State of the Nation I - Andrew Little

Andrew Little kicked off the political year proper with his state of the nation address this morning, and it emphasised that Labour is under new management

It couldn't have been much more different, really. Andrew Little's state of the nation speech was conspicuously different from David Cunliffe's effort one year and one day ago.

I know, I know, it was election year, time was short and there was more on the line last year. And in looking at the different approaches, you can put a lot down to timing. But certainly not everything.

David Cunliffe knew he might only get one shot at a state of the nation speech as Opposition leader; odds were that the next one he'd be giving as Prime Minister or someone else would be giving as Labour boss. At the hear of his electorate he filled a school hall with cheering Labour supporters, played the dramatic music and gave a tub-thumping speech. He announced a bold new policy – the baby bonus – that said his priority was children and he laid into National.

Little did none of the above. He went to the Auckland CBD and spoke to a mostly business audience of movers and shakers in the new ASB building on North Wharf. Modern, relevant and classy, but far from Labour's heartland.

I joked with Phil Goff before going in that I hope he knew when to cheer and he laughed that he knew to cheer at every pause. Yet when the speech came there was not a sound from the audience.

Littl's speech didn't thump any tubs and didn't announce any new policies. Little's demeanour meant the speech was thoughtful and ticked a lot of boxes, but of pizazz there was none.

No music, no big intro (Jacinda Ardern got to back announce Little, whereas she gave the rousing intro to Cunliffe last year, so it seems she remains popular in the party), and no big entrance. Only notes on paper to read from.

Little's message was about "above all, jobs", which he stressed are as much about dignity as money. Much of the policy pathway seemed familiar – less dependence on commodities, modernised tech and manufacturing sectors, more government support for business where National has "given up", bolder reform where National is a "small beer" government.

It didn't fly far from the Parker playbook. What was new – in a back to Jim Anderton kind of way – was his focus on small business as the gateway to our success. It's small business that will create those dignified jobs and the wealth we need to create before we can spend more on those in need.

What's notable too is that Cunliffe waited until after Key had given his state of the nation last year to give his; he went for the last word, the trump card. Little has chosen to go head-to-head on the same day, stressing a 'cut the crap' approach. By going a few hours early, he's trying to steal some of Key's wind and put them side by side on the evening news, as equals.

The audience and the words positioned Little firmly in the centre of politics and economics; this is no "red" party as Cunliffe promised. Little seems to be willing to compromise and hug the centre to chip away at John Key to win, rather than try to move New Zealand politics to the left and win on his own terms, as Cunliffe seemed to want to do.

Little's introductory anecdote, meant to set the tone for his style of leadership, was about his working with Air New Zealand as a union boss to save engineering jobs form being shipped overseas. It showed a "win-win" and the power of working together, he said. Little is not one for class warfare, it seems. At least, he's doing his best to play down anything about his union past that may scare the punters.

So the public will see a moderate, reasonable, gritty man who cares about jobs and earning a buck with a decent day's work. More Springsteen than Stalin. Behind the scenes, there's talk of a safe pair of hands and steady decision-making, rather than Cunliffe's more last-minute, crisis-to-crisis style.

Labour will be hoping that decent, gritty, serious image contrasts well with John Key's jokey everyman style. And what Little has that Cunliffe didn't is time. The bet seems to be that people are tiring – or will by 2017 have tired – of Key's flippancy and New Zealand will value sure and steady.

We'll see how Key responds this afternoon.