Labour runs short of options as election odds lengthen

4:19 pm on 31 July 2017

Opinion - Ditching a leader during an election campaign does not have a good history. The most famous local example, when Mike Moore replaced Geoffrey Palmer as Labour went down in flames in 1990, proved only that you can perhaps turn certain abject humiliation into slightly less certain abject humiliation.

Andrew Little

Andrew Little Photo: RNZ

Labour knows this. Andrew Little knows this. Jacinda Ardern knows this. We all know this. It's the classic electoral paradox - to admit your current direction isn't working is merely to hand your enemies another club with which to beat you, when you're already out for the count anyway.

So what do they do?

Short of building a political time machine, hopping back to November 2014 and electing a charismatic, passionate and likeable leader, it's an almost impossible question to answer.

But it is a question they have to confront. Imagine waking up this Monday morning as a Labour candidate to hear your own leader effectively concede the election two months ahead of polling day.

It's possibly even worse for loyal Labour supporters. Demoralised and virtually disenfranchised, they must despair for a once-proud movement that held out viable hope for New Zealanders of all classes. Maybe they just went back to bed.

Certainly their party appears to have been been asleep. Which raises the other question: how has a party that has been in opposition for nearly a decade not found a viable leader to take the fight to National, as well as unite and grow the left bloc?

We've now watched them flip from David Cunliffe to David Shearer to Little in the space of one election cycle. If they were a DHB or a school board they'd have been put under statutory management.

In hindsight, some people seem to suggest that leader was Shearer and he should never have been rolled. Not so many were saying it at the time, though, and Shearer himself looked defeated by the end.

And if Little was the answer, what was the question? We've tried two guys called David, let's go for an Andrew?

Labour leadership contests are complex and often bitter, with intense machinations within the membership and caucus that can deliver weird results. But to have passed over Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern, at the time, looked perverse, backward, and particularly timid.

This looks especially true today, given that Little ended up sharing the election billboards with Ardern anyway. As someone joked, at least if they dumped him now they'd only have to paper over half the picture.

But the final question has to be, is Labour brave and bold enough to capture a mood that does exist, as the likes of Sanders, Trump and Corbyn have proved overseas? You don't have to admire any of them to see that impatience with business as usual and an appetite for the big idea are what win hearts and minds right now.

Instead, they decided the best way to combat National's anodyne boast of "delivering for New Zealanders" with the possibly even more anodyne "a fresh approach". Visitors from overseas could be forgiven for thinking we were electing a supermarket brand, not a government.

Yes, Labour undoubtedly needs an inspiring leader. But inspiring leaders articulate inspiring ideas. They are as brave and as bold as those ideas require them to be. What Labour needs most of all is a big idea.

*Finlay Macdonald was editor of the New Zealand Listener magazine from 1998 to 2003, commissioning editor at Penguin New Zealand from 2003 to 2005, and a weekly columnist for the Sunday Star-Times from 2003 to 2011

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