One week ago, just before the Mt Roskill by election, Labour was a party staring down the prospect of a fourth term on the Opposition benches (which might yet still happen, but that is another story). It needed a boost to counter National whose constant support in the polls in the mid-high 40% range is as historic as its wallowing in the late part of a third term, still stuck in the high 20% range.
For 8 long years Labour had to sit and watch National glide through 2 2/3 Parliamentary terms. It suffered two devastating defeats. After the first one Phil Goff, who had been Leader of the Opposition after Helen Clark left, resigned and David Shearer took over. Mr Goff’s leadership had actually not been that bad and he had managed to land a couple blows on Prime Minister John Key, but the problem was that he was just never meant to win the 2011 election. Nor did it help that he was facing a Prime Minister who is probably the most popular in two generations.
Right from the start David Shearer was in trouble. Nothing he did, nothing he said, nowhere he went could change the fact that he was not cut to be Opposition Leader. His leadership in the House was nonexistent. No decent policy announcements were made. It was almost as if Labour were too scared to perform. It was no surprise that he was made to quit by an increasingly nervous Labour caucus. His successor David Cunliffe had a very short honeymoon as Labour struggled to get out of first gear going into 2014. In the end, Mr Cunliffe led Labour in part by its own ineptitude and in part because of his own bumbling to a second devastating defeat that had political commentators questioning whether its time as a political party was finished.
It said nothing for Mr Shearer or Mr Cunliffe that right from his arrival back in Parliament, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters was immediately as popular as either of them in them in the preferred Prime Minister stakes. The prospect that Labour might be overtaken by a party that had just spent three years in the political wilderness outside of Parliament might have galvanized other parties into action, but it seemed to have little or no effect on Labour.
So as David Cunliffe resigned in the aftermath of the 2014 election, Mr Little rose to the challenge. Unlike Mr Cunliffe who did not have much of a honeymoon, mid way between elections and leading a party in dire shape, Mr Little at least has the benefit of a whole Parliamentary term to get Labour ready. And slowly the fractured caucus began to congeal behind him, willing at least for the time being to bury the hatchet of internal politics.
But the going has not been easy. Aside from brief flashes of good social policy, and the odd success calling out Prime Minister John Key and the National Party in Parliament, Mr Little seemed to be making little impact until the housing crisis blew up. The announcement of free undergraduate tertiary education provided a bump, but was cancelled out a few months later by the ill-fated “marriage” with the Greens. The media perception was that Andy was angry and it was starting to affect his performance. It was beginning to look as though Labour needed a miracle.
And on Monday 05 December, they got it when the Prime Minister, the single biggest asset in the whole National Party quit. But it was more than just the imminent departure of a very popular Prime Minister, but also the centrist politics that drew many people away from Labour and New Zealand First that would exit Parliament with him, that made this announcement all the more incredible. The impending swing to the right might be the boost that is needed for Mr Little to spark life back into a party bereft of ideas and in dire need of a major morale booster.
With a dour Catholic Prime Minister taking over on Monday and a highly controversial Minister who is seen by many as a bully, National is gambling the political capital of Mr Key. And with his departure, the probable swing to the right back to core National Party voters and ideology Andrew Little will finally be able to say National is a conservative party after all.