MPs should not be fooled into believing that removing Little will solve the party’s long-term problems any more than it did the last three times they changed leader, writes Phil Quin
In the months and weeks leading up to an election, underperforming parties typically experience a kind of Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For Labour MPs, I’m told, symptoms struck acutely over the past 24 hours as both external and internal polling suggests the election is over before it started.
Andrew Little has entered the most perilous phase of his tenure to date. As I write, ”discussions are underway” as to his future — a passive-voice way of saying “people doing numbers”. Who knows whether it means the party will change leaders for the fourth time in nine years, but rarely do incumbents survive once the cutlasses are sharpened. Helen Clark, circa 1996, is the exception that proves the rule. (Andrew Little, it almost goes without saying, is no Helen Clark).
It’s hard to find fault with MPs wanting a change of direction when the current one leads directly over a cliff. Little doesn’t help his case by falling short in the likeability stakes, either. But MPs should not be fooled into believing that removing Little for Robertson or Ardern solves the party’s long-term problems any more than it did the last three times they changed leader.
Inasmuch as they have contributed to the decline of Labour’s organisation, finances, talent pool and electoral fortunes, all MPs, as well as officials outside Parliament, must step up alongside Little to take responsibility for the state in which the party finds itself. If a consequence of ditching Little before the election is that the party once again endures defeat without a proper examination of its causes, then better hold off and weather the landslide. Perhaps only a crushing defeat of Cunliffe-plus proportions will force Labour to confront its structural weaknesses.
Labour’s leadership rules, which allow the caucus to directly elect the leader in the immediate pre-election period, has always presented something of a risk to Little. After all, he ascended to the job on the back of affiliates, with next to no support from fellow MPs.
If, six months from now, Labour continues to blame everyone but themselves after a decade of defeat, it won’t matter one bit who happens to be at the wheel.
If they could install a preferred candidate with only caucus votes, and without unduly agitating party activists — who might otherwise force another spill post election — why wouldn’t MPs do exactly that? The polling woes of late help establish a plausible rationale for ousting Little without creating internal havoc.
Under this scenario, It’s easy to see a path for Grant Robertson as the consensus candidate, but only after Ardern demurs and Robertson himself feigns reluctance. After preemptively opting out of future leadership contests, Robertson has created a small but manageable problem that can be resolved simply by appearing to have been drafted. If Ardern’s purported reluctance is genuine — and I have no reason to doubt it — current conditions may have aligned optimally for her mate Grant.
Without reforming the party, though, the next leader will find themselves exactly where Little is in three years’ time. To avoid such a fate, they need to conduct a fearless review of the party performance over the past decade: to analyse why Labour’s core support has declined to such unsustainable levels; why provincial voters in particular have deserted them in droves; and why the party cannot raise funds, devise compelling policy, or even manage some American interns. And, unless Labour is willing to surrender once and for all its broad church status, the new leader must oversee to completion the resulting effort to modernise and professionalise the party.
It will be profoundly offensive to some people, and speaking unpalatable truths is not a strength I’ve witnessed in either Ardern or Robertson. But every new leader offers a fleeting window for meaningful change, and standing still isn’t working. If, six months from now, Labour continues to blame everyone but themselves after a decade of defeat, it won’t matter one bit who happens to be at the wheel.