Seven and a half years have now passed since Labour left office in 2008. After a period of economic prosperity, the likes of which New Zealand had not seen, dark days ahead with the Global Financial Crisis, big earthquakes and – in the last few days – a Brexit were ahead. Mr Little has turned out to be as weak and spineless as his three Labour Party predecessors.
In fairness to the first one, Phil Goff, he was leading Labour after nine years on the Government benches. Mr Goff had a party that was looking to find its feet in the post-Helen Clark age and had to find his own feet as Leader of the Opposition. It was never going to be easy and few seriously expected with the sky high popularity of Prime Minister John Key that a Phil Goff-led Labour would spend just three years on the Opposition benches. Although Mr Goff might have expected a bit of lift in Canterbury where National’s attitude to post-earthquake housing in Christchurch and the sacking of the Environment Canterbury Regional Council was frustrating people, it would not have been enough to win the 2011 election. That was a resounding National Party victory.
More was expected of his replacement David Shearer, who unfortunately effectively went A.W.O.L. as Leader of the Opposition. His failure to unite Labour by the mid-way stage of Labours second term on the Opposition benches, and equally notable failure to score any big hits on the National-led Government soon had Labour Members of Parliament sharpening their knives. A failure to come up with any comprehensive policy about anything at all and the need to retire some of the older Members of Parliament to make way for newer members, which still to some extent has not been done, left Labour stuck in first gear. Grant Robinson, David Cunliffe and Nanaia Mahuta were all thought to be potential leaders should a back room coup take place.
Mr Shearer resigned in September 2013, giving his replacement who turned out to be David Cunliffe 12 months to haul Labour back from the brink of catastrophe. Despite the first signs of major crises looming on the horizon for the Government, Mr Cunliffe was only able to score modest hits on the Government, the effect of which wore off after a few weeks. Despite angst growing about a range of issues on which a centre-left party such as Labour would have normally pounced, perhaps terrified of National to the point of being paralyzed, Mr Cunliffe was unable or unwilling to announce anything substantive.
The 2014 election was – to put it mildly – a catastrophe for Labour, and a bad time for the centre-left on the whole. The knives were drawn and sharpened a second time. Only because Labour’s Green Party allies retained all of their seats and New Zealand First picked up three, was National denied an outright majority. Unionist (or at least former unionist)Andrew Little was appointed to lead Labour. For the first few months, he had the good will of the party on his side and the knives twice sharpened were sheathed. He announced a policy of paying for the undergraduate study of tertiary education, signalling a boldness in announcing policy his predecessors had failed to do. The rout in the polls was halted and the party finally found its feet on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement – or so we thought.
Now, for a fourth time, I am not so certain Labour has found its feet. The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement looks like it might have Labour backing after all, which would signal a massive climb down from the party that was supposed to put the needs of workers and the marginalized first. And if that is the case then a fourth term on the Opposition Benches is beckoning.