Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Can Little and Ardern save Labour?

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Can Little and Ardern save Labour?

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

The Labour Party is in a rebuilding phrase, and there are signs of progress. But a year on from Labour’s worst electoral defeat, are the behind-the-scenes changes amounting to enough to turn things around?

The Labour Party is hardly revolutionary. In fact there are doubts that it is even much of a reforming party any more given its rather cautious and moderate approach, especially under new leader Andrew Little. But there are some signs of change occurring beneath the surface, suggesting that it is slowly but steadily moving forward in preparation for the 2017 election. Despite an upcoming caucus review and reshuffle, and with Jacinda Ardern poised to become deputy leader, there are lingering doubts about whether such changes are enough to lift the party from its doldrums. 

Matt McCarten and the other Labour spin-doctors seem to be earning their salaries at the moment, with an increasing number of good news stories coming out about Labour. Various commentators are praising the party’s rebuild and, in particular, there have recently been some must-read stories about Labour’s recovery under Andrew Little. The most important is Audrey Young’s No bubbly but Little is lifting Labour’s game

Describing Little and Labour, Young uses words like: successful, competent, confident, authentic and stable. She points to a lack of factional fighting, a new parliamentary approach being taken by the caucus, and observes “Labour MPs doing their jobs properly”. 

Tracy Watkins puts forward a similar positive picture in her column, As Britain’s Labour Party implodes, Andrew Little’s Labour rebuilds. Contrasting Labour’s recent history of failure she says: “Something is slowly changing, however. The polls don’t show it. The headlines don’t give much indication of it.  And the Government may not even realise it yet. But Labour leader Andrew Little and his MPs are starting to get traction on the issues that will decide the next election.” And individual MPs are singled out for strong work: David Cunliffe, Grant Robertson, Annette King and Kelvin Davis. 

There’s further praise for the job that Little is doing. Duncan Garner says that “Little is definitely more credible than David Cunliffe – he’s growing into the job pretty well.  And he appears to be his own man.  Under Little, Labour looks more hungry and more organised and Little has time” – see: Government has stumbled, but do voters really care?

Writing in the NBR, Rob Hosking is also positive about Little’s achievements since the last election: “Up, a bit. Not so much in the polls but the party’s performance has improved notably…. But leader Andrew Little actually looks like a leader and, unlike all his predecessors since Helen Clark departed, he seems to know what he is there to do” – see: The 2014 Parliament, a year on (paywalled).

Even when it comes to Labour bloggers, their analysis seems to be broadly in line with mainstream commentary about their party. For instance, Greg Presland says: “Well things are going rather smoothly right now. The Caucus is now united and far more disciplined. Andrew Little is growing in the role of leader and Annette King is performing an important role as deputy. Activist enthusiasm is now rising after an understandable hiatus caused by the election loss and the leadership campaign.  Labour relationship with Greens is quite good and it appears they are moving to a position where there will be a public common agreement” – see: Twelve long months

Jacinda Ardern’s rise to deputy leadership

It seems likely that Jacinda Ardern will become Labour’s new deputy leader when Little announces his decision in November. Annette King may want to stay in what was supposed to be just a temporary one-year position, but the calls for freshness are likely to trump her achievements. 

Plenty of commentators are singing Ardern’s praises for the deputy position. For example, TV3’s Patrick Gower says he thinks “Jacinda would be an awesome deputy” and that it “seems like such a no-brainer. She is young, popular and represents Labour’s future” – see: Little to reject Jacinda as Labour deputy? He argues Labour needs her: “The reality is Ardern is very authentic and people connect with that.  Little could embrace the “Ardern factor” and use it to turbo-charge his own popularity, particularly in Auckland where he is incredibly weak and Ardern is incredibly strong.”

Duncan Garner has also endorsed Ardern for the position: “They need to now promote Jacinda Arden who last week appeared in the unprompted preferred PM rankings.  She should replace current deputy, Annette King.  King is strong, popular and performs, and my sources tell me there are some who want her to stay as number 2.  But Labour needs to excite the public and signal change and that’s where Ardern comes in” – see: Government has stumbled, but do voters really care?

Labour’s on-going image of being a Wellington “beltway party” will also factor into Ardern’s likely success. As David Farrar says, Labour can’t afford to keep King: “It will be a vote of no confidence in the rest of caucus if she carries on.  The other issue with Annette carrying on is that the top three Labour MPs are all from Wellington City, in a classic beltway capture. It’s hard to appeal to the country, if your senior leadership is all from the capital city” – see: Will King stay on?

According to Vernon Small, Ardern is the “logical choice” because she’s “a woman from a younger generation and, crucially, from Auckland.  She has made an impact on television and with Auckland business” – see: Nanaia Mahuta: Queen or casualty as Labour revamps its lineup? Small also mentions other contenders for the deputy position as being Phil Twyford and Carmel Sepuloni, and promotions being likely for Kelvin Davis, Peeni Henare, Megan Woods and Kris Faafoi.

Yet the removal of King is far from certain. Gower also reports that “Little may be leaning towards keeping Annette King on in the deputy’s role when it comes free in November’s reshuffle.  That’s because King is doing such a damn good job.  As Little’s lieutenant, I’m told she has played a crucial role in bringing stability to Labour’s Caucus which looks more stable than it ever has in my time here in Parliament”. And there are plenty of others who agree about King’s strong performance. 

There’s also the possibility that pushing King out of the leadership might create other problems. For example, Rob Hosking says: “her departure would open up a potentially major conflict not just about the deputy but also about her Rongotai electorate. Mrs King is understood to be keen on seeing Wellington city councillor Paul Eagle take over from her – and not, notably, her most prominent Labour constituent, one Andrew James Little.”

But ultimately Ardern’s public popularity will count for a lot in a party looking to rise in the polls. The growing endorsement of her as a contender for prime minister and deputy leader makes her rejection by Little unlikely. For the latest poll evidence, see Aimee Gulliver’s Jacinda Ardern favourite for Labour deputy – poll.

And there are plenty of other voices – especially in the blogosphere – calling for Ardern to be deputy. For example, Saeran Maniparathy says Ardern is in line with Labour’s need for a fresh new look – see: Labour and the ‘New Vision’.

But is Jacinda Ardern really any good?

Questions continue about whether Jacinda Ardern really has earnt her high profile and popularity in New Zealand politics. Matthew Hooton has written about her in the latest issue of Metro magazine, reflecting on how Ardern dealt with the recent “pretty little thing” comment and endorsement from rugby league’s Graham Lowe. He’s titled his column “Pretty bloody stupid”. 

For Hooton the episode showed that Ardern has no leadership qualities: “Ardern has demonstrated she has no political acumen at all. As a politician, she judged expressing offence in the instant to be more important than the 100-year connection with Labour’s league-playing voters. As a feminist, she lost an opportunity to engage positively with Lowe on his language about women. Whether the 35-year-old is a pretty little thing is in the eye of the beholder. She’s definitely turned out to be pretty bloody stupid.”

It’s worth noting that Ardern has promised to reply to Hooton’s critique, which Metro will probably publish on it’s website. 

In contrast, some Ardern supporters apparently see her as New Zealand’s answer to Jeremy Corbyn. For instance blogger Martyn Bradbury says “If Jacinda articulates a strong left wing position, she could easily step into the role of our version of Corbyn, but Labour’s current middle ground stance leaves her with very little rhetoric to hammer out an authentic voice and this has been her problem since she entered politics. 2020 election if Labour lose 2017” – see: Top 9 Left wing potential ‘Corbyn/Sanders’ candidates in NZ politics

Bradbury’s other candidates to be the “Kiwi Corbyn” are: Robert Reid, Morgan Godfery, Erin Polaczuk, Efeso Collins, Andrew Dean, Michael Wood, John Campbell, and Marama Davidson. Others have suggested that John Minto and Keith Locke are better Corbyn-style equivalents. 

Ardern recently performed very well on TVNZ’s Q+A in an interview with Katie Bradford – you can watch the nine-minute video here: Jacinda Ardern on sexism, leadership and political ambition. See also the coverage of this in Claire Trevett’s Ardern responds to ‘pretty little thing’ remark.

Questions about Labour’s performance

Not everyone is convinced that Labour is on the right path to recovery. Auckland city councillor and leftwing stalwart, Mike Lee is particularly critical of Labour’s failure to make it clear what the party stands for, and questions whether it’s still aligned with its traditional constituency. He argues that its lost the traditional Labour vote due to its obsession with identity politics at the expense of concerns about inequality, as well as Labour’s continued adherence to some key policies that are to the right of National – see: Labour’s trouncing by John Key raises searching questions

Lee says, “What is really needed is a fundamental reappraisal of just what ‘Labour’ means and what the party stands for.” Labour’s various social liberal policies – although “radical” – shouldn’t be mistaken, Lee says, as being leftwing. He also points out that Labour’s 2015 result is actually worse than that of 1922, because at least in that earlier election the party was on the rise, rather than going backwards. 

Similarly, blogger Saeran Maniparathy says that Labour lacks any boldness in terms of policy, and its strategy of putting out “just a slightly tweaked version of National’s policy” isn’t working – see: Labour and the ‘New Vision’.

Labour and Little’s grim and negative reputation is criticised by other commentators. Former Labour supporter Phil Quin has written about Labour’s pessimism ploy. He complains that the party is simply channelling negativity, fear, and despondency amongst voters, which might yield some initial results but ultimately makes the party one of the status quo and failure: “Merchants of doom and gloom might fill the airwaves, but they rarely win elections.”

The problem, according to Heather du Plessis-Allan, is that Labour is simply focused on petty point scoring rather than projecting any sort of alternative to the status quo, and she draws attention to some recent bouts of negativity from Little and his party: “Labour was more interested in embarrassing the Prime Minister than making sure we hand the right flag on to our grandkids.  Left-wing voters have every reason to feel frustrated with this party. There are no real policies, which is fair enough given it doesn’t want to show its hand two years out from the next election. But in the absence of policies, there’s no hope. There’s just negativity” – see: Patriotic glow lost to sad point scoring.

And when it comes to Little’s public speeches, according to Chris Trotter there’s something missing – see: Lacking The Power Of Decision: Andrew Little Misses The Rhetorical Mark In Whanganui.

The lack of an apparent plan is emphasised by Vernon Small: “At the moment it is hard to know what it is, beyond an almost total aversion to risk (and in some cases an absence of definitive positions – think the 90-day workplace trial and the actual import of the “bottom lines” on the TPP).  Yes, it is the first year after a defeat and a leadership change. True, it may be too soon to roll out much policy.  But Little’s latest two speeches, on the environment and infrastructure, have sunk without trace, not only because they haven’t been promoted but also because they contained little new” – see: Nanaia Mahuta: Queen or casualty as Labour revamps its lineup?

For Rob Hosking, Labour’s problems are one of personnel: “There is still a massive talent problem – the appointment of Grant Robertson as finance spokesman is the most glaring, and problematic, result of this. Mr Robertson is a highly able Labour machine politician but he has never previously shown any aptitude –or even interest – in economic issues. It shows” – see: The 2014 Parliament, a year on (paywalled).

And it’s on the question of the economy that Labour’s success will ultimately be determined, as pointed out by Duncan Garner: “Little and his party have not yet tapped into the mood for change like Key did in 2007 against Helen Clark.  Doing this is crucial – and Labour really needs the economy to turn sour.  It needs job losses, but it can’t be seen to be talking the country into recession either. It must stay positive at the same time” – see: Government has stumbled, but do voters really care?

Finally for an interesting assessment of what, if anything, Jeremy Corbyn’s recent leadership victory in Britain means for Labour here, Toby Manhire sought the views of a range of commentators including Jacinda Ardern – see: Corbyn Blimey – Jim Anderton, Judith Collins, Bryan Gould and More on Jeremy Corbyn’s Big Win.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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