Matthew Hooton explores the predicament that Labour have gotten themselves into by sticking with Andrew Little:
Steven Joyce’s greatest political achievement will always be to have so quickly dubbed Andrew Little “Angry Andy.”
We do not know if Mr Joyce picked Mr Little’s fatal flaw through astute personal observation or just a tip off from disgruntled former staff at the EPMU. Either way, like Donald Trump’s “Crooked Hillary,” Mr Joyce’s “Angry Andy” has the virtue of being true but also the additional rhetorical qualities of alliteration, rhyme and identical syllabification.
Now, within a year of the last legal date for the election and 10 months before the likely date, Labour faces an existential crisis.
Both National’s Curia polling firm and Labour’s UMR again have Labour below 30% and National heading up, and that was before John Key’s sadly well-practised response to the most recent earthquakes. Both companies’ polling suggests there is a strong belief New Zealand is heading in the right direction and that the overall economy and individuals’ standard of living will improve over the year ahead.
Almost all of what remained of Labour’s moderate faction, personified by former Porirua mayor Nick Leggett, has now permanently left the party. After a recent exodus, Mr Little’s office is now staffed entirely by middling former union organisers, half-baked academics and left-wing journalists from the Wellington echo-chamber.
Almost all of whom are angry…all the time.
Despite this, Mr Little’s true believers live under the misapprehension that their man has some Trump-like quality to bypass the mainstream media and speak directly to the anger of ordinary voters.
They fail to understand that if Mr Little’s performances are resonating with them, the left-wing Wellington elite, they are almost certainly falling flat in West Auckland. Moreover, they forget that Mr Trump was not merely some high-profile property developer but a major celebrity and TV star for some decades and that middle America’s perception of their own and their country’s prospects are entirely different from what the polls indicate about middle New Zealand.
We wrote about this the other day. They fail to connect with ordinary Kiwis simply because they only associate with approved group thinkers with the correct ideology. A bubble within a bubble. They use words like neo-liberal, precariat, progressive, globalisation, post-truth and other such words when trying to speak to the average pub goer. No wonder their support remains under 30%.
Optimistic Labour staffers also point to the race between National and the Labour-Green axis remaining tight and believe Winston Peters’ rhetoric makes him a dead cert for the red team if he holds the balance of power. Their delusions are such that if they manage to score above 30% in the final TV polls of the year and hang on to Mt Roskill, one of their safest seats, they will judge 2016 to have been a success.
They fail to recognise that the polls are starting to suggest National’s current governing arrangement with Act, United Future and the Maori Party might again be viable and that Mr Peters has no record of being prepared to fall in line with anyone’s whiteboard plans, least of all those written by a Wellington elite, whether business lobbyists, senior mandarins or professional union staffers.
Mr Peters would feel diminished serving as deputy prime minister even in Mr Key’s government, let alone playing second-fiddle to a polling disaster like Mr Little. Instead of making arrogant assumptions about Mr Peters’ intentions, Labour would be wiser to start contemplating what the Greens might do after the formal Labour-Green pact expires on election night. Mr Key certainly is.
Winston Peters will not support a government that requires more than two parties and especially won’t support one that includes the Greens.
In ordinary times, a last-minute leadership change would remain on the cards.
In 1990, for example, Helen Clark wisely recognised the need to replace Geoffrey Palmer with Mike Moore if Labour was to remain a serious party. Six years later, she herself faced a leadership challenge involving Michael Cullen, Annette King, Phil Goff, Jim Sutton, Koro Wetere and Mr Moore when polling badly at the beginning of election year.
More recently, David Shearer was despatched in 2013 despite polling well above where Mr Little is now and performing no worse in the media.
Little is here to stay and Labour’s post-2012 constitution will ensure he stays there for the foreseeable future.
This time, though, Labour MPs have given up. Even were Labour’s centrist rump to try to avoid catastrophe in September by challenging Mr Little in the new year, they calculate he would follow UK Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn’s path of taking the matter back to the activist base and – more importantly – to the Wellington union bosses who imposed him as leader in the first place.
Any surviving centrist MPs, such as Mt Albert’s Mr Shearer, Rimutaka’s Chris Hipkins, Te Tai Tokerau’s Kelvin Davis, West Coast-Tasman’s Damien O’Connor, Napier’s Stuart Nash or Tamaki Makaurau’s Peeni Henare, would then be blamed for whatever debacle Mr Little delivers. There is simply no way of taking the responsible path of removing Mr Little pre-election without destroying the party even earlier than currently seems likely. Moderate Labour’s last chance is to demonstrate conclusively to the swivel-eyed activists and Wellington union bosses the disastrous electoral consequences of choosing a leader as attractive to them but as disconnected to the public as Mr Little.
The centrists have therefore resolved to be seen to do – and in fact do – whatever they can to help Mr Little become prime minister. No one will speak more strongly against the Trans Pacific Partnership than foreign affairs spokesman Mr Shearer, more loyally promote the teacher unions’ policies than education spokesman Mr Hipkins nor more passionately speak for whatever new taxes Mr Little dreams up than revenue spokesman Mr Nash.
Another way of putting it is that Labour MPs plan to all hang together through to September. But, on election night, hang together they most certainly will.
At current polling it would appear that Labour runs the very real risk of beating David Cunliffe’s record low and are approaching Bill English’s own ignominious record from 2002.