Labourís Leadership Change a Magnificently Risky Move, But One That Could Pay Off

I was preparing to write a piece about how Andrew Little should not resign as leader of the Labour Party until after the election, an election that they would surely lose. It was too late to change things up, I thought.

Things were looking dire for Labour. The polls showed them in the low twenties. There was talk of Little’s resignation. I felt utterly disillusioned. I had picked an opinion that seemed smart enough and I was going to run with it: surely a leadership change would cause more harm than good?

But, when it was announced that Jacinda Ardern, the youngest ever leader, and Kelvin Davis, the first Maori deputy, had taken the reins of the party, I changed my mind. Some people stand by their opinions. They love to argue and stick to their guns. But I got swept up in the unadulterated eventfulness of the Labour leadership change and the hope it conjures.

Something has happened and it could be enough to change the government.

It’s a risky move. Changing your leader is an almost universally stupid idea when there’s only about six weeks until the election (23 September). But Labour has nothing to lose. They can only see polls rise from this bold decision – a decision that they’ve set up as a response to an unforced external problem rather than as their own fault. Brilliant.

“This was not planned, but it has not weakened my or my team's resolve,” Ardern told the press gallery in Wellington. I like this. It talks to the apparent spontaneity of the event – it’s the abrupt punching of the spectator through the screen that is needed to get young people casting their ballots.   

The Ardern ascension has an exciting aura, exemplified in a line at her press conference: “We are about to run the campaign of our lives”. This comment will resonate with young folk more than the ‘let’s be positive’ talking point. I want to see a fight, not a smile.

The leadership change shows renewed courage rather than utter chaos. Political horse-race commentators have desperately tried to find a reflection of World events here in New Zealand. ‘Please give us a Trump’, they cry, envious of the comeback that old media has made in the United States. Our political parties have also tried to simulate a Trump or Corbyn; Winston Peters is the loud and surly old fighter who will save us from the void of neoliberalism.

Labour’s leadership changes, however, will take the wind out of Peters’ sails. (Though, I am worried about how post-election negotiations will go down.) The focus will be on Ardern for the next couple of weeks, especially in terms of television appearances and social media noise. Any talk of Kiwi nationalist populism will be pushed aside (for the moment) by, at least, an evocation of Jeremy Corbyn’s recent upset in the UK and, at best, a completely genuine and energised ‘fresh approach’ to perceiving the Labour Party.

However, Ardern is the sixth person to lead Labour in nine years. That’s not a good look. Parallel to Ardern’s perceived inexperience, National will place emphasis on the chaotic and incoherent appearance of an opposition party that has changed leaders so much. But, in attacking Ardern, National will have to be careful not to come across as the stale bullies in government (a la Paula Bennett).

Ardern’s gender will suddenly be everyone’s business too. It’s funny that Jesse Mulligan and Kanoa Lloyd of TV3’s The Project were the ones to ask a naughty question regarding gender. A question that is now being asked by other talking heads simply by referring to the fact that the question was asked. Mulligan, also on RNZ in the afternoons, comes across as a precious chap who never strays. And yet it was him who has sparked a firestorm (on social media) about sexism.

Mulligan, who seemingly had permission from his female co-host, asked Ardern about how some Kiwi woman have to make a decision between having a family and having a career – indirectly asking Ardern if she is going to get pregnant. Ardern gave an equivalently null answer and things moved on, but the moment has become the first in what will be an inevitably lively debate about Ardern’s gender and how that matters. The run up to election day will be filled with cries of sexism and cries of PC-gone-mad.

Pragmatically, of course, gender does matter; Ardern needs to be able to draw female voters from National. If she does that, she’ll be our next Prime Minister. The strategist in me says that Davis will attract regional Maori and, of course, balance things for any wankers turned off by female leaders.

The change over from Little to Ardern was smooth. It was vital that the public saw the decision as unanimous with no hint of infighting and backstabbing. She was right when she said, “People want to hear about our vision, not our internal machinations, so that's what we'll be focused on”. Indeed, it seems that nothing dirty went on at all. Ardern even seems reluctant, but not too reluctant – a cool rather than malicious ambition.

People love Jacinda Ardern. We’re already seeing the results of her rise. The day after the announcement there was $250,000+ in donations and 600 new volunteers signing up for the Labour party. I think Bill English and his camp will be carefully considering their next step. Even before Ardern’s appointment English was on TV reminding his base that the election is far from over and they should not get comfortable. Now they have a new threat to not underestimate. With Ardern, these next few weeks are more than enough to win this election and change the government. In most ways, this spontaneous, bold risk-taking was excellently timed and executed – and exciting.


Labour Leaders 1993 – Present

Helen Clark
Leader 1993–1999, Prime Minister 1999–2008

Mount Albert

Clark challenged Mike Moore for leadership of the party after the 1993 election, New Zealand’s last First Past the Post election. In 1999 Labour was elected with 49 seats to National’s 39. Aunty Helen was PM during the foreshore and seabed debate, and the launch of Kiwisaver and New Zealand Superannuation funds. She criticized the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, sent the SAS to Afghanistan and sped to the rugby in a motorcade. Clark went on to run the UN Development Programme and ran unsuccessfully for UN Secretary General in 2016.


Phil Goff
Leader 2008–2011

Mount Roskill

Goff held a number of high-profile portfolios during Clark’s three terms, including Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade. He was seen as the natural successor to Clark and became leader after Labour’s defeat in 2008. The capital gains tax was the central debate of the 2011 election, where Labour ended up with eight less seats. Goff became the mayor of Auckland in 2016.


David Shearer
Leader 2011–2013

Mount Albert

Shearer worked for the UN and various NGOs for 20 years before entering politics, working in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Liberia, Rwanda and Somalia. The party caucus chose him over Cunliffe in December 2011 after a bad election result. He’s gone on to greater things, heading the UN peacekeeping mission to South Sudan.


David Cunliffe
Leader 2013–2014

New Lynn

Cunliffe was Clark’s health minister for the last year of the fifth Labour government. He became leader – after a year of rumours of caucus infighting – after the 2013 leadership election, in front of Grant Robertson and Shane Jones. After a memorable debate with John Key, and a disastrous election result in 2014, Cunliffe resigned.


Andrew Little
Leader 2014–2017

List MP

Only a year after the 2013 leadership election there was another, with Little, Robertson, David Parker and Nanaia Mahuta facing off against each other. The ‘affiliates’ vote (unions) put Little over the top. He made a splash in parliament at first, but hasn’t inspired since. He resigned last week after poor opinion poll results.


Jacinda Ardern
Leader 2017–

Mount Albert

Our next Prime Minister? Ardern was unanimously elected by caucus with little drama and has been met with intense media interest, for now. She ran in the 2017 by-election for Mt Albert after Shearer left. Ardern became Little’s deputy in March 2017, fueling speculation she would eventually replace him.

This article first appeared in Issue 18, 2017.
Posted 11:08am Sunday 6th August 2017 by George Elliott.