Andrew Little steps down - Is this Labour's fresh approach?

by Mike White / 01 August, 2017
Andrew Little waiting for the No 1 bus on Wellington's Lambton Quay near Parliament.

Andrew Little waiting for the No 1 bus on Wellington's Lambton Quay near Parliament.

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North & South followed Labour leader Andrew Little for six months this year as he prepared for September’s election. In the wake of Little’s announcement this morning he was stepping down, writer Mike White looks back at how it has come to this.

One Saturday morning in early April Andrew Little went for a walk.

He’d spent the previous week in Wellington’s High Court, defending charges that he defamed hotel owners Earl and Lani Hagaman. As leader of the Labour Party in election year, it wasn’t the place he wanted to be, diverted from the campaign trail, distracted from the promoting things of real moment and importance to New Zealanders.

That Saturday he walked from his Island Bay home, around Wellington’s storm-smashed south coast, with wife Leigh and dog Harry. He wore a faded red jacket, a black beanie, and the glasses he’d dispensed with in public this year. He was hard to recognise, almost anonymous. His pace was slow, the weight of many things appearing to weigh on his shoulders.

And that was perhaps the political story of Andrew Little – never able to shirk doubt in his abilities, never able to rise to expectations as a leader, never able to cut through to the public in a way that inspired them.

For six months I followed Andrew Little as he prepared to fight this year’s election. It was an attempt to present a view of the person who wanted to become our next Prime Minister, to give him context and some colour, to show more of the man than the politician. The result was the 10-page story, Home Run, in the current issue of North & South.

It was meant to be a picture of a man fighting to lead his country. Instead, it became the story of a man struggling. Time and again I was astonished by the lack of enthusiasm for Little from even those in the party. When former party president Mike Williams told me Little was, “the best they’ve got at the moment”, he not only damned Little with faint praise, but gave public licence for Labour’s faithful to start questioning their loyalty to him.

That story, Home Run, can now be seen as the story of a man floundering as he was swept further out to sea in a rip of political circumstance and personal missteps.

Let this one thing be extremely clear though: Andrew Little is an incredibly decent, genuine man. He carries none of the vanities of many of his parliamentary colleagues, nor the vulgar scheming of so many in politics. He was, and is, a good man. But being good and decent doesn’t seem to be enough in New Zealand politics any longer.

And while Andrew Little has been partly responsible for what’s happened this morning – his wooden demeanour, his poor media performances, his strategic mistakes – those around him must bear some of any blame being meted out.

Who on earth agreed it was a good idea to make public the fact Little had voiced the possibility of standing down after the latest round of poor political poll results? Who among the party’s inner circle and advisers let Little raise this? Sure, have that discussion, but keep it among colleagues, and in public leave no doubt you’re staying on as leader and that the caucus is 100 per cent behind you. By raising doubts about your own leadership, you instantly reframe the election campaign as not, “can you beat National,” but “can you survive as leader?” From that mad moment, Andrew Little was mortally wounded as leader.

But we too have to bear some responsibility, perhaps, for what’s happened. We seem to demand more of our leaders than someone who’s honourable and genuinely motivated.

We want more show, more jokes. Superficiality is fine. Spin goes unchallenged. Glib one-liners are deemed acceptable responses. Personality appears more important than policy.

But, ultimately, as brutal as it may seem, Andrew Little’s political fate has always been in his own hands, and the decisions he’s made, including this morning’s announcement, are his alone to bear. Little told me that when he stood for Labour’s leadership in 2014, no other colleagues had encouraged him to put his name forward – he alone decided to run.

He rang round caucus and all MPs assured him they’d work with him if he was elected leader. But his internal support was clear in that only three other MPs from Labour’s 31 voted for him in the first round of that selection process. His victory was a surprise.

In the three years since that vote, Little has done good things, and unified aspects of the party that had become horribly fractured. But he’s never been able to enthuse the public or lift Labour’s fortunes in polls. In recent months, his image has even begun to be shaded by his new deputy, Jacinda Ardern, who’s out-ranked him in popularity polls and upstaged him in public.

In May, at the country’s major media awards, a top executive introduced Ardern as Labour’s leader.

And now she has that job.

She follows four white, middle-aged, middle class males who’ve been swatted aside by National in the last nine years.

This morning as I walked my dog I met a friend who said they really, really wanted to vote Labour, but just couldn’t bring themselves to do so – and were going to vote Green.

Perhaps Ardern can change their mind. She has obvious public support. Driving on SH2 last week I noticed a Labour billboard – the one with Little and Ardern posing under the message, “A Fresh Approach”. Someone had cut out Ardern’s portrait, and smuggled her off home to perhaps put on their wall.

Now Labour has the ghastly job of replacing those billboards. Perhaps they’ll just go round and cut out Andrew Little’s picture, excising a man who truly wanted to make a difference for the better for this country.

Whatever they do, they’re being forced to live up to their campaign slogan. A fresh approach it will be.

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