Andrew Little is the Leader of the Labour Party. Yes, the final result showed only a fraction between Little and Grant Robertson. Yes, the union vote got Little over the line. However, Little has emerged victorious in a leadership campaign that the four contenders fought positively and fairly, with rules agreed to by the Labour Party. It might be an unusual result, but it is a fairly earned result.
No one in the Labour Party membership or caucus can question the legitimacy of Little’s Leadership. The National Party and the Media are already going to be delightedly doing that. For the Party to join in just gift wraps a fourth term for the National Party. The only way to proceed now is to unite behind Little and look to the future. There will be some Grant Robertson supporters and campaigners waking up this morning feeling disheartened and disillusioned and they have every right to be. However, as we always hear – the party is bigger than one person. If your membership is contingent on the success or failure of one MP then you should be rethinking the reasons that you are Labour.
At the end of the day, a Leader can only be as strong as their party, and this is true in more way than one. One of Labour’s most important mistakes over the last three years was spending it fighting internally and not talking to New Zealanders. Grant Robertson was right when he said that Labour wasn’t something that New Zealanders could hold in the palm of their hand. For all the nice billboards, the ‘Vote Positive’ and the cool averts, people couldn’t look at Labour and intuitively understand what it meant. National got this right. This meant that no matter how strong a Leader David Cunliffe may have, or may not have been, if the party he led meant nothing to people then he meant nothing to people. Labour’s job over the next three years is to ensure that it is not the Leader who defines it, but rather the Party defines itself through talking to New Zealanders and developing a solid offering for them. Andrew Little needs to represent and lead this brand – but Labour needs to help him create it. It’s bigger than just Andrew Little – Labour have made that mistake before and can’t again.
As I’ve said, the National Party and the Media are going to have a field day on Little for the election results, and Labour needs to back him. One particularly good Facebook post that I saw yesterday had this to say:
‘Patrick Gower seemed fixated on the fact that new Labour Leader Andrew Little got the position because of a strong vote from the unions. As if this was a bad thing.
Gower also said Key would focus his attacks on Little’s Union Boss background.
So what? There’s nothing to be ashamed about in standing up for better wages and working conditions for workers.’
I think this is very true. Labour has elected a leader from the roots of the Party, who has led the internal Party structure as President and represented it in Parliament. Andrew Little will bring this experience to New Zealand, but will combine this with a good historical relationship with businesses that will bring important support back to Labour. He can do this while wearing his union credentials on his sleeve with pride, and Labour should be proud of him too.
People conveniently forget too, that small majorities have become part of political landscape in New Zealand. The very electoral system that we have makes it almost impossible for any one party to get a majority of seats, and governments often hang on just one seat majority. It seems to have been forgotten too, that former National Leader Don Brash took the Leadership from Bill English with what is rumoured as a one vote majority. It is very short sighted, and hypocritical from some sectors to question the legitimacy of Andrew Little’s leadership based on the size of his win. The closeness of the race suggests to me that it was a hard fought and high calibre contest that demonstrates the depth of talent in the Labour Party. It should be a hard task to choose a leader, and that it came so close is just proof that democracy is alive and well in the Labour Party.
Another criticism of Little’s leadership is that without the support of a majority of caucus, he is doomed to be undermined by his MPs like David Cunliffe. However, it’s important to point out that there are some key differences between Little and Cunliffe. When Cunliffe ran for the leadership, there was an entrenched group of people that did not want him at the helm of the Party. With Little, no such group dedicated to stopping him exists. While, on the third ballot, more MPs may have given their preference to Grant Robertson, this does not necessarily suggest that they are opposed to the idea of Little as leader, it just means that their preferred choice was Robertson. We don’t know who those MPs put as their second choice, we don’t know how they feel about Little. We do know that there isn’t a faction specifically targeted at stopping him from ascending to the leadership. I don’t believe that Little will be undermined by caucus for these reasons. Besides, he has a reputation as a no nonsense leader who can cut through the crap and get on with the job. This is exactly what Labour needs, and perhaps if a few egos get squashed in the process then that wouldn’t hurt either.
Labour has chosen a good leader from an impressive democratic display. It’s up to the Party now to move out of the mourning period and into gear for 2017.