I don't want to unduly pile on Andrew Little. In fact, during a phone call with a Kiwi journo last week, I couldn't have stressed often enough how the current malaise facing Labour is not this particular leader's fault. Instead, it arises from the misguided abandonment of broad church values that can be traced back at least three elections. As I have said often, Labour's appeal is structurally insufficient; and that the quaint notion that the natural ebb and flow of politics will eventually land Labour in the shores of government neglects this point.
Labour's share of the party vote has declined precipitously since losing office. They are six points adrift of where they were in 1996, the first MMP election, after Labour had all but torn itself limb from factional limb. Those two facts alone should give pause to anyone still clinging to the notion that all Labour needs to get from zero to hero is the passage of time.
Yes, appendectomies give Andrew Little a run for his money in the popularity stakes, but it is wrong to imagine any other prospective leader would have done better. In all likelihood, Robertson, Parker or whomever would have done just as badly, albeit in different ways. As finance spokesperson, Robertson has not displayed any greater capacity than Little for policy innovation — even if the Future of Work commission asked the right questions, the answers contained in the final report were a heady blend of inaccessible jargon, motherhood statements and empty promises. Oh, and lengthy passages ripped whole from The Economist. As for Parker, he's not trusted in the same way Shearer wasn't, and would have been dispatched in similar terms — although even more brutally in light of his irascible, idiosyncratic manner.
So don't blame Little for more then his share of a mess a decade in the making. Nobody expected Little to radically transform the party in new and unexpected ways. He was never going to reveal hitherto concealed reserves of charisma or intellectual originality. He was party president, and boss of the biggest affiliated union, circulating in Wellington Labour circles, creating few ripples of admiration, for decades. Little is the leader he was always going to be. He's a journeyman: a middle order batsman who rarely sizzles but never skips training. A political Chris Kuggelijn, if you will. If Labour were in better shape, he'd hit the winning runs — but expecting him to blast the Nats out of the park from this far behind flies in the face everything we know about his range of shots.
Let Little be Little, in other words. If he plays outside his comfort zone, the risks are far greater than in a plodding performance in line with his meagre gifts. This kind of thing happens:
Jack Tame is no Kim Hill, and the question he asked about the GDP impacts of Labour's immigration policy wasn't just perfectly fair, it was the most obvious first question imaginable. That Little hadn't been prepared with a succinct and credible response is baffling, and suggests there are severe shortcomings in his office. Whenever you prep politicians for media interviews, especially those coinciding with major election announcements, the fiscal questions should be at the top of the list. This is especially true for Labour, who must be careful to project seriousness and restraint when it comes to economic management.
Labour's bandwagon jumping on immigration is craven enough without their leader, a would be Prime Minister no less, describing as "silly" a question about the downstream economic effects of his plan.
It strongly indicates Little's office isn't smart enough to furnish him with answers to basic questions; and, worse, that Little isn't curious enough to demand them.