Labour MPs can learn an important lesson from leader Andrew Little's reshuffle. It is that he does not like to feel beholden to anyone.

Little was elected to the leadership just over a year ago with support from just five MPs on the first round of voting. This week he demoted one of those, David Cunliffe, who had publicly supported Little for the leadership campaign.

Nobody can accuse him of not giving due warning. After Cunliffe pulled out of the leadership contest last year and threw his weight behind Little, Little's response was tepid. He repeatedly said he would not be cutting deals in return for support.

His first reshuffle after he became leader was described as "ruthless" by former Herald political commentator John Armstrong.


This time around it is even more so. Little has made the "cut the crap" call he hurled at Prime Minister John Key the motto of his own leadership. It started during the leadership campaign in criticism of Labour's cornerstone policies - raising the retirement age and a capital gains tax. He carried it on in his first reshuffle and it has come up again this time around in the demotions of Cunliffe and Nanaia Mahuta.

But there is a fine line between straight-shooting and being brutal. A lot can be read into what a politician does not say and Little's response to questions about the messages sent through his reshuffle were a study in silence. He was repeatedly asked if his message for Cunliffe was to leave altogether. Every time, he started banging on about Cunliffe's analytical skills and how superannuation was an important issue. What he didn't say was "no". There was no denial he wanted Cunliffe to go. There was no suggestion Cunliffe had a chance of redemption.

Little's treatment of Cunliffe has baffled some commentators, at least on the left. Chris Trotter contrasted it with National's Bill English who, after National's dire election result of 2002, was kept on in positions of influence by his successors Don Brash and then John Key.

Comparing English and Cunliffe is akin to comparing mackerels to roses - they are such different creatures with such different relationships with their respective caucuses.

Little's issue with Cunliffe is not his intelligence or competence, but rather Little's need to forge a tight, cohesive team. There might be room for a character like Cunliffe in a larger team in which the impact of one person is diluted. But Little does not have a large team. However hard Cunliffe might try, the entrenched antipathy toward him among many in his caucus made it difficult to operate.

Cunliffe has proven to be resistant to hints. There is the option of forcing Cunliffe out, including trying to stand someone else against him for the New Lynn candidate selection. That would be a fraught exercise, given the depth of loyalty for Cunliffe in that electorate.

Little was not the only one sending coded messages. Both Mahuta and Cunliffe pledged fealty to the Labour Party and swore they would do their utmost to help ensure a Labour Government post-2017. They repeatedly mentioned Labour, but neither swore fealty to Little personally.

Cunliffe's first response to the reshuffle was: "I am proud to represent the people of New Lynn." He went on to say he had a mandate for his place in Parliament. An electorate is often the refuge MPs cling to in times of strife. National MP Judith Collins had "I'm very pleased being the member for Papakura" on repeat play after she was pushed out of Cabinet.


Whether by accident or design, Cunliffe's reference to his electorate highlighted that Little was himself a List MP, having tried and failed to be elected in New Plymouth twice.

Little cannot stand in New Plymouth again. Someone who aspires to be Prime Minister cannot countenance the ignominy of losing in an electorate seat to a backbench MP from a rival party. Although MMP has been around for almost 20 years now, a lot of moral weight comes with an electorate seat.

New Zealand is yet to have a List MP as Prime Minister, although Brash came close. That could be rectified for Little come 2017. It seems increasingly likely Annette King might be prevailed to take one for the party and go on to the list to open up the Rongotai seat for Little, who is currently a constituent of his deputy leader.