Saturday, November 29, 2014

Karl du Fresne: Labour picked the right leader


Initial reaction to Andrew Little’s election as Labour Party leader was mostly dismissive. 
Critics pointed out that he couldn’t win his home town seat of New Plymouth and was lucky to squeak back into Parliament at all. They also made much of the fact that Little won the leadership contest by the narrowest of margins and wasn’t the choice of his fellow MPs.
We were repeatedly reminded that without union support, Little’s bid would have failed – choice propaganda material for the Right, given older New Zealanders’ memories of the damage done by militant trade unionism in the 1970s and 80s.

Then there were the jibes about Little being dour and humourless – a bit harsh, I thought, given that the entire leadership contest was a personality-free zone.
But while all of these criticisms were valid, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Labour under Little is doomed to continue its slide into self-destruction and irrelevancy.

My view is that even if he was elected by the skin of his teeth under a flawed process that gives too much power to the unions, Labour ended up with the right leader.
True, he’s not exactly charismatic, but neither was Helen Clark when she became Labour leader. She went on to win three terms.

I first met Little when he led the university students’ association in the late 1980s. I’ve had occasional dealings with him since then and found him personable, direct and straight.
Those last two qualities in particular are worth noting. Little doesn’t strike me as a man who seeks to ingratiate himself with people by saying whatever he thinks his audience might want to hear.

That sets him apart from his predecessor, David Cunliffe, and I suspect from Grant Robertson too.
Cunliffe was notable for talking tough in left-wing forums but then modifying his stance immediately afterwards.  He also brought ridicule on himself for apologising to a women’s refuge audience for being a man.

As for Robertson, he always seemed just a bit too keen to portray himself as one of the boys – a Kiwi bloke who liked nothing more than a night at the pub watching the footy. I suspect this was an over-reaction to the perception that people might be biased against him because he was gay.
Politicians often don’t seem to realise how transparent and calculating they look, but Little comes across as authentic. 

He comes from an unusual background. His father, a former British Army major, was a National Party stalwart who wrote trenchant letters to the papers, often on Middle East issues.
Major Little had served in the Middle East and was strongly pro-Palestinian – an unusual position for a National Party man. The younger Little may have inherited some of his father’s spirit even though they weren’t politically compatible.

Despite his union background, he’s no ideologue. He’s grounded in the real world and can speak the language of business people. I would suggest that of the four leadership contenders, he was by far the best placed to appeal to the centre ground.
He has made a good start with a series of confident media performances, which wouldn’t surprise those who know him, and a combative stance in the House.  His biggest challenge may not be reaching out to the country, but winning the support of ideologues in his faction-ridden party.

A factor in Little’s favour is that his mix of university education and union experience  make him ideally placed to bridge the gap between the disparate wings of the party – the latte-drinking, liberal inner-city dwellers on the one hand and the traditional blue-collar support base on the other.
The natural electoral cycle may work in his favour too. National governments are never less attractive than when they assume the triumphalist, born-to-rule manner that sometimes comes with third terms.

Besides, by 2017 New Zealanders may decide it’s time the balance was tipped back in favour of working people. Only last week, statistics confirmed that while the economy continues to grow and business profits keep rising, employees are enjoying only a small share of the gains.
This is a fair-minded country, and it goes against the grain that corporate salaries have risen to grotesque levels while wage earners struggle to keep up with the cost of living. 

The balance of power in the labour market has shifted radically. The trade union tyranny which New Zealand experienced a generation ago is no longer the risk. A much bigger problem now is corporate tyranny and arrogance.  
It follows that the prospect of a Little-led Labour government may not be quite as far-fetched as it first seems. 

Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. This article was first published in the Dominion Post.