Schmoozer-In-Chief: Andrew Little and his team are quietly meeting and greeting business and community leaders, leaving behind, hopefully, a few dozen impressed punters who will tell their friends and colleagues the next day: “You know that Andrew Little’s not a bad bloke.” Yes, it's banal, but banal is what gets you elected.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, the Labour Party is currently engaged in a critically important political campaign. No, it may not look like Labour is doing very much at all at the moment, but that is the whole point. After the sheer mayhem of the last four years, a period of tranquillity is crucial to Labour’s chances of re-election.
All of the party’s research suggests that by the end of 2014 the New Zealand public was fed up to the back teeth with Labour. As far as most voters were concerned the party was a joke. It seemed to specialise in choosing the wrong people to lead it. Its caucus was incapable of even the most perfunctory political discipline. Indeed, there were some MPs who clearly got a bigger thrill out of sticking the knife into the back of a colleague than they did from sticking it into the front of the Government. The party organisation was no better. It delighted in choosing Party List candidates that struck many of its voters and potential voters as having been drawn from a carefully prepared list of the politically bizarre and/or the simply unelectable. (Which may well have been true!)
As 2015 loomed, what Labour most needed to do was to get its name out of headlines. No more leadership elections. No more Caucus back-stabbing. No more shots of furious rank-and-file party members calling for the heads of the “Anyone But Cunliffe” faction. The new leader, Andrew Little’s, best course of action, after he’d spent a little time reassuring the voters that he could string together a coherent English sentence, and that he wasn’t in the least bit sorry for being a man, was to say and do as little as possible and just let the people of New Zealand get used to him.
And that, if you think about it, is pretty much what Labour has been doing all year – as little as possible. With the honourable exception of Phil Twyford, who has been waging a solid, one-man-war against the Government’s disastrous housing policies, the Labour Opposition has assiduously (and largely successfully) avoided making a fool of itself. Its key strategists figure that if it can avoid making a fool of itself for another six months, then the electorate might just be ready to start treating it as a serious electoral option.
This is an extremely difficult strategy to sell to the sort of left-wing activists who read The Daily Blog. Their preference is for a campaigning Labour Party that is ready and willing to take the fight directly to the National Party enemy. Activists are never happier than when delivering righteous blows to the people’s enemies. Deliver enough of these, the activists are convinced, and the “missing million” will shake themselves free of their apathetic torpor and, falling in behind their progressive government-in-waiting, deliver Labour a landslide victory.
Except that is not what the polling and the focus groups are telling Labour. Nor does it reflect the findings of the academic research. Enjoying the confidence of the activist Left is not a necessary pre-condition to electoral victory in New Zealand. What is required is the confidence of a substantial plurality of the New Zealanders who vote. People aged 35 and up, in work, and comfortably housed. People who do not live and breathe politics, but who pay enough attention to formulate a reasonably strong view about who can and cannot be entrusted with running the country. The prevailing opinion among these voters is that National, its growing list of miss-steps notwithstanding, is still the party best equipped to govern New Zealand. Labour’s job over the next 18 months is to convince them otherwise.
To do that Andrew Little must do two things. First, he must establish a connection with the people who vote. Second, that connection must, very rapidly, be reinforced by convincing the people who vote that he has the personal and political wherewithal to actually do what he says he will do. In other words: he must come across to the people who vote as a credible proposition for the role of Prime Minister. The two “Cs” – Connection and Credibility – are what Little and Labour are struggling to achieve. And right now the best way to do that is for him to do as close to nothing as it’s possible to get away with.
A big part of “doing nothing” is arranging opportunities for the sort of people who influence others to be influenced by the Leader of the Opposition. Quiet gatherings of community and business leaders with plenty of opportunities to exchange a few well-chosen sentences with the man who would be king. Leaving behind, hopefully, a few dozen impressed punters who will tell their friends and colleagues the next day: “You know that Andrew Little’s not a bad bloke.”
Yes, I know, it sounds banal – and not at all like the stuff of which revolutions are made. But a huge amount of contemporary politics is banal. And it’s precisely because John Key does banal with such extraordinary aplomb that he has broken every record of political popularity this country has ever set.
Banal is what gets you elected.
At some point, however, Andrew Little is going to have to give the voters something more than an absence of embarrassing headlines. Part of establishing that all-important connection with the people who vote is to say or do something powerful enough to bind them – the politician and the voters – together. By far the most effective way of doing this is through words and gestures; symbolic moments that imprint themselves on the voters’ minds; events that leave people thinking: “That guy would make a damn good prime minister.”
So far, Andrew Little has not managed to do this. His “cut the crap” comment was a promising start, but it was more the product of good luck than good management. In his quest to achieve the two “Cs”, he could, therefore, do a lot worse than to take a leaf out of the new Green Party co-leader’s, James Shaw’s, political play-book. Whether by good luck or good management, Shaw managed to find himself an immensely talented speech-writer. Danyl McLauchlan will likely prove invaluable in helping his boss master the two “Cs”. Andrew Little, while he’s busy doing nothing, needs to be doing something about finding a wordsmith of his own.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 3 July 2015.