HOME RUN

With the elec­tion cam­paign about to be­gin, Labour leader An­drew Lit­tle is run­ning out of time to con­vince New Zealan­ders he should be our next Prime Min­is­ter. Mike White fol­lowed Lit­tle for six months, reg­u­larly rid­ing the bus home with him from Par­lia­men

North & South - - In This Issue -

With the elec­tion cam­paign about to be­gin, Mike White rides the night bus to Is­land Bay with the man who would be Prime Min­is­ter, Labour leader An­drew Lit­tle.

down to catch the bus home, the No. 1 to Is­land Bay in Welling­ton’s south.

He likes the bus. It’s a chance to press the flesh a bit, a chance to travel with real peo­ple, to save tax­pay­ers a bit of money by not us­ing his Crown limo. It’s think­ing time, go­ing over the day to the rhythm of the bus, the ping of the stop but­ton, the quick com­pres­sion of the doors, the “Thank you, driver” of those alight­ing.

On Valen­tine’s Day, lovers are few. Just glum Welling­ton Phoenix sup­port­ers curs­ing an­other loss, public ser­vants pulling a late shift, and aim­less uni stu­dents new to town. Cabs cruise for date-night car­rion; clean­ers un­load buck­ets from cheap sta­tion­wag­ons out­side of­fice blocks; tired work­ers board the bus with shop­ping bags of mi­crowave meals and chips.

There’d been lit­tle time for ro­mance

be­tween Lit­tle and his wife, though she left him a bunch of red roses this morn­ing and he re­sponded with a card and choco­lates.

They got to­gether in 1999. She was a nurse run­ning a brain-in­jury re­hab unit, he was a lawyer with the En­gi­neers’ Union. She asked for ad­vice on an em­ploy­ment con­tract, he asked if she’d like to go to a Keb Mo con­cert. They shifted in to­gether, had Cam in 2001, and got mar­ried in 2008.

Lit­tle wasn’t even an MP then; now he’s Labour’s leader and aim­ing to be­come Prime Min­is­ter in Septem­ber.

He launched the po­lit­i­cal year in late Jan­uary with his state of the na­tion speech at the Mt Al­bert War Me­mo­rial Hall in Auck­land. A sup­porter be­hind him yawned of­ten dur­ing his ad­dress, Green can­di­date Ch­löe Swar­brick was at­ten­tive and ap­plauded, and Lit­tle spoke about his re­cov­ery from prostate can­cer. There was talk of tough fights, brav­ery, giv­ing a damn, of bal­anc­ing the books and build­ing a bet­ter New Zealand. There was an ova­tion.

A week later at Wai­tangi, he chided Prime Min­is­ter Bill English for his ab­sence and an­nounced con­tro­ver­sial broad­caster and for­mer Al­liance MP Wil­lie Jack­son was join­ing Labour. He’d hoped for a pub­lic­ity tri­umph with his new star can­di­date, but it turned to shit, with in­ter­nal bitch­ing about Jack­son’s past sins and too many men crammed into Labour’s list.

By the time Par­lia­ment re­turned on Fe­bru­ary 7, Labour back­bencher Poto Wil­liams had pub­licly slagged Jack­son, de­spite promis­ing Lit­tle that she wouldn’t. The per­cep­tion of su­per­fi­cial unity and fickle loy­alty to Lit­tle seeped from ev­ery head­line. Bloody Labour, still can’t get it to­gether, they whis­pered.

LIT­TLE’S PATH to Labour’s lead­er­ship, to prime-min­is­te­rial pre­tender, was in some ways or­dained, in oth­ers, a fluke of caprice and cir­cum­stance.

Mother, Cicely. Fa­ther, Bill – William Os­car Lit­tle. Bill had stud­ied zo­ol­ogy at Cam­bridge Univer­sity, learnt Ara­bic while serv­ing in the Mid­dle East as its borders were reimag­ined, been a driv­ing in­struc­tor, and in 1962 an­swered a re­cruit­ing call for teach­ers in New Zealand. He ar­rived with clipped mous­tache and plummy ac­cent, and taught science at New Ply­mouth Girls’ High.

Cicely had been a med­i­cal sec­re­tary in London’s Har­ley St, met Bill dur­ing a driv­ing les­son, and had five chil­dren in five years with him – An­drew be­ing the last to ar­rive, with twin sis­ter Val, in 1965.

There was a big ram­bling home in a mid­dle-class sub­urb. There were bed­rooms shared with broth­ers, and handme- down clothes. Noth­ing was flash, but noth­ing was want­ing.

Bill was a con­ser­va­tive and a Na­tional Party com­mit­tee mem­ber. “My first po­lit­i­cal act was, as a 10-year-old, de­liv­er­ing fliers for the lo­cal Na­tional Party can­di­date,” re­calls Lit­tle. “Never again.”

In the years that fol­lowed, his older sis­ter ex­posed him to pro­gres­sive ideas she’d picked up at univer­sity, and by the 1981 Spring­bok tour, Lit­tle was ar­gu­ing with his fa­ther about apartheid.

Piqued by Arthur Al­lan Thomas’s wrong­ful jail­ing, and fas­ci­nated by the Ere­bus tragedy in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Lit­tle de­cided to do law at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity.

In Fe­bru­ary 1983, he stepped off a bus in Welling­ton, the first time he’d been to the cap­i­tal, and be­gan a stu­dent life that would last nearly a decade – and a po­lit­i­cal im­mer­sion that’s led to this year’s elec­tion. By 1987, he was Vic­to­ria’s stu­dent president, and then na­tional stu­dents’ union president for the fol­low­ing two years. He com­pleted his law and arts de­grees, took a job as a lawyer for the En­gi­neers’ Union, and in 2000, at the age of 34, was elected to head what had be­come the En­gi­neer­ing, Print­ing and Man­u­fac­tur­ing Union (EPMU), the coun­try’s largest pri­vate­sec­tor union. There had al­ways been talk of Lit­tle en­ter­ing pol­i­tics, but he held off, in­stead becoming Labour Party president.

Fi­nally, in 2011, he stood for the party in New Ply­mouth, and got thumped by 4000 votes, but made it into Par­lia­ment on Labour’s list. As Labour strug­gled against an om­nipo­tent John Key, Lit­tle’s im­pact was neg­li­gi­ble, and in 2014 he was again trounced in New Ply­mouth by Na­tional’s Jonathan Young, hardly a charis­matic po­lit­i­cal ti­tan. This time, the ma­jor­ity blew out to nearly 10,000 votes. For two weeks, while spe­cial votes were counted, Lit­tle wasn’t even guar­an­teed to sur­vive in Par­lia­ment, be­ing the last can­di­date on Labour’s list to make the cut.

Given this, it sur­prised many and stag­gered oth­ers that Lit­tle put his name for­ward for the party lead­er­ship along­side Grant Robertson, Nanaia Mahuta and David Parker, when David Cun­liffe re­signed fol­low­ing 2014’s dis­as­trous elec­tion. “I thought I had the best range of skills and ex­pe­ri­ence on of­fer,” he says. “At a time when we’d suf­fered our third elec­tion de­feat, I thought we needed to be pre­pared to do things dif­fer­ently, and I thought I could do that bet­ter than any­body else.”

Labour’s vot­ing sys­tem sees three sec­tors choose the leader: its MPS get 40 per cent of the vote, party mem­bers 40 per cent, and unions 20 per cent. Lit­tle knew he had scant sup­port from other MPS, “but I’d rung around the whole cau­cus and said, ‘If I stood, and if I won, would you sup­port me? I’m not ask­ing for your vote in the first bal­lot, but just, if I win, can you work with me?’ Every­body said yes.”

Of Labour’s 31 MPS, only three oth­ers sup­ported him in the first round of vot­ing – the low­est back­ing for any can­di­date. Grant Robertson, mean­while, was the clear favourite with both MPS and party mem­bers (only a quar­ter of whom sup­ported Lit­tle in the first round). But where Lit­tle suc­ceeded, un­sur­pris­ingly, was with the unions, even­tu­ally pick­ing up 75 per cent of their vote. Af­ter three rounds of vot­ing, Lit­tle had gained 50.52 per cent of the to­tal vote, to Robertson’s 49.48 per cent.

While Lit­tle grad­u­ally united the

It sur­prised many and stag­gered oth­ers that Lit­tle put his name for­ward for the party lead­er­ship when David Cun­liffe re­signed fol­low­ing 2014’s dis­as­trous elec­tion.

cau­cus, the re­sponse from else­where has of­ten been cool.

A year into his ten­ure, The Do­min­ion Post pub­lished an ex­co­ri­at­ing ed­i­to­rial ti­tled, “An­drew Lit­tle is not the man to lead Labour out of the wilder­ness”. It char­ac­terised Lit­tle’s an­nual con­fer­ence speech as “awk­ward and un­con­vinc­ing… bel­low­ing… empty pos­tur­ing… blus­ter­ing”, and ended with the de­nun­ci­a­tion: “Nei­ther as a union politi­cian nor as a par­lia­men­tar­ian has Lit­tle been a bold or lively re­former. He has lit­tle charisma and a lack of new ideas.”

A year later, po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist Barry Soper de­scribed Lit­tle as “so earnest that he’s more like a trauma ther­a­pist”, with a sense of hu­mour seen “about as fre­quently as a so­lar eclipse”.

Soper laid the blame for Labour’s con­tin­ued low polling – un­der 30 per cent – squarely with Lit­tle and his in­abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate. Lit­tle is Labour’s fifth leader in eight years and all were swat­ted aside by the im­per­vi­ous, im­pe­ri­ous Key, none able to get within about 15 per­cent­age points of Na­tional in the polls.

Soper’s take was pub­lished on De­cem­ber 2, 2016. Three days later, at 12.45pm, a re­mark­able and ut­terly un­fore­seen thing hap­pened: John Key an­nounced he was re­sign­ing as Prime Min­is­ter.

An hour later, Lit­tle was in­ter­viewed on ra­dio and did his best to ap­pear gra­cious. Five min­utes later, he gave a press con­fer­ence; his deputy, An­nette King, on one side, the New Zealand flag on the other. He re­mained diplo­matic and thanked Key for his ser­vice. But his eyes gave away his as­ton­ish­ment and ex­cite­ment. A straight­ness replaced any stoop, the cor­ners of his mouth in­clined to a smile, and you sensed that as soon as the re­porters left, he danced a wee jig of po­lit­i­cal mer­ri­ment. Fi­nally, sud­denly, he could have a chance – he could be Prime Min­is­ter.

APRIL 11, 10.20PM: COURTE­NAY PLACE NEAR TARANAKI ST, STOP 5514 An­drew Lit­tle was get­ting his hair cut just round the cor­ner from here when he heard the jury was com­ing back. For weeks, he fought al­le­ga­tions that he de­famed ho­tel own­ers Lani and Earl Haga­man by sug­gest­ing they re­ceived favourable treat­ment for a do­na­tion to the Na­tional Party. And for four days last week, he sat in Welling­ton’s High Court fac­ing pos­si­ble dam­ages of $2.3 mil­lion: off the cam­paign trail, on ev­ery news broad­cast, ac­cused of a lack of judg­ment and con­tri­tion.

Yes­ter­day, while the jury de­lib­er­ated, he de­cided, bug­ger it, he’d carry on with his sched­ule, and trav­elled up the Kapiti Coast. He vis­ited a re­built pri­mary school in Para­pa­raumu. He smiled and obliged, but seemed dis­tracted. Then there was a lunch for Labour Party mem­bers in Paekakariki. French toast and fish and chips. About 25 peo­ple, back­ground mu­sic and a hiss­ing es­presso ma­chine mak­ing Lit­tle raise his voice as he spoke of health and ed­u­ca­tion and wa­ter we can swim in.

Six­teen-year- old Kapiti Col­lege stu­dents So­phie Hand­ford and Ni­amh Pren­der­gast came along to learn more about Labour’s leader, even though they

can’t vote yet. They reck­oned if you showed 20 of their fel­low stu­dents a pic­ture of Lit­tle, maybe five might recog­nise him. A few more would know who Bill English was.

“If you showed peo­ple a photo of John Key, ev­ery single per­son out of the 20 would recog­nise him,” said Hand­ford.

“And prob­a­bly more peo­ple would know who Max Key was than An­drew Lit­tle – which is a sad thing,” added Pren­der­gast.

At the other end of the ta­ble was 88-year- old John Grundy, a for­mer Methodist min­is­ter who’d been a Labour mem­ber for more than 60 years and seen count­less party lead­ers in that time. So how did Lit­tle rate?

Grundy paused and hedged a bit. “I think he’s straight-talk­ing. I think when he’s the prime min­is­ter, he’ll be­come a rea­son­ably pop­u­lar prime min­is­ter.” There was a sense of Lit­tle be­ing con­demned by qual­i­fi­ca­tion and modest com­pli­ment as Grundy con­tin­ued. “He will de­velop gifts in lead­er­ship he may not have at the mo­ment.”

An­other at­tendee de­scribed Lit­tle as “solid”. It was the kind of de­scrip­tion you give to a re­serve prop who trains hard but rarely makes the team. Or an un­re­mark­able clerk who ticks boxes Mon­day to Fri­day. And this was from those pre­dis­posed to flat­ter him.

Back in Welling­ton that af­ter­noon, the Haga­man jury was still out, so Lit­tle went to get his hair cut in Taranaki St. “I got a phone call to say the jury was go­ing to be back in 10 min­utes. But I said to the bar­ber, ‘Nah, just carry on.’”

When he got back to the of­fice, it was ex­plained he’d been cleared on many charges and the jury hadn’t been able to reach a de­ci­sion on the oth­ers – a re­sult Lit­tle ad­mit­ted was bet­ter than he’d ex­pected. Now he could get back on the road, hold­ing meet­ings in small towns and cities, in­tro­duc­ing him­self and new deputy Jacinda Ardern.

Their first public out­ing was in early March at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity’s ori­en­ta­tion week. They wan­dered among stu­dents with Macs on their laps and sushi for lunch. The univer­sity clubs had

“Prob­a­bly more peo­ple would know who Max Key was than An­drew Lit­tle – which is a sad thing.” NI­AMH PREN­DER­GAST, 16

stalls – Lit­tle moved from lacrosse to sci-fi to ca­noe polo, hap­pily back on his old cam­pus. The only dis­rup­tion was a preppy New Zealand First acolyte try­ing to pho­to­bomb Lit­tle’s in­ter­ac­tions. He was gen­tly shep­herded away by red-shirted Labour youth.

That even­ing, 200 peo­ple packed out a public meet­ing at the cap­i­tal’s Botanic Gar­dens as late sun tinged the tops of cab­bage trees. Ardern in­tro­duced Lit­tle, say­ing he was un­flap­pable, fo­cused and de­ter­mined. “And all that de­ter­mi­na­tion is fo­cused on his huge sense of so­cial jus­tice.”

Lit­tle’s speech was force­ful, high­light­ing hous­ing, de­liv­ered in a voice that per­pet­u­ally sounds like it needs a squirt of CRC. “If you like what you’ve heard tonight, if you be­lieve in what you’ve heard tonight, if you be­lieve in a New Zealand that gives every­body a bet­ter chance, more fair­ness, bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties, then hop on board, help out.”

As party faith­ful spilt out into the twi­light, most seemed sat­is­fied, or even marginally en­er­gised by Lit­tle’s per- for­mance. “I just think,” started a woman in a flow­ing dress, “that we’re mup­pets if we don’t vote for them.”

THE PER­SON Ardern replaced at Lit­tle’s po­lit­i­cal side was An­nette King, who’d helped him rally a cau­cus pre­vi­ously fac­tion­alised un­der David Cun­liffe like a Byzan­tine court.

King says Lit­tle is “not your typ­i­cal politi­cian. Not the flash-harry politi­cian. He’s a very se­ri­ous politi­cian, a very con­sid­ered politi­cian.”

He’s pri­vate, loyal, a man of his word, she says. “But he has a re­ally great sense of hu­mour and he’s got a beau­ti­ful singing voice… That’s some­thing a lot of peo­ple don’t know about him.”

Mike Wil­liams didn’t know that, ei­ther – and you’d think the po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor might have, given he’s known Lit­tle since his union days and pre­ceded him as Labour Party president.

As far back as Jan­uary, Wil­liams was sug­gest­ing Lit­tle be­come more three­d­i­men­sional, so the public could see him as a per­son, as well as a politi­cian. Ev­ery- one knew who John Key’s wife and kids were – they even knew his cat’s name, Wil­liams says. Lit­tle’s life be­yond Par­lia­ment largely re­mains an enigma.

Asked if Lit­tle is the right per­son to lead Labour, Wil­liams replies: “He’s the best they’ve got at the mo­ment, I think.” He im­me­di­ately ad­mits that’s scarcely ful­some en­dorse­ment, and adds that Lit­tle is grow­ing into the job. “There’ve been no great dis­as­ters un­der An­drew. He hasn’t got up and said, ‘I’m sorry I’m a man’ or some­thing.”

Wil­liams says his fin­gers are crossed that Lit­tle’s ap­peal and Labour’s static polling – rooted any­where be­tween 26 and 32 per cent – will im­prove dur­ing the cam­paign’s thrust and parry. “Watch this space, I still hope to be in­spired.”

Time and again, those who know Lit­tle de­scribe his dry wit and easy com­pany – then suf­fix that with puz­zle­ment this doesn’t come across in the me­dia. They wish he’d “lighten the fuck up”, and pre­scribe “a beer for break­fast”. When Lit­tle ran for Par­lia­ment in 2011, the Lis­tener’s Diana Wich­tel de­scribed

“What wor­ries most of us who have an af­fec­tion for An­drew is whether he’s ac­tu­ally just a bit too de­cent to sur­vive in pol­i­tics.” LAWYER CHRIS EL­LIS

him as hav­ing “the sober public air of a man born slightly mid­dle-aged”. His po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents have tried to make the “An­gry Andy” tag stick.

Porirua com­mu­nity law cen­tre solic­i­tor Chris El­lis was at law school with Lit­tle – and with Wayne Ea­gle­son, chief of staff for John Key and Bill English, who was al­ready a mem­ber of the Young Nats in those days.

Both Lit­tle and Ea­gle­son have main­tained their early po­lit­i­cal stripes, with Ea­gle­son the Na­tional Party’s emi­nence grise, “the Car­di­nal Riche­lieu of the Bee­hive,” says El­lis. “And An­drew is what he is – a pa­tently hon­est, straight-up kind of guy… he’s al­ways been in there bat­tling for the lit­tle guy, and mak­ing sure they get a fair shake. And what wor­ries most of us who have an af­fec­tion for An­drew is whether he’s ac­tu­ally just a bit too de­cent to sur­vive in pol­i­tics.”

El­lis says the fact Lit­tle takes his job and pol­i­tics se­ri­ously has al­most be­come a flaw in the eyes of the public, who ex­pect John Key’s blok­i­ness, re­spond to Bill English’s “hokey farm­yard charm”, or wish for the Os­car Wilde wit and one-lin­ers of David Lange. “An un­leav­ened diet of earnest­ness and heart­felt bloody an­guish about our cur­rent predica­ment is pretty hard to stom­ach. It’s a level of anx­i­ety which comes across as a kind of slightly of­fen­sive rec­ti­tude – and I know that’s not there,” says El­lis.

“Are you still talk­ing to him?” he asks. “Will you tell him Chris El­lis has made an of­fer to help him gag up his speeches. That’ll make him laugh. But I kind of am se­ri­ous. I’d love to sit him down with some­body who re­spects his view­point, like [play­wright] Dave Arm­strong, and just say, ‘Okay, that’s the speech you were go­ing to give, and here’s the speech that we would give, if we were play­ing just slightly more to the gallery. And then you find the mid­dle line. But un­less you do this 10 more times be­tween now and Septem­ber, we have grave fears for your safety.’”

MAY 9, 10.27PM: WELLING­TON HOSPI­TAL, RIDDIFORD ST, STOP 6017 Lit­tle’s son, Cam, was born here.

In five days, Lit­tle is due to give one of his most im­por­tant speeches of the year, at the party’s congress, and he’s been writ­ing it tonight. He wrote about Cam, re­call­ing how he and Leigh brought their baby home and put him in his cot, us­ing the mem­ory to em­pha­sise the im­por­tance of hav­ing an af­ford­able, warm house. Cam is al­most 16 now, at col­lege with one of Bill English’s boys, a bit harder to put to bed nowa­days, Lit­tle joked in a speech lighter on gags than Chris El­lis would have ad­vised.

The week­end’s congress at Te Papa is meant to be a ra-ra for the troops, to en­thuse them for the cam­paign, to launch them onto a thou­sand streets door-knock­ing and pam­phle­teer­ing. The lead-up isn’t go­ing well, though.

The pre­vi­ous week, Labour an­nounced its party list. Any hope it would give Lit­tle a plat­form to laud tal­ented new can­di­dates was in­stantly swamped by news Wil­lie Jack­son was miffed at his low rank­ing of num­ber 21. This be­came a pre­text for party mem­bers to again at­tack Jack­son, high­light­ing his in­volve­ment with char­ter schools – some­thing Labour promised to get rid of.

Lit­tle tried to soothe the sit­u­a­tion, but in­ter­nal bitch­ing con­tin­ued to spill pub­licly. “I’m an­noyed as much about party mem­bers who took to so­cial me­dia and de­cided that was the right place to ar­gue all sorts of things,” says Lit­tle. “That didn’t help.”

But Lit­tle didn’t help things, ei­ther. That morn­ing, he was quizzed about Jack­son by Morn­ing Report’s Susie Fer­gu­son. As he des­per­ately tried to avoid sug­gest­ing he’d close Jack­son’s char­ter school, or wa­ter down Labour’s pol­icy, his re­sponses be­came con­fus­ing and inar­tic­u­late. When he re­peat­edly al­luded to prin­ci­ples and pol­icy in­stead of giv­ing sim­ple an­swers, lis­ten­ers heard some­one ob­fus­cat­ing and evad­ing, pirou­et­ting some­where be­tween opaque and ob­tuse.

Act leader David Sey­mour is­sued a press re­lease la­belling Lit­tle’s in­ter­view a “train wreck”, other com­men­ta­tors lamented Lit­tle’s per­for­mance and, pri­vately, even some of his in­ner- cir­cle were shak­ing their heads.

Later in the day, Lit­tle had to jump on a sug­ges­tion from Labour’s cor­rec­tions spokesman Kelvin Davis that some pris­ons could be run on Maori val­ues. It wasn’t Labour pol­icy. Oth­ers in Labour’s Maori cau­cus had lent sup­port to Jack­son’s char­ter schools. Then Poto Wil­liams had sug­gested turn­ing the le­gal sys­tem on its head by re­quir­ing those ac­cused of rape to prove their in­no­cence. Lit­tle, again, stressed Labour had no in­ten­tion of im­ple­ment­ing that. The im­pres­sion peo­ple got, though, was a cau­cus di­vided on pol­icy.

De­spite every­thing, Lit­tle, who turns 52 in the week­end ahead, sticks to his mes­sage that the party is in great heart on the eve of its congress, and its MPS are united. “But I think ev­ery mem­ber of cau­cus has got a pretty clear mes­sage now that this is not a time to be ex­press­ing per­sonal views.”

“AN­DREW LIT­TLE has never demon­strated an abil­ity to win votes,” says Vic­to­ria Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Jon Jo­hans­son bluntly. “Look at the con­tests in New Ply­mouth.”

Jo­hans­son, a spe­cial­ist in po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, was in­cred­u­lous Lit­tle stood for Labour’s lead­er­ship in 2014. “I don’t know how any­body with any sel­f­re­spect, with the very medi­ocre record he had, could put him­self up for elec­tion. He didn’t have cau­cus sup­port. He didn’t have public sup­port. He wasn’t even the best union leader. And so far, I think that view has been val­i­dated,

be­cause he’s not been able to res­onate.

“I think [con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor and lob­by­ist] Matthew Hooton for once landed on the right com­pass bear­ing when he said An­drew was a com­pe­tent union leader, but he hasn’t stepped up. He is ac­tu­ally just a good old Kiwi boy. But his wooden way of com­mu­ni­ca­tion doesn’t project his per­son­al­ity.

“I know peo­ple who think very fondly of An­drew, but they scream at their ra­dios be­cause they can’t be­lieve how bum­bling he is in some of his me­dia per­for­mances. He comes across as badly vac­il­lat­ing, caught be­tween the lines he’s been told to say, and what he might think.”

Asked what virtues Lit­tle does pos­sess, Jo­hans­son is brief. “He has that qual­ity of one-of-us-ness. He’s a pretty reg­u­lar New Zealand bloke. Well mo­ti­vated. Yeah, I can’t think of any­thing else. I just don’t think he’s a leader. I still don’t have a clue what An­drew Lit­tle’s New Zealand is, circa 2020, circa 2030. So how can I feel ex­cited about that?”

Jo­hans­son be­lieves that although Na­tional took its foot off Labour’s throat when Key re­signed, even Lit­tle in his heart of hearts is prob­a­bly eye­ing 2020’s elec­tion as more re­al­is­tic to win.

For there to be a Labour vic­tory this year, Lit­tle would need a break­through mo­ment – like John Key shar­ing the stage with He­len Clark over the “an­ti­smack­ing” bill; like Clark star­ing down cau­cus col­leagues schem­ing a coup. “And in the ab­sence of that mo­ment, Labour is go­ing to lose. And in my pes­simistic view, I don’t know how they can fix them­selves. My bog-stan­dard Lead­er­ship 101 ad­vice is trust your­self, be­cause you’ll hear so much ad­vice from ev­ery­one around you. And if only An­drew could do that and re­veal things that have so far re­mained hid­den, that would be his break­through mo­ment.

“I mean, when was the last time a Labour leader could just stand up there, know what they thought, and ex­press it?”

In de­spair­ing mo­ments, Jo­hans­son’s found him­self swip­ing at his ipad, try­ing to find out where David Lange’s son Roy is. “Isn’t that wish­ful think­ing…”

MAY 30, 10.30PM: RIN­TOUL ST, STOP 6121 Lit­tle’s first night in Welling­ton, back

“I mean, when was the last time a Labour leader could just stand up there, know what they thought, and ex­press it?” VIC­TO­RIA UNIVER­SITY PO­LIT­I­CAL SCI­EN­TIST JON JO­HANS­SON

in Fe­bru­ary 1983, was spent here, at a Si­mon and Gar­funkel con­cert at Ath­letic Park. The park’s gone now, su­per­seded by a re­tire­ment vil­lage, but Lit­tle’s pretty much stayed in the cap­i­tal ever since.

In his congress speech, he talked about his first house, a three-bed­room starter in Brook­lyn for $315,000, up a hun­dred steps. That speech ham­mered hous­ing, res­ur­rected the spec­tre of Micky Sav­age hoist­ing a din­ing ta­ble into the coun­try’s first state house in Mi­ra­mar, and got two stand­ing ova­tions.

“We can do bet­ter… We will suc­ceed… We are putting peo­ple first… We have the vi­sion, we have the guts, and the plan… The elec­tion is ours to win.”

There were no conga lines around the au­di­to­rium at the end; no chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, Bill English has got to go”; no por­traits of Lit­tle with “HOPE” writ­ten un­der­neath. But as del­e­gates shuf­fled out past the Otaki women’s-branch ta­ble sell­ing pick­les and jam, past the half-price T-shirts and $2 raf­fle tick­ets, most felt heart­ened.

The jol­lied mood didn’t last long, how­ever. By the fol­low­ing Tues­day morn­ing, Lit­tle had de­liv­ered an­other stum­bling per­for­mance with Susie Fer­gu­son, ap­pear­ing un­able to back up fig­ures in his own press re­lease about peo­ple be­ing worse off un­der the gov­ern­ment’s bud­get, sound­ing more de­fen­sive than de­ci­sive. And the New Zealand Her­ald’s Claire Trevett had writ­ten an ar­ti­cle ex­plain­ing that Labour’s rules al­lowed a brief pre-elec­tion win­dow for its MPS to roll Lit­tle if they wished.

Lit­tle is some­where be­tween frus­trated and fum­ing. “I can’t ex­plain why she would’ve writ­ten that story when no one is talk­ing about al­leged coups of any sort, what­so­ever. So it was gra­tu­itous and mind­less, in my view.”

More gen­er­ally, he feels some me­dia aren’t giv­ing him a fair go. “I think Ra­dio New Zealand, in par­tic­u­lar, has a habit of ques­tion­ing me on mat­ters of minute de­tail in a way they never do with Bill English.” In­creas­ingly irked, he has com­plained to RNZ.

Lit­tle knows how im­por­tant his me­dia per­for­mances are and has un­der­gone train­ing – about 10 ses­sions in 2016 and a cou­ple this year – most re­cently with Mag­gie Eyre, who helped trans­form He­len Clark’s im­age.

But still, there’s a sense Lit­tle’s me­dia re­sponses me­an­der and stray down cul- de- sacs like an Uber driver in a new part of town. That his an­swers are el­lip­ti­cal to the point of elu­sion. That he just needs to keep it sim­ple, suc­cinct, straight­for­ward.

How­ever Lit­tle re­mains bullish about his me­dia im­age. “I’m sat­is­fied it’s im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly and I’m feel­ing very sat­is­fied with the per­for­mance I’m de­liv­er­ing.”

YOU CAN SCOFF that im­age isn’t im­por­tant, ar­gue that it’s poli­cies not party lead­ers that re­ally mat­ter to peo­ple. Good luck with that.

A re­cent Bauer Me­dia elec­tion poll (which had Bill English at 39 per cent as pre­ferred Prime Min­is­ter, Lit­tle at 13 per cent and his deputy, Jacinda Ardern, at 16 per cent) showed that for 80 per cent of re­spon­dents, the party leader was im­por­tant or very im­por­tant in de­cid­ing how they’d vote. Only two per cent main­tained it wasn’t im­por­tant.

Jen­nifer Curtin, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in pol­i­tics at Auck­land Univer­sity, says

John Key is partly to blame, for rein­vent­ing how we mea­sure po­lit­i­cal fig­ures. “He changed the land­scape in the sense we want our lead­ers to speak to us through the tele­vi­sion, and be like us, and un­der­stand us, and have an as­so­ci­a­tion with us that’s al­most like, ‘He’s my friend.’”

So how is Lit­tle do­ing in this new en­vi­ron­ment? “He’s do­ing bet­ter than Cun­liffe – which, I sup­pose, isn’t hard. I think he comes across as trust­wor­thy, au­then­tic, and as well-mean­ing and want­ing to put pol­icy out there in front of per­son­al­ity. I could imag­ine he’d be a very com­pe­tent Prime Min­is­ter. He’s just never go­ing to have the glam­our fac­tor.”

How­ever, Curtin says Ardern could pro­vide some of that and, as a team, they have wider ap­peal.

Long­time friend and union col­league Paul Tolich ad­mits Lit­tle isn’t tele­genic, but says nor was He­len Clark. And nor is Bill English. “I know [Lit­tle] like the back of my hand. That’s why I’ve al­ways sup­ported him. He’s a very po­lite, very gen­teel, very de­cent sort of bloke. He’s a lit­tle bit re­served, a lit­tle bit shy. He’s very much his own man. He’s deeply thought­ful, he’s con­sid­ered – he’s a clas­sic lawyer.”

The more Lit­tle gets out and en­gages with peo­ple dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign, Tolich pre­dicts, the bet­ter he’ll do. And Lit­tle main­tains that as he trav­els the coun­try, peo­ple are telling him, “The winds of change are blow­ing.”

But in mid-june, a One News poll put Na­tional on 49 per cent and Labour on 30. Days later, a New­shub poll had Na­tional slightly up on its pre­vi­ous poll in March, at 47.4 per cent, and Labour down 4.4 per cent to 26.4. That’s very sim­i­lar to the 2014 elec­tion re­sult (Na­tional 47, Labour 25), sug­gest­ing any winds of change are blow­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion for Lit­tle, and rais­ing ques­tions about what he has achieved since as­sum­ing the lead­er­ship.

Lit­tle in­sists peo­ple are warm­ing to Labour, and its own polling had the party much higher. “We’re not 26 per cent. We’re not 26.4 per cent. We’re around the early 30s. At 26 per cent, you don’t get 250 peo­ple turn­ing out on a bit­terly cold, windy, wet night in Whanganui, stick­ing round for an hour and a half, lis­ten­ing to what you have to say and ask­ing ques­tions. There is a mood of change and it’s our job to go and cap­ture that mood, and that’s what we’re go­ing to do.”

Ul­ti­mately, it’s all about num­bers. Win the elec­tion by one seat and Lit­tle will be the great ge­nius, with doubters si­lenced. Lose by one and he’ll be a great fail­ure, the lat­est in a se­quence of un­ful­filled Labour lead­ers.

“Thirty-five per cent is the min­i­mum we need to achieve to be cred­i­ble. In re­al­ity, our tar­get has to be higher than that, but any­thing less and you’re off the planet.

“If we don’t get 35, per­son­ally I’d have dis­ap­pointed my­self and the party. And it’d be hard to stay on af­ter that. We don’t tend to tol­er­ate lead­ers [who lose]. You get one shot.”

JUNE 20, 10.37PM: THE PA­RADE, IS­LAND BAY, STOP 6133 Just across from Par­lia­ment, where Lit­tle catches his bus, is a statue of for­mer Labour Prime Min­is­ter Peter Fraser, cast in bronze, cap­tured lean­ing into the northerly. It’s Fraser, with his union back­ground and in­ter­na­tion­al­ist views, who Lit­tle aligns most closely with – and whose por­trait hangs in his of­fice.

Fraser wasn’t flam­boy­ant, nor a shal­low per­former, so per­haps the com­par­i­son is cred­i­ble. “I grew up with a mother who… the thing she most de­nounced was van­ity and con­ceit,” says Lit­tle. “So there’s al­ways been the thing in the back of my mind about not look­ing like a try­hard and be­ing nat­u­ral about who I am.”

Who he is, most agree, is a de­cent bloke, a gen­uinely mo­ti­vated bloke, strug­gling to get that across to vot­ers – strug­gling to im­press on peo­ple that these things re­main im­por­tant. Some­times the ghost of Phil Goff slips into step beside him: an­other de­cent guy with a good story, un­able to con­nect with the public as he lost the 2011 elec­tion to John Key.

Bill English is a dif­fer­ent foe. He’s mor­tal, un­like Key, who was like one of those sci-fi su­per­hu­mans who can’t be killed, no mat­ter how many times they’re stabbed through the heart. English is a bet­ter match for Lit­tle. Both men give dour a re­spectable name. English mines his South­land farmer nar­ra­tive to embellish his common touch; Lit­tle re­lies on his years bat­tling for work­ers to show he has dirt un­der his fin­ger­nails and scuffed shoes.

And Lit­tle is con­fi­dent. He feels he un­der­stands the coun­try’s prob­lems bet­ter than English: peo­ple’s in­abil­ity to buy a home, rent a home, get health­care, have their kids in un­crowded class­rooms.

He wants some­thing dif­fer­ent for his son Cam, and for ev­ery­one else. “Re­gard­less of the cir­cum­stances of your birth, whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re Maori or Pakeha, whether you’re born here or set­tled here, that you get to en­joy the full­ness of New Zealand. You get to own your own home if you work hard and save hard, that you get to go to the beau­ti­ful parts of the coun­try, and if you want to go into busi­ness you have the op­por­tu­nity,” he says.

“We’ve just got to have a coun­try where we say, ‘You have a fair chance. You have a fair chance to get ahead and have a de­cent life.’ And a whole heap of par­ents are now real­is­ing that for their kids, that’s not what their fu­ture holds.”

Just past the Is­land Bay shops, Lit­tle thanks the driver and steps off the bus. Cam will be in bed by the time he walks from the stop to his fam­ily’s sim­ple brick house, a cou­ple of blocks away. There’ll be a wel­come from Leigh and from Harry, their dog. There’ll be a chance to chat, iron a shirt for to­mor­row, and get sev­eral hours’ sleep. There’ll be an­other early start in the morn­ing and an­other long day; an elec­tion cam­paign that will con­sume the next few months and de­cide his fu­ture.

An­drew Lit­tle hitches his bag over his shoul­der, leans into the northerly, and heads home. +

Lit­tle is con­fi­dent. He feels he un­der­stands the coun­try’s prob­lems bet­ter than English: peo­ple’s in­abil­ity to buy a home, rent a home, get health­care, have their kids in un­crowded class­rooms.

MIKE WHITE IS A SE­NIOR NORTH & SOUTH WRITER. PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY MIKE WHITE.

An­drew Lit­tle at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity with Grant Robertson, one of the ri­vals he beat to be­come party leader.

A New Zealand First sup­porter tries to get in on the act as Lit­tle and new deputy Jacinda Ardern mix with stu­dents at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity in March.

Lit­tle at his home in Welling­ton, which he shares with wife Leigh, son Cam, and en­thu­si­as­tic ter­rier Harry.

Lit­tle and wife Leigh Fitzger­ald leave Labour’s congress in May.

Wil­lie Jack­son, in­ter­viewed at Labour’s congress, has at­tracted crit­i­cism and con­tro­versy since Lit­tle en­cour­aged him to join the party. As for­mer party president Mike Wil­liams notes: “Wil­lie’s got a big ego and a big mouth, so he was al­ways go­ing to be a

Lit­tle waits for the No 1 bus on Welling­ton’s Lambton Quay, near Par­lia­ment.

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