A Royal Flush: If only Andrew Little had these sort of cards to play with! Unfortunately, no matter how often he shuffles and cuts, cuts and shuffles, he's never going to deal himself a winning hand. Campaigning with the Greens, however, might just deliver the face cards Labour is lacking.
IT’S LIKE RESHUFFLING a deck of cards with all the face cards missing. No matter how often Andrew Little shuffles and cuts, cuts and shuffles, he’s never going to deal himself a winning hand. Labour’s failure to develop a simple and democratic method of selecting electorate candidates and drawing up its Party List has, finally, rendered it all but unelectable.
To become a Labour MP in 2015 one must first negotiate a multitude of competing interest groups: Women, Maori, Unions, Youth, the Rainbow Council. This is every bit as difficult as it sounds, with numerous compromises and trade-offs to be made all along the way.
Getting through this labyrinth leaves Labour’s candidates with an extremely detailed picture of the Left’s ideological landscape, but only the sketchiest notion of the world in which 95 percent of New Zealanders go about their daily lives.
It’s a process that also puts a lot of potentially excellent Labour candidates off. Someone confident in their understanding of industry, agriculture, science, or (God forbid!) running a business, rightly feels affronted at the prospect of being figuratively pinched, poked and prodded by people whose experience of the world is often extremely limited and narrow.
Not surprisingly, narrow and limited candidates have a head start!
Matters are not helped, of course, when these narrow and limited individuals – now MPs – turn against an obviously talented and successful colleague and conspire to bring him down. Andrew Little’s demotion of David Cunliffe – one of Labour’s most experienced politicians – represents the unwarranted triumph of spiteful Fives and Sixes over a much-maligned King of Hearts.
Nor is it helpful when these number cards are given royal faces. Her regular appearances in the women’s magazines notwithstanding, Jacinda Ardern has yet to impress as New Zealand’s Queen of Hearts. And no matter how rapidly he is pushed up Labour’s pecking order, Kelvin Davis will struggle to be recognised as the King of Clubs. Some chiefs may have started out as warriors, but not all warriors become chiefs.
What, then, should Labour do? If it cannot choose candidates with the same appeal to the voters as National’s selections. If it cannot break its habit of penalising talent and promoting mediocrity. And, if it cannot even persuade colleagues who have sat in Parliament for three decades that it might be time to move aside for someone younger. How can it expect to win?
Helen Clark undoubtedly asked herself the same question in 1996. Having just led her party to its worst result since 1928 (28.19 percent) she needed some means of lifting Labour’s numbers by at least ten percentage points to have any chance of winning the 1999 General Election.
Three-quarters of these she secured almost immediately when Winston Peters, against public expectations, opted to form a coalition with Jim Bolger’s National Party. The remaining quarter came from Jim Anderton’s Alliance, which, in one of the most generous gestures in New Zealand political history, invited Clark to its annual conference and there agreed to give voters the chance of ending the bitter civil war on the left of New Zealand politics by electing a Labour-Alliance coalition government.
With Colin James’s “Poll of Polls” currently putting the Labour Party just under 31 percent, Andrew Little faces an electoral conundrum no less taxing than Helen Clark’s. Somehow, he has to find an additional ten percentage points to become a credible contender for power.
The record shows that the Alliance’s embrace of its bitter rival cost it nearly a quarter of its 1996 vote. From 10.10 percent, the Alliance’s vote fell to just 7.74 percent. This two point drop, when combined with the decline in the NZ First and National totals, was more than enough to supply Labour with the ten-point boost it needed.
Will Andrew Little turn 2017 into a re-run of 1999? Will he use the occasion of Labour’s 2016 centenary conference to invite James Shaw and Metiria Turei to join him on the stage for a symbolic group hug? Will the three of them then invite the New Zealand voter to bring centre-left politics into the Twenty-First Century by electing a Labour-Green Coalition Government? The “optics” – as the spin-doctors say – would be compelling.
And useful. Lacking Face Cards of his own, Andrew Little could end up winning the 2017 election with a Royal Flush of Greens.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 December 2015.