals is that the explanation you're advancing? And alongside that are you really claiming that the 10 point gap between the Labour electorate vote and the party vote is best explained, not by the existence of left vote splitting, particularly Greens voters? I mean, I just want to be clear that that is the thing you are claiming.

by Brendon Mills on October 16, 2014
Brendon Mills

Hey Mark -- do you think unions should be outlawed?


by Fentex on October 16, 2014

A need to "Listen" is nonsense.

Labours problem is not that it's members do not know what policy differences from National matter but that it's leadersahip is dysfunctional.

And leadership does not improve when paralysing itself by supplicating to complaints and being fearful of taking the lead.

Labour needs a clear assertion of a competent leader taking charge, who can be seen to both articulate the parties ambition and engage with the public and it's membership at the same time.

Until such a thing happens the sight of professional politicans maneuvering for advantage makes public relations like reassurances they're listening and wanting to learn no more than rearguard holding actions attempting to damp down criticism.

Labour needs to get out of the public eye, find and support a credible leader, then put the focus on them so they can put the parties arguments.

by Anne on October 16, 2014

"Labour needs to get out of the public eye, find and support a credible leader, then put the focus on them so they can put the parties arguments."

Good point Fentex. And that (I hope) is exactly what they intend to do. However, it will not help if certain 'senior' Labour MPs continue to jabber incoherently to the media in the way some of them have in recent times. I understand Annette King had some strong words for them at Tuesday's caucus and let's hope her efforts have been rewarded.

Let us also not forget the elephant in the room - Dirty Politics. Never in the history of this country has there been such an underhand, deceptive and poisonous political campaign (using certain prominent sections of the media) that was also aided and abetted by an unprincipled government and prime minister. It was a campaign designed to destroy the government's political opponents and the Labour Party in particular. The election outcome would suggest the protagonists won the battle, but I am certain time will ensure they don't win the war.


by Lee Churchman on October 16, 2014
Lee Churchman

 Hamilton West’s Labour stalwart, Sue Moroney

I live in Hamilton West. There's nothing wrong with Sue Moroney, and that's really her problem. If you want to know what sort of people Hamilton voters typically elect, just have a glance at our useless, incompetent council.

by Charlie on October 17, 2014

Anne: Either you're a sock puppet for the Labour Party or you're delusional.

Have you forgotten that 'Dirty Politics' was a nasty little book written by a left wing activist based on stolen private emails? Have you forgotten that Labour cuddled up to the German crook to the extent that it tried to undermine it's own candidate in Northland? Have you forgotten the endless personal attacks on John Key by the left, all of which failed to hit the mark? Have you forgotten all the biased media coverage talking up Internet/Mana and repeating all his lies? Have you forgotten Cunliffe's secret trust fund contributors?

You're symptomatic of what is currently wrong with the Left.

by Anne on October 17, 2014

Oh dear, poor Charlie. Seriously gullible statements there... 

by Charlie on October 18, 2014

Anne: Point out one which isn't a fact


by Anne on October 18, 2014

1. Have you read the book Charlie?  Properly that is?  Obviously not although you may claim that you have...  

2. Nicky Hagar a left wing activist?. No he is not. In the past he has revealed 'wrong doing' on ALL sides of the political fence.  Example: "Seeds of Distrust" aimed at the last Labour government.

3. Nasty little book?  It's nasty alright. Downright disgusting what Cameron Slater, Jason Ede, Carrick Graham, Kathy Odgers and various other questionable right-wing individuals got up too... all recognised and condoned by the "Prime Minister's Office". 

4. Endless personal attacks on John Key?  Very few of them were personal. Most relate to his ongoing habit of lying to the public.

5. Labour cuddling up to a German crook?  Bullshit and jelly beans. First, Kim Dotcom's distant past (when he was a teenager) is being used as an excuse to shut him down because he represents a threat to America's domination of cyber space. He's not the only entrepreneur in this field, but he is conveniently placed to use as a an example to others. In other words - intimidation. Second, the claim Labour <i> cuddled up</i> to him is a figment of your imagination or your ignorance of the facts. They did the opposite.

You have bought into the bullshit ladled out by John Key in his attempt to cover up his own involvement in the tawdry affair.




by Ross on October 18, 2014

But to be leader of the oppositon, and to put yourself forward as Prime Minister, you really need to be very, very popular with the electorate.

No you don't. Being PM isn't decided by electorate seats. It's decided by the party vote. Which is why Hekia can be a Minister even though she is intendely disliked by voters.

by Ross on October 18, 2014


by Charlie on October 19, 2014

Anne -  a very weak attempt at deflection.

1. So you're admitting the book was based on illegally obtained private emails. Pretty rich from a group that whines so much about internet privacy.

2. Nicky is Looney left! Even Clarke wasn't left enough for him.

3. The books nasty little inuendos and outright lies fell flat and voters wisely rejected it

4. Yet you fail to mention one specific lie or produce a scrap of evidence.

5. I look forward to the day Kim gets on an FBI plane to the USA.  Here are links to Kim's criminal past. Seems you forgot his convictions in HK


by Anne on October 19, 2014

A weak attempt at deflection?

If telling the truth is weaknesss then... guilty as charged.

Btw, it is Helen "Clark" - not Clarke. She was PM for nine years so your lack of knowledge how to spell her name is interesting. It is sometimes a suble reflection on a person's lack of cognisant abilities.





by Charlie on October 19, 2014

Anne - now you're just looking plain desperate

>  You lost the election. The dirt didn't work.

> Your German friend was exposed. He'll be gone soon enough.

> The Left is a laughing stock

> As Phil pointed out - you have no way forward.

Seriously, isn't it about time you look a hard look at yourselves rather than correcting my spelling?


by Anne on October 20, 2014

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing."

Malcolm X  - born 1925 in the US.

                     assassinated 1965 in the US.

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