Has the Labour Party finally found the leader it’s been longing for? Simon Wilson thinks the answer just might be yes.
I wanted to like Andrew Little. I thought most of the policies he presided over were pretty good. I admired that he united a fractious caucus and never faltered in his desire to take on John Key. I really admired that he was so obviously a politician of principle, in parliament to advance the values he held dear. I thought it was great that he came from the union movement and was determined to reinforce the core values represented by unionism. That’s important for the Labour Party. All those things are important for the Labour Party.
If politics was merely a matter of doing what’s right, I would have no hesitation in saying that Andrew Little was a good leader. He would have made the country better than he found it.
But politics is more than that. Before you do right you have to win power. The first rule of being a political leader is to win elections.
Leadership isn’t the only thing that matters. Of course not. Winning isn’t the game, it’s merely the means to the end. Governing is the game. But winning has to be done and Andrew Little could not win.
On the face of it, that’s strange. Right from his days in student politics, Little has always been the leader: he rose to the top of every organisation he belonged to. Something about him gives him the quality to rise, and be respected, and be trusted with power.
But what is it? The voters of New Plymouth, where he stood as a candidate, never saw it and did not vote him in. He came to Parliament on the list. The voters of New Zealand never saw it either. Whatever his skills inside an organisation, he did not know how to project them to the public. We never believed.
It wasn’t all his own doing, or undoing.
Andrew Little inherited a caucus with less talent than he would have wanted. Labour had not rigorously renewed its Parliamentary team in 2011 and 2014 and the result, still in place today, was a caucus with few stars. But still, handicapped as he was, Little did not do well enough with the team he had. Raising them to be at the top of their game was a leadership skill he did not have.
The whole ethos of the National-led government, visible in everything from mental health to Auckland transport, has been: we can ignore it until there’s a crisis. That should have provided rich pickings for an opposition crusading for change.
And yet the Labour team has barely made a dent in the reputation of health minister Jonathan Coleman, despite his portfolio being almost in meltdown. Paula Bennett has survived with wit and breezy confidence intact, despite all the welfare misery occurring on her watch. Steven Joyce’s 20th century approach to infrastructure retains far more credibility than you might expect. And in education, National has been able to position itself as innovative and determined, because Labour has deferred to the inflexible and unoriginal Chris Hipkins for far too long.
Little should have taken him off that job ages ago. He was also wrong to make Grant Robertson the finance spokesperson. David Parker had the background and better credentials, but he’d been David Shearer’s finance guy and Little wanted a clean start from the Shearer years. The problem has been that Robertson, for all his competence, doesn’t quite pass the sniff test as a finance minister in waiting. He doesn’t seem right, and in the meantime he’s been lost to other areas. Grant Robertson is one of the best debaters in parliament and might have made a difference in health or education.
If you’re still thinking hang on, politics is about policy and all this fixation on personalities is wrong, consider this: Andrew Little has presided over the roll-out of many sound progressive policies. In welfare, health, housing, Auckland issues, regional development and much more, Labour has the kind of policies that should have made centre-left voters flock to the party. But they haven’t. The reason is not the policies, it’s their presentation to the public. Like it or not, the reality is that when Andrew Little started talking, people stopped listening.
Teachers know all about this. You can have fascinating things to present to your class, but if the kids don’t feel engaged by you they won’t be nearly so engaged in the work. Not all of them, but enough of them for it to matter. There’s no single model of a good teacher, but there’s no denying that some people are better at it than others. And some people are better at the public side of politics than others.
You can learn. Most people can learn all sorts of things, if they apply themselves. Andrew Little applied himself but it turned out he could not learn. I wrote in January that he needed more coaching, more attention to presentation, more theatrical training in speechmaking and so on, and it turned out he was getting all those things. He just couldn’t use them well. He worked on being more measured and less angry, but he couldn’t soften that bark. He told jokes but they didn’t make him a funny guy. He stayed principled but it didn’t make him admirable.
He knew that in interviews you’re supposed to stay on message, say what you want to say and not let the interviewer swallow you up. But he didn’t know how to do that without sounding evasive. He managed, somehow, to project both certainty and confusion. The certainty came from his principles; the confusion came from not understanding why no one was listening.
Winners project confidence, but confidence is about far more than certainty. Trust, admiration and likeability are the essential ingredients for popular success in leadership. Little’s greatest flaw, in the end, was that he got stuck and did not know how to get unstuck. That’s a devastating self-reinforcing flaw. Who wants to hear from the guy who can’t solve the problem of his own making.
She started confidently. When Jacinda Ardern arrived at work this morning, fresh from another day of telling everyone she didn’t want to be leader, it was already apparent she was about to have the job thrust on her. Some people would have turned up to the press conference to announce it bearing visible signs of shock. That’s exactly what the experienced Bill English did in December when he announced his own candidacy for the National leadership: stood in front of the cameras for 15 minutes mumbling and equivocating.
Ardern came out for her own announcement wearing a face brimming with determination and gravitas. She paid homage to Little, talked of the immensity of the task before her and then cracked on with the grins and laughs. She fielded every question with assurance. She made jokes. Manifestly, she was enjoying herself. She deferred to new deputy Kelvin Davis on questions relating directly to Maori, and when those questions came in te reo he answered in te reo. This was Ardern & Davis: The New Beginning. And how.
Ardern’s top-of-mind issues (literally, the things she mentioned immediately when asked), were “health, mental health, water quality, housing, education”. That’s an on-message list. She stayed on message when asked about other parties, talking only about what Labour offers and refusing to discuss coalition deals or anything else about the others. She reduced the assembled hacks of the press gallery to laughter, several times. She reduced ol’ hatchet man Paddy Gower to something you might almost call adulation. Imagine what that takes.
Maybe she won’t keep it up. We shall see. But what a way to start.
Labour needed a game changer. Something or someone to make voters look again and like what they saw. Ardern’s relentless positivity annoys some critics, but it’s a formidable skill. Her message in that first press conference was that the country deserves better than what it gets. It’s not easy to say that, to insist that things are in a mess, and point to the fears, the confusion, the disappointment and despair experienced by so many, while maintaining your bright warm hopefulness.
It’s the task that reduced Andrew Little to anger. Jacinda Ardern is going to try hope. She’ll keep flashes of the anger, that’s plain enough, but she knows what it really takes: project a warm, winning confidence, make people like you so they want to listen to you, identify with them and inspire them with the belief that you are there for them and have the skills to help them. It’s what Bill English does, and Metiria Turei and Winston Peters too. It’s what John Key did. It’s what Andrew Little couldn’t do. But Jacinda Ardern has already demonstrated that she can.
So now what? Change the slogan, for starters. A “fresh approach” is implicit in the new leadership team and is not only dumb, but redundant. They need something with more content, and with an inclusive message. Labour has to reassert its position as the leading party intent on toppling the government, which means it must appeal, most of all, to everyone who thinks NZ First might be that party. That’s the key strategic task.
She also has to get herself a bunch of inspirational speeches, Obama-style, and roll them out in every town in the nation. She has to keep laughing. And she has to chop the heads off a few of the party’s gremlins. Most especially this one: the damage caused by Labour’s racist use of “Chinese-sounding names”.
Not much to ask. Find the ways to do all that and over the next seven-and-a-half weeks who knows what it might unlock?
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