The big Little start to Labour's rebuild

Can Grant Robertson count? Will Jacinda Ardern stick it out? What does an Andrew Little smile look like? Where does a theology degree fit in politics? Does any of this matter?

Plenty think Labour is mere amusement or an historical relic awaiting embalming.

They might have cause to think again.

One cause is Little.

He lost the party vote and the MPs’ vote to Robertson and is leader only thanks to an historical hangover, the “affiliated” unions’ privileged role. One-person-one-vote is not the Labour way yet.

But Little has quickly won authority.

In part that is because he came to the top job without a caucus factional taint.

That gave him the scope in last week’s skilful remake of the shadow cabinet to both contain resentment and open wide room for up-and-comers to prove themselves (or not). He pointed ageing MPs towards the exit.

Next, he made the most of John Key’s tortuous mishandling of the report on Key’s office’s scummy dealings with an over-helpful Security Intelligence Service and his own chumminess with the nefarious Cameron Slater.

Key subjected himself to three days of Little’s jaw-jutted, union-boss sermonising. Ian Rennie got a deserved whack, too, from a bloke who knows employment law and practice.

Little looked the strong leader (as, by the way, he had in his presidential speech to Labour’s 2010 conference). Party faithful perked up.

By the end of last week he was shaping as someone they could back, whatever their disappointments. That includes Robertson and running-mate Ardern.

Little did two other things likely to grow his leadership.

One was to commit to emulate Helen Clark as she clawed Labour up from 28 per cent in the 1996 election to 38 per cent in 1999: tirelessly tour the country to build his and the party’s all-but-evaporated presence in the suburbs and provinces.

That addresses the need Robertson identified on September 22: to be “part of the communities we live in”. And, yes, Little can produce a twinkling smile which, liberally employed, could engage potential voters.

The second leadership-building move was his speech yesterday on “the future of work” where he sees a “new insecurity”. Labour, he said, must “be there for all the people who make their living from their own work”.

The nature of work has been changing fast. Many jobs don’t pay enough to live on (so taxpayers top them up, in effect subsidising employers). Many are employed by agencies, not their place of work’s owner. Many are on “zero hours”. Some have scurrilous clauses in their contracts.

Many who would once have been employees are contractors or in small businesses, by necessity or by choice.

How to ensure a dependable livelihood — “a fair shot”, Little called it — in a small, open country in a highly globalised world is a complex challenge, especially for Labour.

Shadow finance minister Robertson will head a “commission” to do this “signature piece of work”, as Little called it. Robertson will draw on his international contacts, including Matt Browne, the English head of the Centre for American Progress, and on the musings at a conference in Amsterdam in April where he was on a panel.

Robertson is also eyeing a root-and-branch tax rethink. Taxing income from capital gain is not dead. Land tax is back on the table.

Robertson will follow Michael Cullen’s 1996 example and bury his head in economics textbooks through the summer (and, yes, he can count). He has a new lease on political life.

With him is theologian David Clark, a three-year Treasury alumnus (similar to English), in economic development, David Parker in trade (focusing on exports), former business-consultant Stuart Nash in some sector portfolios — and Ardern, who asked for small business to apply some of the learning from her time in the Blair British Labour government’s regulatory reform taskforce.

Ardern is often thought fragile, from her looks and dress. And she did go gloomy after the election and leadership losses and her downranking by Little to ninth. She might yet be tempted to a private life in the private sector.

But underneath Ardern is tough. She is well thought of in some, including business, quarters in Auckland — at her best a potential star. Watch to see if she is deputy leader this time next year.

So, even though Little is 49, the Robertson-Ardern leadership campaign promise of a “new generation” to contrast with National’s 50-somethings is still alive. Clark, Chris Hipkins (education) and Megan Woods (environment and climate change) are all under 45.

Then look across to the Greens, where Kennedy Graham and James Shaw are arguing for a rethink to match policy to a realistic assessment of the modern global economy and to retrieve the party from its far-left stereotype.

Through 2013 Labour-plus-Greens averaged 0.5 per cent more in polls than National. If Little can sustain his strong start, if Robertson can count and deliver and if the 2013 Green connection can be reforged, Labour-Green might be competitive in 2017.