Why Labour’s last-minute leadership change may be its salvation

by Jane Clifton / 04 August, 2017
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Jacinda Ardern and Kelvin Davis. Photo/Getty Images

Pollsters have estimated Jacinda Ardern’s appeal could add 10 percentage points to Labour’s vote – just enough to put the party in Beehive contention. Still, few would bet the house on it.

Unionist Helen Kelly had an adage about women in politics, which her son, Dylan, recalled as timely this week. Under 40, they were “too young”, over 50, they were “too old”.

 “Men have a 30-year ‘sweet spot’.”

The trade union leader and Labour loyalist will be rolling her eyes in the great hereafter as Jacinda Ardern cops the full monty. Too young; ­inexperienced; what’s she ever done?; and what about babies?

Funnily enough, Ardern has been in both Parliament and politics much longer than either Andrew Little or Sir John Key had been when they got the Opposition leader’s job, and no one worried they might be a bit green. Neither had worked for one prime minister, let alone two, but it’s as though – despite time in the offices of Helen Clark and Britain’s Tony Blair – Ardern might still be just a teeny bit vague about what goes on in high politics.

And it’s a curious oversight on all our parts that not once have we ever thought to question Little, who has one child, Key, who has two, Bill English (six) or even Jim Bolger (nine) about how their work-life balance was going.

Counterbalancing the scepticism about Labour’s stunningly bloodless leadership change has been fan mania normally reserved for someone winning an Oscar – never for a politician.

As Wellington lawyer Greg Robins tweeted, it’s been “like House of Cards played by characters from The Brady Bunch”.

It’s a rare and fascinating aspect of this rare and fascinating event that the Government quickly resolved not to go on the attack. We scoffed when Don Brash said he didn’t feel comfortable being discourteous to a woman, even when that woman was Helen Clark.

But National’s Jacinda shorthand goes just like that: being mean to this vivacious, positive woman would make English and his ministers look nasty and bullyish. The Nats know they can count on some voters reflexively dismissing Ardern as too young, too lightweight and – heaven help us – too clucky. But for the Government, it’s Paula Bennett’s “Zip it, sweetie” in reverse from now on.

It must now go in on a more oblique angle. English has made a point of saying, “She has the possibility of being our next prime minister” whenever he has commented on her ascendancy. National clearly thinks this will be subliminally damaging to her chances of being seen as a serious contender. It could equally be that having English himself highlighting an Ardern prime ministership as a possibility will add to her aura of mana and potential.

Illustration/Anthony Ellison

Illustration/Anthony Ellison

Lifeboat deployment

This is excitingly uncharted political territory in anyone’s terms. But lest anyone get carried away, this move by Labour is first and foremost a lifeboat deployment. The polls have been heading so steadily south, the party faces a horrific bodies-overboard count, including Little himself, precious new list talent such as Kiri Allan and Jan Tinetti, and party thinker-in-chief David Parker. While it looks – and is – desperate to change leaders close to an election, the damage of showing panic can be outweighed by just a little new momentum. Even the Mike Moore gambit in 1990 – a madcap sequel to Goodbye Pork Pie, only without the Mini or any verbs whatsoever – was a net success, saving the seats of Moore himself and Clark with a two percentage point upswing in Labour’s vote.

In Australia, a last-minute Labor switcheroo ushered in the illustrious career of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who took just one month’s campaigning to restore his party to power.

Pollsters here have estimated Ardern’s appeal could add 10 percentage points to Labour’s vote – just enough to put the party in Beehive contention. Still, few would bet the house on it.

National’s support has softened appreciably this year, but the bellwether right-direction/wrong-direction indicator poll markers remain stoutly in the positive. While a majority mood for change is ­detectable from the party votes if one counts New Zealand First, the “direction” question suggests most people think most things are about right or getting better. Now is not quite our Winter of Discontent, however glorious it might be made by Ardern and her comparably accomplished and appealing deputy, Kelvin Davis.

There’s the Titanic deckchair risk that Ardern-power will simply pull votes from the Greens and NZ First, leaving that alternative-government vote bloc with the same, possibly inadequate net result.

The holy grail is to get votes off National’s bloc, and Labour hasn’t done that for a decade.

Unmistakably steely

What has taken the political world by surprise is how strongly Ardern came out of the starting blocks. Most had taken her at her word that she really didn’t want to be leader. And honestly, with those polls, who would? Yet the blazingly sunny and unmistakably steely woman who fronted Tuesday’s press conference seemed like someone who had never bargained for anything less than benevolent world domination.

As is only possible in politics, both versions of Ardern are true. She never had set her heart on being the next Helen Clark, but rather on being, if at all possible, a minister in a position to make social policy change. But she’s been around long enough to know that when the planets align for you in this game, you don’t stand there trying to bargain with them. Timing is seldom within a politician’s control – as English found when colleagues bustled him, unready and in Hamletesque balefulness, into his first leadership stint.

Ardern has been on a head-and-heart alignment crash-course as it’s become clearer both to colleagues and to herself that she is quite stellar leadership material. Yes, she has a home life and would love to have children. But duty calls.

And here is another uncharted part of the map: Ardern is, almost to a fault, a team player. However reluctant she has been to step up, it will have taken one simple sentence to persuade her: “Think of your colleagues.”

It’s also why she has never before performed as commandingly as she’s done this week. Even close colleagues who’ve watched her for years were stunned at her aplomb.

Until now, she’d have considered it disloyal to risk overshadowing Little or colleagues too boldly. She has not used the traditional arsenal of a politician on the make: scandal-mongery, rhetor­ical napalm and a daily reservation on the TV news. She quite consciously worked mostly under the radar.

Those who ask, “But what’s she ever done?”, mistake that backroom focus for lack of heft. You don’t get to be unanimously anointed leader by colleagues – many of whom want the job 10 times more desperately than you do – without having demonstrated intellect and toughness over a long period.

So those talking starry-eyed wooftiness about “a different style of politics” aren’t being totally wet. But actually, we’ve seen something a little like it before.

Key hadn’t “done anything” either when he took National’s helm – except to prove to colleagues that he had an iron grasp of policy, exceptional people skills and a rare facility with the media. He didn’t run scandals or bestride the news bulletins. But no one took him for a pushover or a lightweight.

It’s a useful reminder that there’s more than one way of doing politics. The full-on Winston media bullrush is only the most common – and certainly not the most successful.

Meanwhile, the NZ First leader is beside himself at the lack of due attention. This was supposed to be his campaign as likely custodian of the balance of power. The Metiria Turei benefit fraud bomb was an impertinent enough intrusion upon his ubiquity. Since then, although two private and reputable polls show NZ First comfortably ahead of the Greens, the published polls show the reverse, which is quite enough to blow his foo-foo valve without this Ardern carry-on stealing still further limelight.

But Peters may yet hold an election game-changer in the form of a veritable winebox-full of leaked texts he claims were exchanged between English and his former Gore electorate agent about the Todd Barclay affair. If Peters is correct about the texts, ­lovelorn teens don’t text as much as these two appear to have done. The sheer volume suggests English was heavily engaged with details of the Clutha-Southland electorate’s feuding.

Peters has been rationing the details out in Parliament, only to be drowned out by Metiria and Jacinda noise. But the timing may yet prove optimal. As the magic Jacinderella dust begins to clear, Winston will have space to re-test English, who has probably used up his nine lives in contradictions and evasions on this affair. As Helen Kelly’s adage reminds us, he has had a long time in the “sweet spot”.

Leadership Snap Barometer

Fieldwork conducted from 5pm Tuesday 1st August to 11:30am on Wednesday 2nd August. Sample of n=1,175 New Zealanders intending to vote in the 2017 General Election who are members of Bauer Media’s Online Community Panels. Results have been weighted by gender, age and region to the Reader Universe for Bauer Media’s consumer magazine brands. The margin of error at the 95% Confidence Level is +/- 3.0%

This article was first published in the August 12, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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