Saving the furniture: How much more can Labour stand?

It's late in the day, but the Colmar Brunton poll finally put the question of Labour's leadership front and centre. Under MMP the answers are complex, but it recalls the twists and turns of 1990

In 1990, Mike Moore took on the Labour leadership from Geoffrey Palmer to "save the furniture", as polls suggested they faced a brutal loss that could see them lose a bunch of what were considered safe Labour seats. Tonight, the Labour Party is again agonising over such a decision and what might be rescued just seven weeks from election day.

Labour leader Andrew Little - with his party sitting on 24 percent, its lowest level in more than 20 years in that poll - has even told One News he has discussed with senior colleagues whether he should stand down. That's a frank and perhaps admirably honest admission, but it's hard to imagine voters seeing being convinced to vote for someone who isn't even convinced himself that he could and should be PM. (Remember Helen Clark staring down those who dared to suggest someone else might lead? It was that resolve voters came to admire for three terms).

The plight Labour faced then is in many ways starkly different from its dilemma now. Then it had spent two terms in power and it was a party carrying raw wounds - divided both ideologically and as individuals. Now, Labour has spent three terms in opposition and time and again has wasted opportunities to properly rejuvinate and redefine itself, for too long focused on its internal issues and waiting for 'its turn', rather than working itself back into voters' trust.

It has largely healed itself, but is failing, for now at least, to convince voters it offers a serious alternative, even to a - let's face it - slightly stale third term National government let by a hardly dynamic 30-year veteran, in Bill English.

The consequences are dire: The potential of no list MPs. That would mean the end of David Parker's parliamentary career, not to mention Trevor Mallard and poor old Raymond Huo. It would mean no Willie Jackson comeback. And Labour would also lose some of its much-needed refreshment candidates, such as Kiri Allan and Willow-Jean Prime.

In 1990, just like now, it was polls that sparked talk of change and the change itself. As Moore told Guyon Espiner and me in The 9th Floor:

"I couldn’t win. My job was to save the furniture...Well the polls were in free-fall. We did some polling - we would’ve lost Onehunga, for godsake."

And that wouldn't have been all. They feared losing Phil Goff in Mt Roskill, Annette King in Rongotai and, yes, even Helen Clark in Mt Albert. It's one of those interesting quirks of history that Moore's willingess to heed his party's call possibly saved the career of the women who just three years later would roll him.

A better calculation for Moore personally might have been to let Palmer take the loss and take over after the election. But he feared Labour was "terminal". To quote the Mother of Dragons, he didn't want to rule over ashes. He hoped to pick up 5-10 percent so that his beloved party might have a way back in three or six years. And it worked, though he got little thanks for it then and probably less now. It cost him.

But this time it's different. Labour isn't in power. But mostly, it's MMP now. Then, Moore knew he couldn't win. There may be hope in Labour today that someone else might. The cold calculation Moore didn't make - to come in after the loss - doesn't apply here. A 5-10 percent boost for Labour could propel it to power. Get back around 30, especially if some of that vote is taken from National, and the possibility of a coalition with New Zealand First and the Greens (or with one on the cross-benches) is real again. Further, a new Labour leader today would have a clear run in the next term if Labour did find itself again in opposition. And he or she would be up against either an even staler National-led four way or a government with Winston Peters at its heart.

Those are the sort of odds Moore would have cut off his left arm for.

As it stands, a change of government looks unlikely. On one hand Little's Labour simply isn't engaging with voters, despite a suite of perfectly acceptable - in some cases outright populist - policies. Despite what Little said when he took over and what some in Labour have long told themselves, the party's slide into the 20s has never been about the policies. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

On the other hand, the Greens have burnt off some voters who would have been backing Labour. My guess is they've shored up National and New Zealand First. The Greens, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, have clearly decided 'bugger the MoU' and have gone out for every vote they can. It's a strategy that has grown their vote, but made their overall strategic goal less likely.

So should Little follow Palmer's example? (And what would Palmer advise now, I wonder?). In researching The 9th Floor I found mixed views on whether the switch to Moore made much difference to the final result. Many think last-minute changes have more of a psyhcological impact than an electoral one.

But again: MMP. This is different. This time there are two other parties actively courting Labour voters - and neither are its natural enemies. And we have more presidential-style elections, so voters may be more wary to rally behind a new leader for Prime Minister.

Yet if the momentum for change became irresistible, who plays the role of Moore? Sadly for Labour, they lack an experienced old populist like Moore, who might play to the crowd and has had sufficient senior ministerial roles to look Prime Ministerial.

Jacinda Ardern is on the billboards, and as Tracy Watkins has already written, those billboards and the cost of replacing them may be the only thing saving Little at the moment.

Ardern has shown little ambition for the top job. Indeed, she has denied interest in it more vehemently than one usually does then doing so for appearances' sake.

 The only real option would seem to be Grant Robertson, who has performed well in media this year and as Finance spokesman knows the policies, numbers and has fronted recent policy announcement. We know Labour's caucus preferred him anyway. And they have the power. Labour's constitution allows caucus alone the power to change leader within the three months prior to an election.

Robertson's problem remains, as ever, that he simply hasn't ever made a big name for himself and remains relatively unknown for someone who might want to be Prime Minister in two months.

But if another poll or two show Labour this low, is Labour willing to risk it all? Can Little remain where he is if the polls stay where they are? Surely some, like Moore, must be wondering if it might be terminal and whether they are duty bound to act. If for nothing else than to save the furniture.