Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Life for the party

Today the Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party stepped down, and a new Leader was selected, along with a new Deputy Leader. It’s a mere seven weeks before the general election. A few days ago, this would have seemed impossible, but it’s now reality, and it could turn out to be a turning point. It’s certainly turned the election on its head: A few days ago, I was planning a post I was going to write about the election. My working title was: “The year of the yawn”. That’s certainly been scrapped now.

The short version of the story is that in an interview with TVNZ, Labour Party Leader Andrew Little admitted he’d considered stepping down as leader after months of the Labour Party polling poorly. Labour is currently polling lower than its election result in 2014, which could lead to an historic loss. In fact, there was a very real possibility that if Labour didn’t do better, Andrew Little himself might not make it back into Parliament because, even ranked number one on the Labour Party List, the party’s electorate MPs would take up all the seats the party was entitled to. That wouldn’t just be bad, it’d be an utter disaster.

In his announcement that he was stepping down (video below), Little said that a party leader has to take responsibility for bad polling, and he was. For whatever reason, he just never connected with New Zealand voters, never polling above third place for Preferred Prime Minister. New Zealanders don’t vote for Prime Minister, of course, but the polling is an indicator of whether a party leader is connecting with New Zealand voters. Polling lower than an incumbent prime minister isn’t unusual, but continually also polling lower than one or two other people and the prime minister, especially when combined with low party polling, is an indication that that he just wasn’t getting the party’s message across.

One of the people Little often polled behind was his deputy, Jacinda Ardern, who today become the new party leader (video below; see also: “Jacinda Ardern's best one-liners: 'Mum and Dad are going to get a surprise in Niue'”). She was selected unanimously by the Labour Party Caucus in Parliament, as was her Deputy Leader, Kelvin Davis, MP for Te Tai Tokerau, the Māori Electorate that stretches from Auckland to the top of the North Island. I’ve met both Jacinda and Kelvin several times, and had chats with them. To be clear, we’re not friends, and I don’t know either of them well, but based on my own impressions, I think they’re both really good and capable. Also, people I know and respect rate them highly.

Can this work? I think it just might.

In 1990, Mike Moore rolled the sitting Labour Prime Minister, Geoffrey Palmer, who was leading the party to what would be its worst defeat up until that point. Moore said that he couldn’t prevent the loss, but he could reduce the damage.

In 1993, Moore nearly led Labour back into government, after only one term in Opposition. He didn’t, however, so he was rolled by Helen Clark, who went on to become Prime Minister in 1999.

This has been one example cited by pundits, that Ardern might be able to staunch the bleeding and keep Labour from an historic loss. However, there’s a complicating factor here: Under our MMP electoral system neither Labour nor National will win enough votes to govern alone, and they’ll need coalition partners. This is part of what MMP is designed to do—deliver coalition governments, rather than one party rule. On current polling, it’s possible that Labour could lead a coalition with the Greens and New Zealand First, though Little himself dismissed the idea that such a coalition could work, and while he may have been trying to discourage people from voting for NZ First in the hope it would lead to a change of government, it was in any case an unhelpful thing to say.

Another example cited by more partisan pundits has been the 1983 Australian federal election. That year, Bob Hawke became leader of the Australian Labor Party (they spell it differently) after the then-leader, Bill Hayden, lost a by-election the ALP had been expected to win. The very day that Hawke became leader, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called a snap election hoping to capitalise on ALP disunity. The election was held one month later, and the ALP won in an a landslide.

Personally, I don’t think that either the Mike Moore example nor the Bob Hawke example are particularly relevant: Both were a long time ago, and both were First Past The Post elections. This matters because it’s a very different time now, and because New Zealand’s MMP system makes it easier to change the government than FPTP does.

Moreover, the National Party Leader and current Prime Minister, Bill English, is boring. There’s no one who would seriously suggest that New Zealanders will get excited about electing him. Indeed, National’s poll results have been pretty static, and voters disapprove of the government’s lack of concern or action on the housing crisis, National’s funding cuts to health, lack of concern for mental health funding, and so much more. So, it’s not that New Zealand voters like either National or English, it’s that they didn’t like Labour and Little enough to be bothered voting for change. Now that Labour’s changed, the dynamics of the election have also changed.

Jacinda Ardern is positive, smart, witty, and genuinely likable. She connects with voters in a way that Andrew Little just couldn’t. She’s promised that in 72 hours she’ll announce her plan for the rest of the campaign, including some adjustment to policies. She’s promised a relentlessly positive campaign, and that she and the Labour team will go all out in the campaign of their lives.

Obviously I don’t know if all that will be enough, or if Jacinda will make any difference beyond preventing a bloodbath. But if anyone can turn this around and actually lead Labour to victory, I think Jacinda Ardern can do it. In fact, I think that she’s the only one the Labour Caucus who possibly could.

In seven weeks, we’ll find out if this gamble pays off or breaks the house. At the moment, I’m betting on it turning out far better than many people expect, and far better for Labour than National fears.

Andrew Little announces he’s stepping down:

Newly-elected Labour Party Leader Jacinda Ardern’s first press conference:

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