Hooton: Make Jacinda leader now

Matthew Hooton thinks Labour would be best placed for the election if Jacinda Ardern were to replace Andrew Little as leader of the Labour party…now.

Labour’s position has never been more desperate.

New Zealand’s oldest political party has been in worse polling troughs before but not even in 1990 were things so bleak 200 days from an election.

According to the admittedly suspiciously volatile Roy Morgan poll, Labour is on just 26%, well below its 30% in February 2014 and 33% in February 2011, before the inevitable election-year slide in the main parties’ support.

If the 2014 and 2011 patterns are repeated in 2017, and Labour and National lose support to the likes of NZ First, the Greens, Act and whoever else pops up, Labour risks threatening the 21% National scored in 2002 under Bill English 1.0 as the worst major-party election result for at least a century.   

Perhaps even more indicative of Labour’s woes is what it pretends to celebrate. Two weeks ago, its strategists claimed to be cheered by a 1News Colmar Brunton poll, which had Labour as high as 30% and its leader Andrew Little on 7%, just a single point behind Winston Peters.

Even three years ago, such numbers would have acknowledged as disastrous. Today’s Labour tries to cite them as evidence of a positive trend.

Then, even less credibly, Labour metaphorically cracked open the bubbly on Saturday night to salute Jacinda Ardern’s by-election win in Mt Albert, its third safest seat which it has held uninterrupted through its entire history, in an uncontested race.

Ms Ardern’s purported triumph was apparently evidence of the power of Labour’s grassroots machine and Ms Ardern’s crossover appeal. In fact, she won 10,000 votes, half what David Shearer managed in 2014 and 3000 fewer than he won in the 2009 by-election against National’s woeful Melissa Lee.

With no National competitor to add life to the race to drive turnout on both sides, Ms Ardern’s 10,000 votes earned her a few jugs of Lion Red at Helen Clark’s beloved Mt Albert Rugby League Club, but surely nothing more.

Jacinda Ardern’s ascension is nothing short of a smoke and mirrors game by Labour, based on nothing more than a hope and a prayer.

Whatever they say publicly, experienced Labour hands know that based on current polling the party risks devastation in September and an irreversible internal meltdown afterward.  Something simply must be done and that something is apparently promoting Ms Ardern into the deputy leadership at the expense of 30-year veteran Annette King.

There is a high degree of scepticism among Ms Ardern’s senior colleagues, including Ms King, about whether the new Mt Albert MP has anything substantial to offer. After nearly nine years in Parliament, she can point to nothing except a pile of magazine covers and a string of portfolios in which she has left no discernible mark.

There is vague talk she had a big role in developing and promoting a children’s policy for Labour’s last disastrous election campaign but no one can recall it.  She is also the top-scoring Labour MP in the Herald’s annual Mood of the Boardroom survey, although no one is sure why.

I am yet to see any evidence that Jacinda Ardern can even attempt, let alone manage, some heavy lifting. She went up against Paula Bennett for at least five years with no discernible impact and she has been invisible policy wise in her small business portfolio. Then again, when all you’ve ever done in the private sector is work in a fish and chip shop then you really have no understanding of what makes small business tick.

Still, as John Key has taught us so well, being utterly devoid of policy substance is no barrier to political success in New Zealand.  Ms Ardern is certainly a more plausible circuit breaker than, say, David Cunliffe’s appointment three years ago of former Alliance Party president and Unite Union boss Matt McCarten as Labour’s chief of staff, let alone Mr Little’s ill-fated promotion last month of 56-year-old former Alliance MP Willie Jackson as a new youthful face for Labour in Auckland.

Heh, Hooton can be quite evil sometimes.

In contrast, born in 1980, Ms Ardern’s promotion genuinely represents a massive generational change in New Zealand politics, yet she is still only three years younger than David Lange when he became leader and took Labour to its 1984 triumph.

If Ms Ardern is the answer to Labour’s woes – and perhaps she is under the circumstances – then the party’s MPs need to seriously consider not the deputy role but the leadership when they meet on Tuesday.  As we head to the intensity of the election campaign when only leaders count, Ms Ardern offers Labour no more electoral advantage to Labour than Paula Bennett does for National if Mr Little remains Labour’s face.  Against the somewhat dour 55-year-old Mr English, Ms Ardern offers Labour something that the seemingly permanently enraged Mr Little cannot.

Ms Ardern has previously said she cannot stand for the top job because she thinks being leader of the opposition or prime minister is incompatible with her plans to start a family. That sounds reasonable on first hearing but, with further reflection, is it really true in 21st century New Zealand that someone can’t be leader of the opposition or prime minister and start a family?

Even in the 1980s Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto started a family while serving as leader of the opposition and prime minister.  Can it really be Ms Ardern and Labour’s position that 21st century New Zealand is less progressive than 20th century Pakistan?  Moreover, how strongly could Labour argue it had the interests of young families at heart if no less than the prime minister herself was sharing the same challenges they do, both at home and at work?  It would be the next natural step in the New Zealand story of emancipation that we celebrate on our $10 note.

This may all seem too radical for Labour and Ms Ardern to even contemplate as soon as Tuesday. But they need to ask themselves this: What will they do when the March and April polls come out and Labour remains in the doldrums but Ms Ardern is well ahead of poor old Mr Little as preferred prime minister?

Better for Labour to take the bold step now than be forced by events to take it even closer to the election on September 23.

Labour can replace Little without going to the membership. All it needs is a no confidence vote in caucus to oust him, then only Jacinda puts her name forward and the caucus will have selected the leader. It requires some coordination but the rules and constitution allow it.

 

-NBR

 


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