Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Little’s Labour, after a year

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New Zealand Labour Party leader, Andrew Little.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards

Where is Andrew Little taking the Labour Party? And how well is he doing it?

New Zealand Labour Party leader, Andrew Little.

New Zealand Labour Party leader, Andrew Little.

This week marks one year since Andrew Little was elected leader of the Labour Party. His year of consolidation and rebuilding is now over, and with his first party conference behind him, it’s time for some verdicts on how he is doing and the broader health of Labour. 

Little gave himself an evaluation on TV3’s Paul Henry Show this week – see his five-minute interview, It’s about not being John Key – Andrew Little. Following on from this, Patrick Gower gave Little a “7 out 10” rating – see his interview, The week in politics with Patrick Gower – November 19, 2015. Gower gives Little points for competence, but says he’ll be worried about his lack of “cut through with the punters.” Gower also speculates on the upcoming caucus reshuffle, suggesting that Kelvin Davis will replace Nanaia Mahuta on the front bench.

Little’s leadership

Andrew Little’s leadership appears to be safe after a strong appearance at the recent annual Labour Party conference. His keynote speech was widely praised, with Audrey Young writing a report that typified the positive coverage: Little smashed it – literally.

After the conference many commentators praised his role in restoring order and stability to the party, as the conference appeared to be entirely free of traditional internal strife – see Chris Trotter’s Andrew Little as Napoleon in the ‘Peace of Palmerston North’. See also, Ross Henderson’s Andrew Little leading a Labour Party on the rise.

It wasn’t just leftwing commentators praising Little. One National Party-aligned newspaper columnist was invited to a breakfast meeting with Little while the conference was on, and reported: “It was a good talk, made all the more enjoyable for the fact that Little was not condescending, sarcastic, impatient, bored or smug. He didn’t have a fake grin plastered all over his face and he didn’t act like he was a big deal. He was even-tempered and he talked like an actual human being” – see Liam Hehir’s Andrew Little looks a capable challenger to John Key

Colin James has also reported on “a much tidier, more stable and cheerier, even enthusiastic, atmosphere than for years” in Labour, and pointed to Little’s very strong efforts to build a better coalition with the Greens and New Zealand First – see: Labour’s big question: yes or no, for or against?

Yet not all were convinced by Little’s conference performance, nor where he is taking the party. The Dominion Post’s editorial was particularly scathing, saying that Little “has little charisma and a lack of new ideas”, concluding that Andrew Little is not the man to lead Labour out of the wilderness.

A Hollow Party?

The Dominion Post was particularly critical of Little’s attempt to strip his party of all contentious policies just in order to bring about unity and reduce dangers of criticism: “This was creating a desert and calling it peace.   Little now stands on a bare platform with no significant policy. The fact that nobody much cared when he threw out the old policies might be taken as a sign of a newly unified Labour Party. Or it might be a sign that Labour is a corpse. It doesn’t have the strength to fight or even to disagree with itself. So the attempt to hide everything behind closed doors wasn’t even needed.  Having no policy to sell, Little tried to sell himself. His “impassioned” speech was in fact awkward and unconvincing.”

Others on the left and right of the party had similar criticisms about Little’s strategy, which seemed to hollow out the party. For example, blogger No Right Turn announced he could not vote for a party that chooses its policies on the basis of getting into power: “This is Labour’s problem in a nutshell: the party is empty at its core. They don’t stand for anything, except possibly for Grant Robertson getting paid $250,000 a year instead of Bill English. They have no values, and no policies that won’t be chucked away after the next poll” – see: Standing for nothing.

Similarly, see Steven Cowan’s Nothing new on offer from Labour and Phil Duncan’s Empty Andy and the ‘Eh?’ team

Also on the left, Chris Trotter explained that Little and Labour were “attempting to emulate the highly successful, Crosby-Textor-guided, National Party campaign of 2008. This entails shedding all the policies that the punters don’t like or can’t understand”, but that this was a major mistake – see: Reclaiming The Dream: Labour’s annual conference lifts spirits and raises hopes

Trotter says that in order to win, Labour needs to show that it stands for something, and that “Equivocation cannot do that. Inoculation cannot do that. Turning yourself into the smallest possible target for a hostile news media cannot do that.”

On the right, Fran O’Sullivan also complained “Little’s inoculations are not acts of policy bravura” – see: Andrew Little’s grab for territory is weak. She argues “Instead of knowing what Labour stands for, Little has simply introduced more policy uncertainty” and believes John Key will benefit from Labours prevarication. 

O’Sullivan also laments Labour’s mildness on capital gains, and explains how easy it would be for Labour to increase capital gains taxation significantly if it wanted. She points out that Labour now seems to be to the right of National in terms of capital gains taxes, and that “Little has unwittingly handed Key a powerful wedge at the next election to argue that National is tougher on property speculators than Labour is”. 

On the axing of the capital gains tax, Tim Watkin asks: “It’s one of the most redistributive taxes around and if Labour isn’t proudly for redistribution, what it is for?” – see: Labour: Taking out the trash, hanging up new tinsel.

But it was TVNZ’s Corin Dann who really gave Labour a hard time, with his searching interview on Q+A: The future of the Labour Party with Andrew Little (10:48). 

Where is Andrew Little taking Labour?

On the Q+A programme, I made some points about how Little was taking his party in a more traditional policy direction focused on economics and material conditions, especially in terms of the focus on jobs – see the eight-minute video: The Panel: The Future of Labour

I elaborated on this in a blog post, Andrew Little is killing Labour’s identity politics. Martyn Bradbury made some similar points in his blog post, Labour Party conference 2015 – winners and losers.

Similarly, Vernon Small, explained that social policy had been removed from the party’s agenda – see: Labour takes policy debate behind closed doors at annual conference and No controversial policy expected at Labour conference

Activist Stephanie Rodgers attended Labour’s conference and didn’t think identity politics was being supressed – see her blog post: Labour, identity, class and winning

She argues in favour of Labour’s focus on such issues, and Chris Trotter is in agreement, although confirming that such tendencies were being suppressed at the conference – see: Of Dreams And Nightmares

There was one major foray into what might be seen as “social engineering” – Labour’s new sugar policy. Vernon Small outlines how the policy came across as “half-baked” and was sold by a very uncomfortable Andrew Little – see: Not Labour’s sweetest moment.

Labour’s radicalism

Labour hasn’t been entirely denuded of any significant policy. In fact, according to Pattrick Smellie, it’s in housing that “Labour can be said to have developed over some seven years a rounded, differentiated policy to National’s” – see: Finding the gaps is Labour’s challenge

And of course, Phil Twyford’s private members’ bill to ban some house purchases by foreigners will be considered by Parliament – see the Herald’s Foreign buyers ban to go before Parliament

Grant Robertson has also been singled out as creating interesting and potentially radical new policy in his Future of Work programme, which could even end up championing some form of universal basic income policy – for a very interesting discussion about this, see Vernon Small’s Labour gets act together on deportations, but ‘future of work’ still in rehearsal

But what is the actual health of the wider party? This week, Claire Trevett got her hands on the party’s current financial records, and revealed Labour’s finances in the red. She also reported, in response, Labour calls on members to donate. And the Herald has even joined in the campaign to save Labour, with an editorial, Labour coffers of concern to all donors. But what about the levels of members and activists? Keir Leslie asks (and answers): How Many Members Does The Labour Party Have? 

Finally, what political direction would you send Andrew Little and Labour in? For the opinions of “18 smart New Zealanders” – including Sue Bradford, Neil Finn, and Jim Anderton – see: What Should Andrew Little Say? 18 Clever People Draft His Speech

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

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