Andrew Little's New Plymouth problem

There's a lot of smart money going on Andrew Little's bid to lead the Labour Party, but the numbers in New Plymouth don't lie. So what are they saying?

There's a lot of talk about "listening" in Labour circles these days. Announcing his bid for the party leadership, list MP Andrew Little named as his top priority "getting the process underway to listen to the voters who have abandoned us". Grant Robertson agrees, telling reporters last week "as we emerge from our heavy election defeat, we must now take the opportunity to listen".

I suspect Little and Robertson have in mind some version of a “Labour Listens” tour (as Neil Kinnock did in Britain in 1987 and Gordon Brown did in 2010), a series of carefully staged outreach events involving a great deal of ostentatious nodding and taking of things on board. This is all well and good, and may even help in the long run, but there’s no reason to wait for a bus trip to start the process. 

New Zealanders have said a great deal already, and in the most unequivocal terms imaginable: they have voted.

As it turns out, electors in New Plymouth haven't left much to the imagination when it comes to Little. Labour’s performance in the seat since he became the party’s local standard bearer has been disastrous. It seems worth analysing Little’s record in light of David Cunliffe's endorsement, not to mention his own acknowledgement that the next party leader will need to arrest the party’s decline by rebuilding the party and reconnecting with voters. "We don't have a choice,” Little told Lisa Owen on The Nation last weekend, “We've lost three elections in a row. Our vote has been going down. We're down to 32 MPs. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel”.

He should know. In the two elections since Little became Labour’s candidate in New Plymouth, National's party vote margin in the electorate has more than doubled from 6,600 to 13,000 votes. After a 5.8 percent two-party swing from Labour to National in 2011, there was a further 6.3 percent swing in New Plymouth this year – roughly three times worse than the nationwide average.

As the electorate candidate, Little also attracted 6,500 fewer electorate votes than in 2008 when the previous Labour member, Harry Duynhoven, lost the seat. After three years of resources and profile as a list MP based partly in New Plymouth, Little managed a 7.8 percent swing against him on the electorate vote this year, to compound the 6.7 percent he suffered in 2011. 

(The swings are slightly exaggerated by minor boundary changes prior to the 2014 that increased National's on-paper margin by 1.5 percent).

It’s true Labour is doing badly overall across electorates in provincial New Zealand, but not as badly as Andrew Little. Contrast Little’s record in New Plymouth with Hamilton West’s Labour stalwart, Sue Moroney, whose knack for delivering larger and larger majorities to her opponents has been dubbed the ‘Moroney Effect’ by National Party insiders. In both party and electorate vote terms, the two-party swing away from Labour and Moroney in Hamilton West in 2011 and 2014 was less drastic than for Little in New Plymouth: the two party swing to National was 5.7 percent in 2011 and 3 percent in 2014, while the electorate vote swing away from Moroney’s was 5 percent and 2.3 percent respectively. 

As a campaigner, Andrew Little is a known quantity in exactly the kind of electorate where Labour needs to make inroads. There are empirical grounds to assess whether he has the kind of attributes needed to turn Labour’s fortunes around – and it’s a grim picture.  

I am full of admiration for Andrew Little. He has dedicated his life to serving the aspirations of working people. He has a great deal to offer as a Labour frontbencher for many years to come.  

But numbers don’t lie. As Labour’s candidate in New Plymouth – a seat the party held six years ago and should aspire to again – Little has reliably underperformed both in party and electorate vote terms. He has helped turn a knife-edge marginal into a National Party fortress.

Labour needs a leader capable of driving the party’s vote from 25 percent under Cunliffe to as close to 40 percent as humanly possible. The media frenzy surrounding his well orchestrated leadership announcement notwithstanding, Andrew Little’s campaigning record strongly suggests he is not that leader.