If Andrew Little hopes to lead the centre-left to victory in the election later this year, he’s got a lot of work to do. In the second of a six-part series, Simon Wilson sets out the task.
Everyone who’s thinking of voting for any of the parties on the centre-left this year faces a central question: do I think Andrew Little has the chops to be prime minister? Right now, the polls reveal not nearly enough people answer yes.
Labour people like to say it’s not crucial, because Helen Clark won in 1999 with a low personal poll rating. But that was six elections ago and the world is different now. In 1999 there was a decisive mood for change. And what if Clark was an anomaly, the exception that proves the rule? Besides, does anyone seriously suggest that if Labour just ignores the problem it will go away?
The fact is, what Andrew Little does now doesn’t work. So he has to change. He has to become the new, improved Andy. Especially as National will be doing the same thing, turning Boring Bill into the Entertaining Mr English.
Think of Labour’s A game as the Andy Plan: the plan to make Andrew Little the leader the country realises it needs and wants.
It’s not about the message. Labour has already signalled it will go into the election with a campaign theme based on building more houses, making schools better and putting more police on the beat. Simple, clear and resonant. It’s a good start. But if no one’s listening to the messenger no one is going to hear the message.
1. The spotlight and Mt Albert
It was unfortunate that Little declared he would not be standing in the Mt Albert by-election, scheduled for 25 February. That election offers him a golden opportunity to raise his profile and build his credibility, his campaign skills and his confidence, not least because it would show that he can win something in a public vote. Remember, he’s a list MP who’s lost two electorate campaigns in New Plymouth, which used to be a Labour stronghold. A big win for him would be immense.
But there’s much more. National isn’t standing a candidate, so Labour will get two months of free hits on the government. Two months in which it can hog the headlines, road-test campaign messages, announce policy and show us how well the agreement with the Greens can work. As well as making Little look good. Two months for Labour to turn itself into the appealing senior partner of a government-in-waiting.
It would create momentum, for the party and, decisively, for the leader.
So why not do it? It’s not too late – Labour’s own deadline for nominations is January 12. Are they scared he might lose or win badly? So what? If that happened, it would reveal he can’t go on and win a general election, so that’s another a good reason for him to stand in Mt Albert. The centre-left needs to know how good Andrew Little is now, not wait till the general election to find out.
It’s tough on Jacinda Ardern, sure. She deserves better treatment. But is that the issue?
2. Goodbye, Angry Andy
I was in parliament the day he shouted “Cut the crap!” at John Key, in his first week as party leader, and it was brilliant: a jolt, a jumpstart to his time in charge. But it’s been all downhill from there, and here’s why.
Anger has its place: the government regularly exhibits such a callous indifference to suffering, lost opportunity and long-term planning, we should all be angry.
But in politics, anger has to come with hope. You have to project you’ve got a better way to do things, and you have to do it with tone just as much as with words. Little’s anger doesn’t carry a promise that he knows how to fix things. It sounds like the anger of the aggrieved, as if he’s angry not just with the government but with voters for continuing to support the government.
Blaming the voters never, ever works.
Angry Andy sounds like he doesn’t have a decent sense of humour. He’s constantly making jokes about members of the government, delivering zingy one-liners and acting the goat (seen his Gangnam styles dance?). But they always sound like angry jokes. Little scorns his opponents with bitterness instead of ridiculing them with a deft wit.
Bitterness is the most unattractive of all human traits. It doesn’t much undermine its object but it always demeans the person who has it.
He could do with a more contemporary haircut and general styling, too, but not because those things are so important in themselves. Little looks tired. Anger – being fed up – has aged him, and the problem with his styling is that it doesn’t counteract that. Before he gained the party leadership he seemed to promise Next Gen. Now he looks like a man who thinks he’s 65. He’s only 51.
There are three essential traits for a successful politician. The much touted “being yourself” and integrity are not among them. Nor are loyalty, decency and kindness. Nor is passion, in whatever form it might take. If any of those things was essential, neither John Key nor Donald Trump would have got very far.
Instead, if we’re going to vote for someone, we need admire them, trust them and like them. Key was admired for his success in the realms of the super-wealthy. He was trusted, especially as time went on, because his government delivered the economic conditions it promised, and because he knew how to behave in times of crisis, and because he maintained some high-profile trust benchmarks, notably not raising the retirement age for national super.
And he was liked because he successfully managed to sound like – and therefore appear to think like – an ordinary bloke. John Key was the richest PM we’ve ever had, but somehow he was still one of us: you really could talk to him, and get a selfie, and everyone who met him knew this to be true.
These are not by any means the only ways to be admired, trust or liked in politics. But ask the question, what do we admire about Andrew Little? As a former unionist he’s been on the side of the underdog, but not in the convincingly admirable way that Helen Kelly was. He hasn’t worked in war zones like David Shearer. He isn’t a woman putting up with all that shit, the way Helen Clark had to.
I don’t think we distrust him, but what about him do we actively trust? What do we even like? He doesn’t seem interested in selfies and especially not in the inherently appealing goofiness they often invoke. He hasn’t made any of these things part of his purpose.
But he could. What could we admire, and trust, and like in Andrew Little?
For starters, how about some Obama-level speechmaking? Articulate, heartfelt and also considered, folksy and high-blown, self-effacing and yet quietly confident. Embodying the politics of decency and hope. When Little starts inspiring us in those ways, we’ll admire him and we’ll like him. When he shows us he knows how to be happy, we’ll like him even more. Just don’t be angry, Andy.
As for the trust, could he make some pledges we can hold him to over the next few months, and then follow through on them? Difficult things, like shaking up the party list to get more really great candidates into high places.
He could also make some longer-term campaign pledges – especially in the fight against poverty – that will be easy to track and measure over time. Specifics carry the promise of trustworthiness.
3. A new crew
It can’t be business as usual. Some things have got to change, and that probably includes some of the people close to him.
Little needs a small crew of high-powered advisers to take charge of his public appearances. I’d say, five. First, a director of theatre and television to train him in oratory and compelling presence, on stage and on screen. Seriously, he needs to rehearse with an expert.
Next, a writer for those inspirational and confidence-building speeches, with the rhetorical skills to craft phrases that set news bulletins and social media alight. Third, a stylist. Fourth, a media trainer to work on how to give better answers to journalists. And last, overseeing it all, someone who will make him take all this seriously.
Of course, he has people in some of these roles already. But it’s not working, guys. You need to up your game or step aside.
The field is wide open. Led by John Key, New Zealand politicians have largely abandoned the aim of making great speeches. They deliberately try not to set our hearts aflutter, preferring semi-articulate dullness in the belief that it is reassuring. What a crock.
What’s the A-game, the Andy Plan for Labour? Learn from the Obamas.
This is the second in a series on election year and the Labour Party, which began yesterday with this post on Bill English and Andrew Little. Still to come: the great challenge of “social investment”; identity politics and the failure of the broad church; the lessons from Trump are not what you think; National’s Index of Shame.