Is Andrew Little getting angry about all the wrong things?

Remember this? Labour leader Andrew Little and his cat Buddy

Remember this? Labour leader Andrew Little and his cat Buddy

OPINION; National has a nickname for Labour leader Andrew Little. Angry Andy. They taunt him with it in Parliament.

They reckon it's Little's achilles heel, that he can come across to the punters as perpetually angry. No wonder Labour was happy the day Little's cat Buddy photo-bombed him. No man with a cat called Buddy .can be angry all the time, right?

But maybe the Nats' "angry Andy"meme is just a cunning case of reverse psychology. Because angry politics seems to be working just fine for America's Donald Trump, and its angry septuagenarian Bernie Sanders.

Angry works for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Why isn't it working for Andrew Little?
ILLUSTRATION/JOHN SHAKESPEARE

Angry works for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Why isn't it working for Andrew Little?

So why isn't angry working for Little? Labour is stuck in the poll doldrums and looking increasingly adrift as a frustrated Little clutches at a grab bag of soundbites and tries to give them a unifying theme.

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If the short unvarnished version of that theme seems to be sticking up for the little guy, or sticking it to the man, the long version seems to have been lost in translation.

Because it's all looking increasingly desperate and on the hoof. In the same week that Little opined against importing ethnic chefs, he and his finance spokesman laid out the case for bailing out battling dairy farmers, not a group that's traditionally sparked sympathy for being trapped on the wrong side of the inequality divide.

Square pegs and nothing but round holes for as far as the eye can see.

It's not just the punters who are confused. Little's MPs are less and less inclined to hide their bafflement at what's coming out of the third floor leader's office or - more to the point - what's coming out of the leader's mouth.

This is a dangerous time for Little. The success of his leadership so far has been in unifying a fractious and divided caucus. But the traditional fault lines are starting to reassert themselves.

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Not to the point of open revolt or even to the point that Little's leadership is yet under threat or even in question. But eyes are rolling. The denials from Little and his advisers to any suggestion of disunity or caucus division are desperate enough to leave no room for doubt that the scales are finely balanced.

It's not just the row over Labour' opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, or the feathers ruffled by Phil Twyford's targeting of Auckland house buyers with Chinese sounding names. It's the fact that Labour is making such a hash of its handling of those fault-lines.

In the case of the TPP, it was clear that there were always going to be divisions within a caucus, of which a sizeable number had championed just such a trade agreement during Labour's last term in office. Little knew it, his advisers knew it, and yet it still exploded in their face.

Likewise the unease over targeting Asian house purchasers. Labour used to have a stranglehold on the ethnic vote. No more. National Party rallies - once the the domain of the blue rinse set and farmers - are now glitzy affairs where Asian faces clearly outnumber the blue-rinse brigade.

If Little's foray into the immigration debate had been a populist attempt to muscle in on traditional NZ First territory it might have been excused as part of a broader - if cynical - plan.

But Little's desperate attempts to hose down the ethnic chefs debacle make a nonsense even of that idea.

The Labour base went into meltdown. Twitter exploded, the activists were in a fury and Little was left defending himself with the usual figleaf that his quotes were taken out of context.

Little's problem is that the vein of anger running through middle America and channelled so effectively by Trump and Sanders is not as easy to find or define here.

Don Brash stumbled into it all those years ago with a speech that plunged the country into a hugely divisive debate over race.

And National tapped into another vein of anger in 2008 with its war against "nanny state" government, riding the backlash against everything from the anti-smacking bill, to rules about the size of showerheads or what lightbulbs people used.

The wave of anger unleashed by Trump and Sanders in the US runs deepest among those who are feeling most marginalised,  workers who are angry about trade deals that threaten their jobs, and the lower and middle classes who were hit hardest by the global financial crisis and who have seen the gap between them and the wealthy grow even wider.

It helps that they are also seen as anti-establishment while the political system is seen as irretrievably broken.

Little's problem is two-fold. Trade deals, or the TPP in our case, don't resonate to the same extent here as a threat to jobs because New Zealand has already been through that, decades ago, with the removal of subsidies. In fact, we're one of the countries American workers fear as robbing them of a livelihood under the TPP. So Labour is only talking to its base when it opposes the TPP, while burning off the very businesses Little set out to schmooze at the start of his leadership.

Unlike the US, meanwhile, we are blessed with a political system that works.

Which is not to say middle New Zealand is not capable of getting angry again.

But Little won't find that anger by floundering around looking for opportunist itches to scratch.

*comments are closed

 - Stuff

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