Little --- can he move beyond Labour's past
By Richard Harman (author)
During the last election campaign the-then Labour Leader, David Cunliffe went to Lyttelton to launch Labour’s jobs’ policy.
He chose an engineering works as the venue, and he made a short speech in front of a small group of safety vest wearing welders and fitters and turners.
He was in a suit. He was awkward and plainly was not at home.
All the workers wanted to know was whether he would cut their income tax. He wouldn’t.
He left Lyttelton, and his campaign went off to the West Coast to pay its obligatory respects to Blackball, the former mining town that is the spiritual home of the Labour Party.
While this homage to metal bashing and manual labour was going on, the Greens co-leader Russel Norman was in Wellington promoting support policies for computer games developers.
These two different approaches to the campaign defined precisely the dilemma that Labour finds itself in.
How does it move beyond its past and become relevant to modern-day New Zealand?
That the much more radical Greens have been able to do this simply underlines how out of touch Labour has been.
Even when Labour tried to connect with the new economy and got its Finance spokesperson, Grant Robertson, to prepare a report on the future of work, the party didn’t really seem to know what to do with the results.
By all accounts, the report has been put on a shelf.
New candidates spoken to by POLITIK know little about it or how it links into the party's overall policies.
And so it seems to seek refuge in its past. Last year it celebrated 100 years of existence and even devoted a workshop at its conference to its history. There was none on new technology.
Robertson's report which drew envious admiration even from some National backbenchers addresses the big issues that Russel Norman did with the games developers. Young people are happy to be entrepreneurs; they are resigned to working a number of jobs on a casual basis; the so-called “gig” economy.
All of this now comes once again into focus as the Mt Albert by-election gets underway and there are really only two parties in it – Labour and the Greens.
It’s a classic “new economy” electorate. Nearly 40% of its voters have university degrees; over 7000 earn more than 100,000; nearly 10% are self-employed and 34% class themselves as professionals.
But it is also one of Labour’s safest seats.
How Jacinda Ardern does in this by-election will be a real indication of whether Labour is getting through to an electorate beyond that of the Lyttelton engineering works.
Labour leader Andrew Little concedes that one of the big frustrations he has is the failure of the party last year to get any traction in the polls despite pushing hard on issues like housing, education, health and law and order.
But maybe things weren’t as disappointing as he believes. The win in the Mt Roskill by-election (a very different and more traditionally Labour electorate to its Mt Albert neighbour) was a success for the party and its campaigning on the kind of issues that Little talks about.
So where does the Future of Work fit into what you might call the "Mt Albert" issues agenda?
“We have a pretty clear idea of the four or five things that are part of our narrative – housing, health, education, crime and stuff about jobs and the economy," he says.
“The Future of Work Commission will feed into some of the stuff, so we know, I guess the signature policy, the three years post-school education and training and adding to that professionalising careers advice in schools – all of which individually are very popular but we will have to turn that into a story for the election.
“But telling the big story about how looking 20 years out, work is going to change, what are we going to do, it’s pretty hard to turn that into an election message.”
And that's Little's dilemma.
As he says, the party has not increased its poll following. Before it can go out and win new support it has to reclaim its base.
But the longer it takes to do this the more it lays itself open to inroads by the Greens and possibly even National.
There are also those who argue that one of the reasons Labour has not performed in the polls is because Little himself has failed to make an emotional connection with the electorate.
Certainly, he has suffered under the huge weight of John Key's connection with the electorate.
And some of the criticism of Little is unfair.
He may not be the kind of showman Key was, but he is regarded by many in Parliament (including the National Party) as a pretty decent sort of bloke.
He has a wide network of friends and acquaintances.
One is the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Wayne Eagleson, who was in the same law class at Victoria University.
The two have chatted quite amicably about politics and tactics over a class reunion barbeque.
Little thinks his problem is TV.
“The overwhelming feedback I get is when I stand in front of an audience or talk to a group of people or one on one is that they say, gee you are way different to what you are on TV>”
So for the first part of this year he’s going to get out and “do the town hall meetings, the stump speeches, get in front of people, talk to people and get our message out.”
One of the problems with trying to regain the base with an emphasis on Labour's traditional policies is that Little has left himself open to the accusation that he's moving the party to the left.
Little dismisses this and points to the Mt Roskill by-election where he says Labour won booths off National it had never won before.
Even so, Little found himself last year in a media debate with former leader, Helen Clark, over whether Labour’s key to electoral success lay in winning the centre.
Instead, he says it's about building constituencies.
“Some of those will be non-traditional constituencies for us.
“Now whether that constitutes moving to the centre; I don't know.
"To me, I don't see a centre. Instead, we need to focus on building those communities of interest and constituencies.
“That’s the way I think about it.”
However, one area where Labour is vulnerable is ints Memorandum of Understanding with the Greens.
The Greens gains from this arrangement are obvious; they get credibility and a guaranteed chance to be a part of a future Labour Government.
But the gains for Labour are not so clear, and they are left open to being associated with random Green moments of policy madness.
Ultimately though, the election campaign will be Little versus English, and it is quite likely that it will focus on spending.
Little argues that National has neglected large areas of the public sector like health, education and the police and that rather than tax cuts, the Government should be looking at spending more.
And Little would like to see a more ambitious approach to infrastructure spending so that we did more than “catch up”.
And here he can call on Labour’s heritage.
It’s amazing when you go down to those hydro schemes in Central Otago, and you just think how visionary that was."
Somehow Little has to remind the electorate of that heritage at the same time as he redefines its vision and ambitions fro a new generation.
It's a big ask but at least he's begun to move beyond the Lyttelton engineering works.