The Labour Party has an ‘L’ problem but it is not its list.

As awkward as the flare-up over Willie Jackson’s place has been, the list process is actually an example of a party sticking to its principles and not bowing to an ego.

The ‘L’ which is really going to challenge the party through this general election campaign is that of its leader, Andrew Little.

Little has had a mixed past month  – escaping a risky defamation verdict but erring by implying a Little government would substantially cut immigrant numbers by more than seems possible.

His wooing of the volatile Jackson, who left a radio job that he proudly said paid more for three hours a day than an MP could earn, was always risky.  On Monday, Jackson proved that, with a petulance at being ranked No 21 on the Labour list of 74 – which today has Little talking all about Jackson, not the broader list.

Little defends the placement of Jackson as the ‘winnable’ list place he, Little, had wanted. By one estimate Labour would need to poll about 30 percent on election day for Jackson, a former Alliance MP, to sneak back to Parliament.

For Little, if the party doesn’t get 30 percent, Jackson’s need for a new career is the least of his problems. He just must get above 30 or no one in Labour succeeds.  Labour needs, between now and September 23 to go from its current polling of around 30 to about 35 or 36 (a percentage point a month) if it can be in the ascendancy when the vote is counted.

Anything much lower and a prospective coalition with the Greens would be out of balance. Crucially, any lower and Winston Peters of NZ First, should he hold current polling of around 10 percent, would find it hard to back a Labour-led effort which would have fallen well behind National.

Little has become a better television communicator, off a low base and against an equally uncharismatic National leader.  But he’s still coming across two-dimensionally.  If I had a dollar for every time an Opposition party MP or member had told me their unpopular leader was terrific and would be a winner if the public could just see him or her one-to-one, or in small groups, I’d be flush.  Palmer, Bolger, Clark, English, Goff, Shearer, Cunliffe, and now Little.

The L word problem – his image and communication issue – is one that Labour’s MPs, candidates, and volunteers will strike on the doorsteps. 

His deputy Jacinda Ardern hit it at a Wintec Press Club lunch last Friday. In what might have been a chummy question and answer session, she was grilled repeatedly on the Little factor.  Direct, personal stuff like (paraphrasing here) “As a woman, how can you let a male who is plainly inferior to you retain the leadership?’, and (actual question)  “Does Andrew Little tend to dull your shine?”

The answer to that last one was, as always, diplomatic: “Part of my job is standing alongside Andrew helping people to get to know him.”

There was no let-up, with journalists in the audience asking: “Do you sometimes feel like a winner in a loser’s party?” (No direct answer), and how it felt to out-poll Little in preferred Prime Minister surveys.  Again, Ardern tried hard: Little had to focus on the party vote, and ‘because of my unusual name, I tend to pop up a little.’

She’s not the only MP being confronted over the party leader’s polling and performance. Other MPs try to stay cool when talking about Little’s TV performances, and that marooned polling figure of just under or on 30 percent.  The sensitivity is evident as much in what they don’t – or can’t – say as much as what they do. But there doesn’t seem to be, yet, enough overt confidence in Little bringing home the government benches.

Little told the AM Show today Labour is getting on with the issues people care about, (naming the first four as housing, ‘managing immigration’, cleaning up the rivers and raising people’s wages) not things like list controversies no one ‘gives a rat’s about.’

There’s another issue that might matter, a lot: his own appeal and performance.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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