Andrew Little hopes to lead the Labour party to victory in the 2017 general election after winning the Labour leadership primary last week.
Mr Little emerged as the victor after a close race that saw him sneak above Grant Robertson in the final round of voting. Nanaia Mahuta and David Parker where clearly the least favourite candidates after they had emphatically been knocked out after the first two rounds – which rather benefitted Little, as he then managed to gain the majority of Mahuta’s second preference votes.
The newly appointed Labour leader says the job ahead for the Labour party was going to guarantee this as National’s final term in power.
“The current Government has shown its disdain for New Zealanders with its attacks on Kiwis’ rights at work, their right to privacy and in its moves to sell our housing assets […] it’s becoming clearer by the day that this must be their last term and I am confident that by drawing the movement together we can achieve that aim. I look forward to leading the change.”
But can Little ‘lead the change’ considering the widespread concerns over his lack of charisma?
A ‘Little’ charismatic
The general response to Andrew Little’s election as Labour Party leader has been rather negative mainly due to concerns over Little’s lack of personality and charisma. For an amusing example of this see Mark Winter’s caricature for the NEW ZEALAND TIMES “Little” change for Labour.
His many critics, from inside and out of the Labour Party circles, see him as a man too boring and ‘grey’ to ever become Prime Minister. However, his critics may be wrong to view his personality traits as a political weakness.
It may be important to have a smidgen of personality and charm in election campaigns, but when it comes to the actual work of governance, most New Zealanders wont be bothered on how charismatic Little is or isn’t – as long as he performs well for the country both domestically and abroad. On that ticket he may do well in 2017 (if he’s still leader then).
Indeed, the Herald’s chief political commentator John Armstrong has identified how this supposed lack of charisma is exactly what Labour might have needed – considering the recent shortcomings of Goff, Shearer and Cunliffe – saying that the public should eventually warm to him.
“He is decisive without being divisive. He is a team player but implicitly understands the captain’s responsibilities. He can be funny. He knows how to use humour without sounding too clever. He is not showy. Or arrogant. He does not claim to have a mortgage on what is right and wrong […] he will be a strong leader without being abrasive. The public should warm to him.”
Although it’s the earliest of days, Little appears to be a more decisive speaker than David Shearer and he seems conscious of avoiding the kind of prose and mannerisms, which may come across as aggrandised or condescending – which turned out to be one of David Cunliffe’s detrimental tendencies. This then is positive change of a kind for Labour.
If Little can be adamantly dependable and decent while articulating a positive, modest policy agenda then the voters, especially the middle ground, will flock to him.
First you win the argument, then the election
It was a favourite saying of free-marketer Margaret Thatcher’s but Andrew Little needs to understand what she meant when she said “first you win the argument, then you win the vote”.
Over the next three years Labour has to win the argument back from National – whose centre right policies have been popular for 6 years now. Little has to either articulate and win the argument of why Labour’s traditional values will produce more fruit for New Zealanders, or he will have to move closer to the centre on a range of matters from the economy to education, if he wants to appeal to the broad public.
This quiet power struggle will be interesting to follow over the coming months and years, as Little had won large support from the unions although he is described as the most centrist of the four candidates. It may be impossible to square that circle.
However, a repositioning of Labour to the working class over identity politics and social liberalism may be what Little has in mind. He may steer the party away from the social and ‘sexual’ politics of recent years to employment law and to union and worker concerns.
If he can do that, then Labour will have a real opportunity in 2017. Little’s no-nonsense and “back to basics” thinking may prove to be a great comeback story for Labour – if he can pull it off.