Hard News by Russell Brown

135

That escalated quickly ...

A friend of mine who works as a broadcast soundie has always hated doing Andrew Little. Not because he dislikes the man personally, my friend explained, but because his voice is so hard to get right in the mix. No matter what you do, it just never cuts through.

It's a technical matter, but also a reasonable metaphor for Little's freshly-foreclosed term as leader of the New Zealand Labour Party.

In truth, Little could have faced down the filthy polls had he not blinked so hard on Sunday and then again yesterday. In declaring that he'd considered standing aside as leader, Little made made that departure all but inevitable. The conspiracy theory is that a machiavellian Grant Robertson advised Little to make his confession knowing it would do him in, but even if that were true, Little's decisions are his to own.

The irony is that one of the achievements of Little's tenure is that he seemed to have put paid to – or at least firmly curbed –  the factionalism that lay behind its last three leadership changes. I've heard more than once that his union background makes him a good internal manager. But to the world outside his caucus he struggled to project anything more than an excess of caution.

They tried to make him more marketable. Colleagues (and Robertson was involved there) steered him towards a better dress sense and persuaded him to surrender his spectacles in favour of contact lenses. These things are not immaterial: for all Helen Clark's formidable intellectual prowess, part of her turnaround was the grudging acceptance that she'd have to wear makeup and get a better haircut.

The curious thing is that Labour has actually done a lot right in the past year. Its party list was hardly a mass changing of the guard, but does include the promotion of Kiri Allan and Willow Jean Prime, two strong young Māori women, to winnable list places. Winnable, that is, if Labour could only claw its way to 30% of the vote.

The beginnings of Labour's disintegration on Sunday overshadowed the announcement of what looks to be an important policy announcement on Māori housing.

The party also presented a shadow budget that included an additional $2 billion in social spending that even the Taxpayers' Union had to admit added up. Many people, I know, believe that winning over self-styled fiscal hawks should never have been Labour's goal, but it is important for a centre-left party to be able to show its numbers work.

The Green Party's bold move to light a fire under welfare issues by having its co-leader confess to historic benefit fraud started an important conversation. At the very least, it hasn't hurt them. But even the Greens were worried last week that they'd lost control of the narrative. And it was a game that Labour just couldn't play – not only out of caution but because a non-trivial part of its membership, including the likes of Kiri Allen, wasn't comfortable with it. The worst-case scenario was that the Greens' tack would peel off some more liberal Labour voters at the same time as it deterred wavering voters on the centre. Which is exactly how that Colmar Brunton poll on Sunday looked.

So I'm not sure that a Corbynesque move to the left would have suddenly changed Labour's fortunes. It's an easy supposition, but Little took the leadership, remember, as the union man who defeated the urban technocrats. And it's not as if an education policy promising much more funding for schools (and teachers!) and a path to free tertiary study hadn't already signalled a commitment. Or the promise to introduce a living wage for public servants and raise the minimum wage to $16.50. Or the plan to embark on the biggest programme of public home-building since the 1940s. Etc.

Labour is already markedly left of where it was at the last election. Yet there's still a sense that it was consciously limiting its ambitions. Out went the capital gains tax. The scene was surely safe for a bolder (or at least more coherent) stance on drug law reform, but no, that wasn't a "priority". Labour has shied off the exciting policies and struggled to foster any excitement around some of the perfectly good policies it does have.

There are all kinds of ways in which politics aren't fair. The governing party is prospering even as it carries a fleet of no-name placeholders who barely had to campaign last time and will be thinking they're equally in this time. Labour, by contrast, has some very good electorate MPs – and seemed to have found the trick to getting them elected by tapping into the ground game of Auckland's newly purposeful and confident centre-left.

Further, the government's integrity was laid waste only weeks ago by the Todd Barclay affair. And last night's Newshub poll, which found Bill English on only 25% as preferred Prime Minister – that is, well less than either Key or Clark enjoyed going into the 2008 election – suggested the electorate wasn't that enthused about anyone. Support for the top four in the preferred PM poll – English, Peters, Ardern and Little – barely added up to 50%.

So Jacinda Ardern will lead Labour into September's election. She is charismatic, skilled – and underdone. It seems like only yesterday I was writing here that she'd only just secured herself an electorate and didn't need the additional burden of the deputy leadership. And now here she is. She may have had other plans, but this is what she's doing now.

The best case is that this becomes a turn to Labour's strongest suit – its women. That would be a compelling route to the kind of modernity Labour couldn't project under Little. But no electorate is going to find a change of leader eight weeks out from an election reassuring. Sure, anything could happen, but logic dictates that the hope of forming a government is a very faint one. But having a charismatic leader – and, ironically, being in the news even for the wrong reasons – might generate enough excitement to bring in some of the new talent the party really needs. That, presumably, is what they'll be telling themselves today.

Update: Jacinda Ardern just gave her first media conference as Labour leader and absolutely smashed it. Composed, authoritative and witty. Labour activists on Twitter say they're already getting calls. What an extraordinary day in politics.

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