Labour really needed to start election year strongly. There is no sign of that so far.
Labour had a fairly ordinary year in 2016. And ordinary wasn’t good enough.
Andrew Little seems to have established himself as unchallenged leader and has kept the Labour caucus under control, but he has failed to grow into the job.
Mid year Labour signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Green Party, with the apparent aim of presenting a joint approach as a government-in-waiting. Some said that it was a game changer. It seems to have changed nothing – to the contrary, it has entrenched Labour as a struggling mid level party that requires another party as a crutch.
Labour had some successes later in the year. They were very pleased with their efforts in the local body elections, especially in Wellington (ex leader Phil Goff managed in Auckland more on his own).
They had a successful by-election in Mt Roskill, with Michael Wood replacing Goff, and they said this was a great trial run for the general election.
The post-by-election confidence turned into euphoria when John Key announced he was stepping down. Labour seemed to see this as a gift from political heaven, another game changer.
But nothing much seems to have changed.
A Roy Morgan poll taken over the period of Key’s announcement showed a recovery for Labour to 28.5% from an outlier low of 23%, but their January poll just out has Labour slipping to 27%, and Labour+Greens dropped 3.5 to 39.5%.
Colmar Brunton’s last poll in November had Labour at 28%.
Little conceded recently that Labour was polling poorly – “I have to lead a party that starts from 2014 at a 25 per cent vote, polling at the moment at late 20s, 30 per cent sort of mark. So we have a lot of work to do, and I don’t underestimate that.”
But the work he has done so far this year is unimpressive.
This week Little announced that he wouldn’t be standing for the safe Rongotai electorate and would go list only. He should have said this as soon as Annette King announced she would stand down before the Christmas break.
Little also joined the political fray over Pike River, attacking Winston Peters and offering a solution to re-entry. He will present a bill to Parliament that will dispense with responsibility for safety of entering the mine – something he had lobbied hard to embed in legislation.
On social media Labour has put some effort into negative campaigning, attacking Bill English a number of times. This seems to be repeating the failed strategy of attacking Key over a decade.
Labour thought that the Mt Albert by-election in February would be a good opportunity for them to promote themselves, get positive media coverage, and have another trial run for the general election.
But they may have walked into potential jeopardy, with Greens standing a candidate against them.
Standing Jacinda Ardern looks a bit like rearranging the deck chairs. At best Ardern will win the seat with a comfortable majority. That’s what is expected.
But it could be worse than that.If it looks like a jacked up joint publicity between Labour and Greens the voters may rebel.
Julie Anne Genter looks like a stronger candidate, and the Greens will want to put in a strong showing for themselves. They won’t want to just bolster Labour.
If Ardern’s vote slips too much, and if Genter seriously challenges her, it could turn to custard for Labour. The reality is that the best way that Green can grow their vote is to cannibalise Labour support.
Little and Labour really have to up their game. So far this year there is no sign of that happening.
Little has said their will be few if any major policy announcements – they will concentrate on highlighting common policies with Greens.
Little will share his ‘state of the nation’ speech platform with Metiria Turei.
There is no real leadership from Little, there is no real leadership from Labour. They look nothing like a head to head competitor with National.
There may be some big change or some big event that turns out to be a real game changer for Labour. Little may suddenly find a way of engaging and impressing. Plodding along won’t suffice – they need to change their game significantly.
But at this stage Labour looks like they are sleepwalking towards a nightmare election.