Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

The Labour Party turns 100: Andrew Little, the man who would be king

The King's (not-so-) loyal subjects

On the streets of Lincoln in Canterbury, Dunsandel apprentice electrician Michael Wallace, 25, is not impressed with Labour leader Andrew Little. Asked to describe Little in one word he opts for "useless". Labour's new policy of three years' free tertiary education or training has apparently failed to win him over. "He's not ready to be Prime Minister, not good enough. John Key's still the man."

Lincoln is in the safe National seat of Selwyn. But on paper, Wallace, a young apprentice in training for a trade, should be a Labour voter. He has at least heard of Little. Mother and daughter Julie and Jessica Beer's one word description for Little is "who?".

In Otara, part of the safe Labour seat of Manukau East, Little gets a better reception.

One man uses the word "prosperity" to describe him. Another says "awesome". But one man says he "needs to pull his socks up"; another has no idea who he is.

Part of the mission of getting voters to see Labour as an alternative government means getting them to see Little as a potential Prime Minister. The polls show there is some way to go - Little is consistently outstripped by NZ First leader Winston Peters.

Part of that is familiarity. Little is yet to embark on his full charm offensive of the nation, so people are still operating on first impressions based on soundbites on the news.

In that respect, Little has taken to blunt talking. His first encounter against his opposite in Parliament saw him tell Key to "cut the crap" as Key faced an accusation of smearing a civil servant. Since then he has talked about "stiff-arming" the banks into passing on interest cuts, and accused the Prime Minister of lacking a moral compass and "playing silly buggers". His tough talking has got him into trouble - hoteliers Lani and Earl Hagaman have sued him for defamation for his comments about a donation to the National Party. Little is clearly aiming to be the strong, straight shooter. But opinions are split on how successful he has been.

Scott Yorke, an Auckland lawyer, is a Labour Party member who has stuck with the party through its leadership changes since 2009. Yorke gives Little credit for restoring caucus unity. He just wishes Little was "a little less grumpy".

"There's a persona he presents in the media as someone who is quite grumpy. Those things shouldn't matter, but they do matter to the voting public. Grumpy is good when the Government has done something outrageous, but not everything the Government does is an outrage to decent society."

Auckland University politics lecturer Jennifer Lees-Marshment says Little comes across as "moaning and whining".

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"It's like a tantrum child. He just doesn't seem like a future PM."

She says when former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was in Opposition, he started acknowledging what the Government got right.

"[Little's] got to do more of that."

Former British MP Bryan Gould says Little is a "good, competent, decent sort of leader".

"But he hasn't, as I'm sure he would be the first to agree, set the world alight and the sort of groundswell for support for Bernie Sanders, or even Donald Trump for that matter on the other side, that's almost certainly beyond him."

Gould says Little's willingness to take risks and back his own judgment was commendable, such as his early decision to put Labour's capital gains tax and retirement age policies on hold, and more recently to oppose the TPP.

The King's Courtiers (the caucus)

If Key runs his caucus like a CEO running a business, Little runs his like a trade union leader. He holds six-monthly performance reviews with his MPs and judging from the reports, does not pussy-foot around if there is underperformance.

"When he disagrees with you, it's a bit like Helen [Clark]. You are not left in any doubt," one MP observes.

Little has also taken on the role of being the bearer of bad news to his MPs, rather than leaving it to deputy leader Annette King or his chief of staff Matt McCarten. Even Little admits he does not hold his punches, telling the Herald he thinks it is important to be crystal clear in his expectations of people. How crystal clear depends on who the person is.

The likes of David Cunliffe and Clayton Cosgrove were reportedly left in no doubt as to their future prospects in a Little Cabinet. Little also runs a zero tolerance policy on caucus discipline.

It had been a while since caucus had shown strong discipline and some were out of practice, so he has given a bit of leeway until the message got through.

The first breach came with MPs Kelvin Davis and Peeni Henare going to a charter school event despite Little advising against it because Labour's opposition to charter schools would ensure their attendance became a "media event".

They were reprimanded in public, but escaped further sanction. Others who have earned a quiet telling-off include Damien O'Connor for speaking about the memorandum of understanding with the Green Party and Stuart Nash for singing the praises of tax consultant John Shewan in a speech. The most significant breach of the line was by foreign affairs spokesman David Shearer, who broke ranks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP is the biggest policy test Little has faced. It was Little alone who made the final call on the TPP. That was at a caucus retreat in Martinborough. Little canvassed the views of the caucus and said he would come back the next day with a decision.

"Clearly some people weren't happy with what he came back with, but you couldn't complain about the process," one MP says.

Another MP says of that test "it was one of those things that is a confidence issue, basically. The leader says 'this is what it's going to be' and if you say 'no' you may as well be saying he shouldn't be leader." Other than Phil Goff, who Little had allowed to cross the floor, none said no.

Shearer had a moment's hesitation, speaking in public support of the TPP after the decision was made. He was swiftly disabused of the notion he had the same exemption as Goff and apologised for it.

Expectations go both ways in caucus and while the MPs have let Little get away with rookie blunders, that patience will not go forever. They include misspeaks over means-testing superannuation and a confused stance on 90-day employment trials. There was also frustration Little got embroiled in an argument with Shewan, which was seen as an unnecessary distraction from Labour's attacks over foreign trusts. But Little has also had his highlights - his speech to the Labour Party conference last year showed a more human side to him.

Whether Little's reign will end if Labour is still in Opposition after 2017 is also in the hands of the caucus. There is not the animosity toward him his predecessors experienced, but nor does he have a tight clique of very loyal supporters.

This is partly his choice - he has made it clear he will not be beholden to any of his MPs, or show favouritism or patronage.

Yorke believes Little may be a "long-term project".

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"I don't think there's any appetite in the party for another leadership change. I think we just have to be patient and Andrew Little, it may take another electoral cycle before he's ready to become PM. I don't know. Look how long it took Helen Clark before she became PM."

Whether the MPs agree is another matter. If Labour scores in the mid- to high-30s, Little could well get that chance Clark had of contesting a second election in 2020.

If it is another sub-30 result, Little will be gone.

The reigning king: John Key

The other question is whether Little can take on Key. Little and Labour have pursued attacks on Key over his wealth and his integrity. National Party strategist Steven Joyce described it as Labour's "John Key is a devil beast" strategy in Joyce's contribution to Moments of Truth - Victoria University's recap of the 2014 election.

Joyce says this was a failed strategy and ends with "the good news is the approach seems to be continuing so I say I am keen to see more of it, and if the Left want to continue down that path until 2017, they should knock themselves out."

Joyce might want to be more careful what he wishes for - Labour is yet to find its king hit of a scandal, but it has revelled in the saga of Key pulling a waitress' ponytail and, after the Panama Papers, his legal adviser's involvement in foreign trusts, including lobbying the Government not to change the regime.

That saw Little attack Key for lacking a "moral compass", although nobody found anything incriminating in Key's own finances.

Lees-Marshment says Key is losing his gloss but puts that down to third-term arrogance rather than personal failings. She points to his response on homelessness in particular as "unemotional" and based on statistics. That contrasted to 2008, when Key spoke of the plight of the underclass and outflanked Clark in a television debate with his answer to the simple question to define "rich".

Clark answered with statistics. Key spoke about a family who did not lie awake in bed worrying about money.

"They do have problems of arrogance," Lees-Marshment says.

"He hasn't connected, he hasn't shown emotion, he hasn't shown he understands the problem let alone has solutions to it. But I don't know that Labour are doing any better."

Gould says there is little point disputing that Key is a successful "vote-getter".

"He has been very, very effective. And I think Labour's strategy has been very much to try and sit it out, to wait for the shine to wear off. And I think it has a little over the last year or so but not enough to make a difference. That's where things stand."

The Kingmaker (Winston Peters)

In his home suburb in Wellington, Little is leaving his local pub after an interview with the Herald. A man spots him and says, "You're doing a good job". Little acknowledges him and then says, "Did you hear that?" to the Herald.

But when push comes to shove, it may not be the man in the Island Bay bar or the apprentice electrician from Dunsandel who decide Little's fate.

In downtown Auckland, 62-year-old Wendy O'Neill says she used to vote for Labour but no more. She doesn't like National either.

"In fact, Winston Peters is looking good and I thought I'd never say that."

Therein lies Little's problem - although it is as much a problem for Key as for him.

If he holds the balance of power after the election, it is Peters who will be the one person with the power to decide whether Andrew Little becomes Prime Minister.

All the King's men

Matt McCartenLabour leader Andrew Little's key advisers in Parliament:

Matt McCarten, chief of staff:
Little's top adviser and representative in talks with MPs and other parties. Was appointed by former leader David Cunliffe and retained by Little. A former trade unionist and Alliance MP.

Matt McCarten. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Matt McCarten. Photo / Mark Mitchell


Martin Taylor, director of policy and research:
The only one of his senior team appointed by Little rather than David Cunliffe. All policy development goes through Taylor for stress-testing by his team. Taylor was headhunted by Little after a decade as chief executive of the Aged Care Association, partly to offer some "real life" experience. It surprised some - Taylor had previously worked for former Labour minister Margaret Wilson, but was not a Labour luvvie and was sometimes critical of the unions in his aged care role.

Neale Jones, political director:
Little's go-to guy when it comes to fighting fires and political advice. Also fills in as deputy chief of staff in McCarten's absence. Was appointed by Cunliffe, but a Little loyalist, having worked under him at the EPMU. Also filling the role of chief press secretary after the departure of Sarah Stuart.

Press secretaries:
Little is still looking for a chief press secretary, and is likely to try to get someone with previous experience in Parliament, either in the Press Gallery or as a press secretary. Beneath that is a team of six press secretaries, all former journalists, who work for the Labour team.

- NZ Herald

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