Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: Labour's new focus is all about the leader

Frustration at fall in polls will blow over and party's best shot at recovery lies with Andrew Little.
In another era, Labour's poll dive this week would have sent the party into a spin. Illustration / Guy Body
In another era, Labour's poll dive this week would have sent the party into a spin. Illustration / Guy Body

In another era, Labour's poll dive this week would have sent the party into a spin. A whispering frenzy would have ensued about Andrew Little, who is the fifth Labour leader to hold the office to National's one.

He should be more aggressive, some would have said.

He should be less aggressive.

He should go for John Key's jugular.

He should avoid personal attacks on Key.

He should get rid of that lefty schemer Matt McCarten.

He should bring back that Australian strategist Mike Richards to put a bomb under everyone.

We need to cover our left flank. We need to move to the centre.

What do we stand for? Where are we going?

All these conversations took place this week but among the media, tweeters and observers, not in the Labour caucus.

The caucus was disappointed at the poll but it was not spooked.

At the Distinction Hotel in Dunedin, at a pre-planned caucus retreat, a sobering discussion took place about the drop of four points in the party vote to 28 per cent and Little's steady decline in personal ratings to 7 per cent.

Little accepted responsibility but so did other members of the caucus collectively, as they should. Their mix of personal ambition, factional behaviour and short-termism led to the steady turnover of leaders and a sense that the party puts its own interests first. It was that that did the damage, not the individual leaders.

Little is the best leader the party has had since Helen Clark because he has controlled the factions.

He does that by not recognising them - of course it helps that the right faction (they prefer to be called moderates or pragmatists) is shrinking in number; Clayton Cosgrove will be the next to exit.

Little will stay leader until the next election, of that there is no doubt. If he is not Prime Minister after the 2017 election, it will be Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern's turn. But until then, the caucus will remain loyal in a way they weren't to former leaders Phil Goff, David Shearer and David Cunliffe.

Not that they didn't have failings. Goff was too soon after Government; Shearer was too inexperienced; and David Cunliffe was just too David Cunliffe.

To put it in perspective, the 28 per cent in TV One's poll this week is exactly what they got two elections ago, under Goff, but it is better than the 25 per cent they got at the last election under Cunliffe.

The poll results are a reflection of the long-running identity crisis and Little's recent exacerbation of it.

The party that began TPP under Clark rejected the done deal then tried to be the farmers' best friend.

The party seeks respectability in the business community but contemplates a return to Muldoonist regulation of interest rates.

It wants to be the party to target inequality but toys with the idea of giving the rich and poor the same universal basic income.

Little, however, has not let the poll dent his confidence. On the contrary, he has used it as a licence to exercise more power.

The quickest way to deal with Labour's identity problems over policy is to forget the policy and make it about the leader.

So at the Distinction Hotel, he was mandated by colleagues to rely on his own judgment more, to be bolder and make an impact, instead of trying to achieve consensus within the party.

That approach was in action this week with Little's extraordinary attack on John Key's so-called moral compass - according to Little, he doesn't have one - in the wake of the Panama papers.

Establishing a negative impression of Key is everything; nuance is non-existent and facts are a luxury in this new clobbering approach of Little's.

Labour is not bothered that Key has no foreign trust, that there is no evidence of any unethical behaviour by Key or his lawyer. It is apparently enough that he was a currency trader, that he is wealthy, that he waited for a week before ordering an inquiry into the 12,000 foreign trusts in New Zealand in order to cast him as the Prime Minister only for the privileged and greedy end of town and a person of "no moral compass".

Key's instinctive defence of New Zealand's reputation over foreign trust law (ipso facto, the dodgy dealers who use them) was a move Labour will seek to exploit for weeks and months to come. But it is not without risk, which was illustrated neatly in a perceptive tweet by comedian Guy Williams this week: "The opposition is always desperately trying to find a John Key scandal! How about we think up good policy and attack on issues."

Labour risks looking desperate, and coming worse off than 28 per cent.

If Little's attacks fail to ring true, the public will stop listening on other issues.

On his side is the fact that trusts are deeply mistrusted, and not just the tax-dodging ones here with foreign settlors.

Yes, they can be benign and convenient vehicles to establish, for example, a tertiary education fund, for kids. But they have been used as vehicles to shelter income and assets for tax purposes to access, for example, Working for Families or to reduce matrimonial property settlement obligations.

Their disclosure rules are so loose that the Law Commission can't actually say how many there are in New Zealand - between 300,000 and 500,000, it estimates.

Labour's primary aim, however, is not to get better disclosure rules to the trust laws, laws it introduced in Government, but to associate Key with a reluctance to change them.

And if Key gives him an inch, Little will try to clobber him a mile even if he damages himself in the process.

With about 18 months to go before his only shot at power, Little is willing to take that risk.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

Read more by Audrey Young

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 24 Oct 2016 05:22:13 Processing Time: 774ms