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PoliticsJuly 31, 2017

#IamAndrew: what on earth is Little playing at by throwing his leadership into question?

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The centre-left bloc just went up in the polls, but the conversation is all about the viability of Andrew Little as Labour leader – and it’s a conversation he started, writes Toby Manhire

Andrew Little’s decision to tell New Zealand he has been contemplating resigning the Labour leadership has proved a success by one metric at least: for the first time in some while, his party is leading the news.

The revelation was spurred by a miserable 24% poll result, the lowest for 20 years in the Colmar Brunton / TVNZ survey, which mirrors Labour’s own internal research by UMR. The polling suggests Labour has lost support to their formal allies on the left, the Green Party, which has achieved a record of its own: 15%, off the back of Metiria Turei’s confession that she lied to Winz about her living circumstances when on a benefit in the 1990s.

And it’s tempting to think that the success of that tactic has inspired Little’s own confession. I need to speak from the heart about how I dealt with adversity. Relatable content. Surely it is only a matter of time before we see an outpouring of personal stories inspired by his disclosure: #IamAndrew.

Corin Dann and some numbers. Grab: TVNZ

Little did not accidentally let slip that he had discussed with senior colleagues the option of quitting. He very deliberately took that line to Corin Dann, for an interview broadcast alongside the poll results on 1 News last night. It looks very much like a desperation strategy. He seems to be saying to voters on the centre-left: if you jump ship to the Greens, then the government won’t change – and if you don’t believe me, look at me, I am dangling half my body out this window.

But while you wouldn’t guess it from the foreboding piano music, the Labour-Green bloc actually increased its share of support in the CB/TVNZ poll. The memorandum-of-understanding partners went up one point to 39%, while National stayed put on 47% – as before, NZ First would be needed by either side to make a government. After that last round of polling, Little was chirpily talking up a three-part Lab-Grn-NZF harmony, sucking up to Winston as best he could. Not today: on Morning Report, as on 1 News yesterday, Little – who could easily lose his list seat if Labour remain in this territory – was unequivocal. Such an arrangement on the left would present “a real credibility issue”.

No matter how much anyone from the Greens or elsewhere sermonises about FPP versus MMP thinking, it matter for nowt when the leader of Labour says this: “At 24%, you don’t get to form a government. That’s just the reality.”

And yet he could’ve said all that, he could’ve argued that people need to understand you can’t change the government without a strong Labour party at its forefront, without, in effect, putting his own leadership on the line. Because that is what he has done: while Little has may have refused to say how much lower the numbers would need to go before he walks the plank, it can’t be much. And speculation of that flavour will now be a permanent campaign theme. Andrew Little is going to be asked about whether he will remain leader every day until September 23 – if, that is, he stays that long.

Given that, it starts to look not just an act of desperation but a kamikaze strategy. Didn’t Labour spend most of the last three years seeking to restore discipline and unity to their caucus? The months – no, the years – that led up to the 2014 catastrophe were bedevilled by constant infighting and talk about the job security of the leader. God forbid that they would get mired in such speculation this time. Except now they’re back in that mire, because someone has started talking about whether the leader could resign, and that someone is: the leader. It is an unconventional strategy, I’ll give you that.

In a tense interview this morning with RNZ – at one point Little snipped at Guyon Espiner: “I don’t know what you’re on this morning” – Little confirmed that he was unhappy with the Greens’ approach of recent weeks. They had, he said, “taken up an issue in a way that I don’t think is necessarily helping forge or grow the left and centre-left bloc”. Add into that the contradictory statements by Labour’s Willie Jackson and Turei on potential Green-Labour deals in the Māori seats, and the Labour-Green partnership is beginning to look seriously frayed.

‘At 24%, you don’t get to form a government’. Photo: Adrian Malloch

But rather than chiding the Greens for cannibalising the centre-left vote, Labour might do better to try and learn something from it. There’s no use crying about their own alternative budget getting upstaged by the memoirs of Metiria. They have eight weeks left. They’re in a parlous state in the polls. They might as well go bold, empty the hat of all available rabbits. What’s to lose?

One of those rabbits, of course, is a change in leader, which can now be effected by caucus alone. Already the Mike Moore precedent of 1990, when Geoffrey Palmer was defenestrated at the eleventh hour, is being talked about – a tactic which “almost saved” Labour, reckons Mike Hosking, oddly, in a two-minute-long Mike’s Minute that predicts “the beginning of the end of Labour as a major political force”.

There are many reasons why those circumstances were different, not least that the role Moore was assuming, albeit fleetingly, was prime minister. Would Jacinda Ardern be willing to take the Labour leadership less than two months before an election? Grant Robertson, twice defeated in contests for the Labour helm, has said he wouldn’t seek it again, but if there was a unanimous cry from caucus – most of whom wanted him as leader last time, after all – would that ambition flicker back to life?

These kind of questions, like it or not, are now back in the mix. Andrew Little has put himself on notice. If Labour slips, say, another couple of points, to 22%, whether or not anyone is throwing their hand up in the air to take the reins, Little’s leadership is surely over.

Already it is on the table. He put it there.

Want more politics? Check out the Spinoff’s Gone By Lunchtime political podcast, hosted by Toby Manhire with Ben Thomas and Annabelle Lee. Listen to the latest episode here, or subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher.

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