New leader owes narrow win to trade union power.

The Labour Party does not make life easy for a new leader. Announcing the winner of its election yesterday, the party published a breakdown of the voting that shows how slender was the margin for Andrew Little. If the choice had been left to Labour MPs the leader would be Grant Robertson, as it would have been last year when the MPs were outvoted by party members and affiliated unions. This time the members, too, preferred Mr Robertson. It was only the union vote - more than 75 per cent for Mr Little on the third ballot - that has given him the leadership by less than a percentage point.

But if Mr Little is not the first choice of the caucus, or the second or the third in the preferential voting rounds, he does not antagonise his colleagues. They will be more content with him than they were with the result of last year's ballot. None of the four who put their names into the ballot were contentious figures. Labour's problem is that none of them was an obvious leader either. Whoever was chosen would need to build a public image from scratch.

Mr Little is the least experienced parliamentarian of the four. He came in on Labour's list at the 2011 election, having failed to win the New Plymouth seat. He failed to win it again at this year's election and was at risk of losing a list seat too on Labour's low vote nationwide. For a week or so in September, Mr Little's parliamentary survival was in doubt; less than two months later he is Leader of the Opposition. It must be one of the more remarkable recoveries in our politics.

The public will not need to see the qualities in Mr Little that the union voters have seen. His manner is wooden, he is unlikely to excite supporters. His instincts are cautious. His election means that Labour is likely to drop the daring policies it has taken to the past two elections on capital gains tax and the superannuation age. Mr Little's priorities appear to lie in employment law and other union concerns. He may steer the party away from the social and sexual "identity" politics of recent years.


First, though, he probably needs to find satisfying roles for his rivals, not least Nanaia Mahuta, who received more caucus support than he did in the first round of voting. Fourth overall on the first round, her voters went mainly to him in the second and third rounds. Now that all but one of the Maori electorates have returned to Labour, Ms Mahuta may be in line for a leadership position.

Mr Little's preferred deputy is probably Mr Robertson, who has served in that role before, but he may not want it again.

David Parker, likewise, does not want to remain deputy leader or keep the finance role, which is a pity. Labour has few MPs with his business credentials.

Mr Little will need to forge a new team out of a caucus that is still reeling from the election result. To sink so low in a third successive loss is unprecedented for our major parties. Mr Little's task is to put that result firmly behind the party and enable it to look ahead. He cannot afford to act and speak like just another opposition leader. Labour has produced enough of those.

He has three years to establish himself. The public will not expect polling miracles overnight. He should expect to be called dull and worse. Effective political leaders cannot pretend to be more than they are. Television quickly exposes those who try too hard.

Leadership is about good sense and judgment, not entertainment.

Facing a Government in its third term, he may need to be no more than solid, sensible and dull to become an electable alternative, conceivably the next Prime Minister.