Saturday 4 July 2015

Busy Doing Nothing: Why Andrew Little Needs To Keep Labour Out Of The Headlines.

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.


David Stone said...

Hi Chris
I concur with suggested strategy of Little for now. He needs to be watching what's going on in the world for " the times they are a'changin ".
In the meantime his team is doing quite OK in the house ,pecking away in fertile ground at National"s integrity in re swamp kauri exports enriching a nat mp's partner, and gross payments to a Saudi billionaire to establish a sheep station in the middle of a desert etc.
He does need to be quietly talking to some non neoliberal economists though , to be prepared for a worldwide rethink of policy.
But it would be no use him touting what I might think now as the electorate is not ready to seriously question the present order yet.
Cheers David J S

P S to G S I notice from some of your comments that you are or where a school teacher. A close acquaintance of mine once had a disappointing time long ago offering knowledge and understanding to a class identified as 4G. He divined that the G stood for Gorilla , and that the only way he could conceive of transferring that knowledge and understanding would be by way of a surgical procedure involving either physical insertion or a complete transplant. I wonder if you taught the same class.

Loz said...

Labour internationally has become synonymous with a bland mediocrity based on a middle-of-the-road positioning. Starting from a position of being non-descript and ensuring nothing is done for the party to stand out sounds like the Blackadder type of cunning I've come to expect from the organisation.

Silence and mediocrity can never hope to inspire or motivate anyone. I might have thought being inspirational and bland actually continues Labour's ongoing demise from relevance.

If the party is indeed successful in not be noticed, it's not going to help in getting out the vote... after all, why bother if they are all the same anyway?

Anonymous said...

Your comment does not affect the conviction in the street that Labour still has deep divisions in caucus, still there from the Cunliffe debacle, the ABC"s have diluted to 3-6 factions, Twyford/ Parker, Robertson/ Ardern, Nash/ Cosgrove/ O"conner and of course Little/ King and Neal jones( director ) there also is the rainbow faction led by Wall/ Woods,.The others like Hipkins, Mallard are flitting. A leaking of the restructuring report has been dismissed as a minor matter but I understand the reasons for the leak caused deep concern in caucus. Despite what you say, only minor monies are being generated and the membership drop under Cunliffe lifted slightly under Little but has stopped climbing for some months. Serious political discussion on gender rules, list seat allocation, the non-performance of some front benchers, the retirement of long term seat warmers ect and the most important question that is the elephant in the room: how should the leader of the labour party be selected still haunts them. Nobody ,repeat nobody in caucus likes the present system. These problems are not being discussed and they will not go away by the next election. I understand that some of the MPs are most unhappy with the administrative leadership calling it stagnant and untrustworthy. I am sorry Chris but your article is more words than fact.

Anonymous said...

A few vibes out of Labour, it seems that David Shearer is being lined up for Deputy and Annette King is going to get her sinecure, Little will move into her seat.

Jigsaw said...

I think Anonymous @ 18:43 has hit the nail on the head. Just because Labour's problems are no longer apparently out in the open doesn't mean that they have gone away or even that people imagine that they have gone away. The divisions are still there thanks to their identity politics-i.e the only person who can represent a rural woman is another rural woman -or whatever. There is also such an enormous jump from 'he's not such a bad guy' to 'I might vote for him' or even further to 'he would make a good pm'. I have tried to imagine the latter and I simply can't. If someone has lately told Little not to appear so angry all the time then it appears that they might have done him a favour - it's not a very attractive emotion and often it seesm he is so angry that he can no longer be rational.

Anonymous said...

Interesting reference to The daily blog, whose readership, I think, a little like the radicalised Labour membership, is massively disconnected with the kind of working, middle-of-the-road voter whom Labour needs onside in order to thrive. Indeed, it seems to me that one of Labour's most intrinsic problems is that it simply lacks empathy with the kind of people whose votes they could have counted on in the past - especially the more culturally conservative "meat and 3 vege" type of voter. The Labour activist type blames all left-wing problems on the media (with a degree of justification) but totally fails to concede that Labour's dwindling appeal is a true reflection of its own ideological narrowness - unless Labour can change their image as a party of "identity" and special interest groups, I just cannot see their fortunes improving.

Victor said...

I banish the unworthy thought that I've just read a job application.