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

Audrey Young: Labour's treatment of Willie Jackson has become a confidence issue for leader Andrew Little

Rating the start to the political year, Bill English scores 8 out of 10; Andrew Little 2.

Little started higher, after his state of the nation speech, held jointly with the Greens.

He spruced himself up, and delivered a good speech at an event that went off flawlessly as a piece of political theatre to show a sense of cohesion on the centre-left.

But the rebellion over Willie Jackson has damaged Little and Labour in a way that won't blow over in a week.

Little's greatest accomplishment as leader - successfully instilling the need for party discipline - counted for nothing, and the chips weren't even down.

The rebellion has three consequences: after all that hard work, Labour again looks like a party divided, Little looks like a leader who cannot lead his own party - which is all the more damaging when his attack line against English this year is that he is a prime minister but not a leader - and it alienates voters who identity with Willie Jackson.

It says to them that if Willie Jackson doesn't belong to Labour, nor do they.

New Zealand First and Winston Peters and Shane Jones will be the beneficiaries.

Little and his advisers were shocked by the rebellion. They knew some people would be unhappy. But they expected it to be dealt with in private.

Within hours of Little announcing he had secured Willie Jackson's candidacy for the party list and would be promoting him for a winnable position, resistance began.

A statement by Christchurch East MP Poto Williams was followed by an open letter to the ruling NZ Council signed by at least 400 Labour Party members including three former women MPs, and a post by former MP Maryan Street taking a none-too-subtle swipe at Little's call to parachute Jackson into the list.

All of these participants thought it was more important to "take a stand" than to succumb to the basics of party discipline in election year.

So what mistakes did Little make? Clearly Little and his advisers over-estimated the political capital he had built up within the party.

They thought he had earned enough respect for members to swallow a few big calls he might make for the good of the party.

They over-estimated the left's capacity for forgiveness. It doesn't matter how many times Jackson apologises for a terrible radio interview he conducted three years ago, it doesn't matter what else he has achieved at the Manukau Urban Maori Authority, that interview alone defines him in their eyes and he continues to be demonised as though he were an actual Roast Buster, as opposed to a talkback host.

How can Labour claim to represent fairness when its own members fail to practise it?

Little also failed to tell members the real reason he had signed up Jackson.

It was not for the votes he would attract from urban Maori, as Little keeps repeating.

It was to sabotage the imminent Maori Party - Mana Movement deal, part of which included Jackson's plans to stand for the Maori Party in Tamaki Makaurau against Labour's Peeni Henare, and which Jackson may well have won.

Little also failed to explain to his own members the importance for Labour of sabotaging those plans.

The party vote in the Maori seats is insignificant. The importance of the Maori seats rests in their potential to create an overhang for the Maori Party (gaining more seats than the party vote entitlement) which increases the size of the Parliament and almost certainly would go towards a National-led Government.

Clearly Little and his advisers over-estimated the political capital he had built up within the party. They thought he had earned enough respect for members to swallow a few big calls he might make for the good of the party.

One seat could make all the difference between a National-led Government and a Labour-led Government.

If Labour's members understood that, and were still prepared to mount a rebellion, clearly winning isn't important enough for them.

Jackson is not likely to be a brilliant MP but getting him was a strategic coup for Little in the wider interests of the party.

It was necessary for Little to stand next to Jackson at the announcement in Waitangi to send a message to his party about what he expects, notwithstanding the fact there is a list-selection process to go through.

Jackson's treatment by Labour has become a confidence issue for Little.

The New Zealand Council has little option but to approve Jackson's membership when it meets in a week's time.

Little's promise to fight for a winnable Jackson of a "winnable" list position is more problematic, because what is and isn't "winnable" will depend on polling at the time of the list-ranking by the moderation committee and which electorate seats are winnable.

What's not winnable will be clear; what is winnable will be clear; if Jackson is placed only in the grey area, it will be seen as a failure by Little to deliver on his side of the agreement.

Whatever Labour decides to do with Jackson, it has already given the Government added ammunition with which to taunt Labour. Its tease is no longer just about cozying up to the Greens.

National can now say the party that has swung so far left, that the old comrades Matt McCarten, Laila Harre and Willie Jackson from the Alliance have come home.

The Jackson debacle has had the effect of curtailing the prospect of Harre standing in Upper Harbour against Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett, a distraction Little can do without.

It has re-opened gender wars within Labour about the party's efforts to meet the gender target of 50:50 in 2017 - which will undoubtedly surface at the New Lynn selection this weekend when Deborah Russell, an outsider woman, takes on local bloke Greg Presland.

It may also be prompting Maryan Street to rethink her future. When list MP Jacinda Ardern wins the Mt Albert byelection, Maryan Street - who is entitled to return to Parliament as the next person on the list - was expected to waive her return for Chinese Kiwi Raymond Huo, for the greater good of the party.

But the Jackson debacle has shown that what constitutes the good of the party is still an issue that divides Labour.

- 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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