Mr Little started strongly. His call in Parliament for Mr Key to “cut the crap and just apologise” risked being tut-tutted but it hit home beautifully after the prime minister’s ever more ludicrous denials over his staff’s abuse of SIS information.
As the number of such scandals increased late last year, Labour strategists advised their leader that Mr Key’s government was entering a terminal phase. Based on the doctrine that “oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them,” Labour’s backroom recommended Mr Little and his MPs largely drop out of the public eye and let the inevitable unfold.
The strategy reached its zenith with the decision – which I thought made a lot of sense at the time – not to contest the Northland byelection but implicitly back Winston Peters. It was argued it would do more harm to National, and thus more good for Labour, for Mr Key’s numbers in Parliament to be cut than for Labour to run a serious campaign. Sure enough, Mr Peters humiliated National in a seat it had held since 1943.
But whatever caused Mr Peters’ landslide – the Sabin cover up, the disgraceful bridges bribe, a weak candidate, Steven Joyce’s ham-fisted campaign, the thrill of voter rebellion without changing the government, the lure of a celebrity as local MP – it has had no wider impact on Mr Key’s poll numbers. The overwhelming beneficiary has been Mr Peters who is now touching Mr Little in the preferred prime minister stakes. By far the main loser is the Labour leader who now polls worse than Phil Goff, David Shearer or David Cunliffe.
It was a strong start last year, but Little is now having to fight off Peters for the mantle of Opposition Leader. And the last two polls have Labour back in the 20s, not the 30s.
No red bus
It didn’t have to be this way. Mr Little could have hired a big red bus and travelled through Northland with his candidate and the press gallery, visiting some of the poorest parts of the country trying to shock middle New Zealand. Labour would ultimately have lost but Mr Little would have built up his profile, National would be burdened with a weak local MP and Mr Peters would not have re-emerged as either a prop for a National fourth term or a potential candidate for the prime ministership in a Labour-majority regime.
Also Labour may have pushed away their best chance of Government. Peters won Northland by vowing not to change the Government, just to hold them to account. He is now an MP in a very blue seat. If he holds the balance of power in 2017, is he going to put Labour and Greens into power? Less likely now he is MP for Northland.
Labour’s decision in Northland was a classic example of being a good tactical decision, but a bad strategic one.