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

Audrey Young: Andrew Little's last chance to win over voters

On the plus side for Little, the caucus has maintained relative discipline even if it has been operating at half throttle. Photo / Marty Melville
On the plus side for Little, the caucus has maintained relative discipline even if it has been operating at half throttle. Photo / Marty Melville

Every week in politics makes a difference but between now and Christmas will be a crucial two months for Labour and Andrew Little.

The objective is to go into the summer break without having been written off.

They have to have a good party conference next week, have a good byelection in Mt Roskill, and announce some appealing and affordable policies.

As a bonus they could hope that enough goes wrong for National to dent its defiantly high levels of support for a third -term Government.

But the challenge for Labour is not to become a contender for Government in a year's time. It clearly already is, as the biggest party of a centre-left bloc, according to the polls (Colmar Brunton, 50 per cent; Reid Research, 52.3; and Curia public poll average, 52.3).

The challenge is first to stay there and second to convince the voting public that that is real possibility.

It is harder in the second half of the year.

The second half of most years - and this year is no different - is full of international summitry for Prime Minister John Key be it the Pacific islands Forum, leaders week at the United Nations, the East Asia Summit or Apec.

That means an endless stream of photo opportunities and meetings to promote New Zealand's agenda.

It guarantees Key extensive and almost always positive coverage in the mass media.

This is not a reflection on Key. It is not a criticism of the media - God forbid. (I'll leave that to former editors of the Herald.)

It is the nature of the staging of the events and the advent of the 20-minute news cycle.

If Little were elected Prime Minister next year, the same would be happening for him.

It is not so fanciful that he and his Foreign Minister, David Shearer, could be flying out of Whenuapai to represent New Zealand at Apec in Vietnam - leaving a day early in case of a break-down - and that he would be meeting President Hillary Clinton for the first time, talking about what parts of the TPP they wanted renegotiated.

John Key did it 2008 after a change of Government.

The election result was clear. He formed a minority Government, was sworn in, and the next day headed off to his first Apec, in Peru.

Yet for Andrew Little, that it sounds fanciful.

He is not yet seen as the alternative Prime Minister.

November 18 will be Little's second anniversary as leader.

Little's first year was a success. His second has not matched it. His third year is crucial.

His first year went well because he started from such a low base: low polling, low morale, no discipline, no money, no unity, no hope. Little lifted the party to a properly functioning party.

His speech to the party conference crowned a very good year. It was a satisfying convergence of his own values, the party's values and his own back story.

This year has been a different story. The novelty of a new leader has worn off. Little's errors are amplified by the media rather than minimized. He strays off message. He never admits he is wrong.

His straight talking, no-nonsense style is seen by others as grumpy and irascible. The public is going to have to lump that, however.

Directness is his calling card. He doesn't have an ounce of charm and he shouldn't try.

He has had staffing issues, which has seen his office running without a senior coms manager for half the year.

This week saw the start of a highly experienced press secretary in Mike Jaspers, a former press gallery reporter and former press secretary to Sir Michael Cullen.

That appointment foreshadows a greater coherence in communicating Labour's plan for health, education and housing.

On the plus side for Little, the caucus has maintained relative discipline even if it has been operating at half throttle.

He continues to manage them well.

Out of the public eye, solid work has been going on to develop policies - with enough being announced in the jobs and education field to dispense with suggestions they are doing nothing.

Thanks to Little, Labour has already rid itself of the capital gains tax that cursed it for two elections and it has already made some decisions in principle on other taxes.

Having gone into the past two elections on the promise of increasing income tax at the high end (36c on income over $150,000 last time), Labour won't be doing so next year.

That will simplify the debate into tax-cuts versus vs more spending on health, education and housing.

The biggest obstacles to Little and Labour's success are the relatively healthy state of the economy, National's unusually high level of energy for a third term Government and Key's popularity.

Bill English's social investment reforms in social expenditure, Anne Tolley's work in care and protection of kids, and Hekia Parata's drive in education have inoculated the Government so far from a sense of fatigue.

The $1.8 billion actual surplus in the last financial year is bound to be much higher in the new set of Treasury forecasts released on December 8.

That will be a good news story for the Government but it will also present an opportunity for Labour to reinforce its message of an under-investment in social spending.

It will offer an opportunity to allow Little to better define Labour as an alternative to National and himself as a credible Prime Minister in waiting.

- NZ Herald

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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.

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