Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: Elevating Ardern now gives Little best shot

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Tapping young politician’s profile by making her deputy would revitalise Labour’s image in all-important lead-up to election.
Jacinda Ardern eschews talk of ever wanting the leadership.
Jacinda Ardern eschews talk of ever wanting the leadership.

Voters don't love Andrew Little and probably never will. But they don't have to love him for him to be Prime Minister in nine months' time.

Unless new Prime Minister Bill English becomes a lot more popular than John Key - beyond the inevitable bounce he will get in the first round of polls - it is quite conceivable Labour could lead a coalition Government.

It is not probable, but quite possible.

With an election date being announced as early as next week, time is short.

The pressure is on Little to improve his own performance and the party's image to lift its support.

Making Jacinda Ardern deputy leader after she wins the Mt Albert byelection is an obvious way to help change the party's image and to complement his own.

It is not a question of whether or not Ardern deserves it.

It is a matter of recognising that she could make a difference to the party's results.

She has a big national profile and an even bigger one in Auckland and is the face of Labour to many younger voters.

That profile will only increase during the campaign for the byelection on February 25.

Annette King has done a brilliant job. She has been invaluable to Little in his first two years and was the right choice at the time.

Elevating Ardern any sooner than that would have been a mistake - potentially distracting and destabilising to Little - as I said 14 months ago when Little was assessing whether to make King's short-term assignment longer-term.

But things have changed since then. The National Party leadership change two months ago and the next reshuffle in May could lead to fresh faces in education and health (Nikki Kaye and Michael Woodhouse).

The Greens too have a slate of strong young women candidates in Hayley Holt, Chloe Swarbrick and Golriz Ghahraman.

It means Little and King would be foolish not to rethink the deputy's job.

King could not be forced out. Her standing is too high and any disunity would cripple them.

But King standing aside in the interests of the party should secure her one of the highest list rankings and the right to choose her job, should the party lead the next Government.

Ardern eschews talk of ever wanting the leadership. That is not an issue. But the deputy's job is different.

She put up her hand to be Grant Robertson's deputy in the last leadership vote. It may be a case of duty calling under difference circumstances.

It would be seen as a desperate measure for a desperate time, because that is what it would be.

But it would still be the obvious and bold thing to do for a party that wants to optimise its chances at the election, and a move that does not compromise any principles.

But much depends on Little's own performance.

Tomorrow's state of the nation speech in Auckland, albeit on a shared stage with the Greens, gives Little a chance to make an impact in an environment his party largely controls.

He was overshadowed at Ratana by the spat between Winston Peters and Gareth Morgan. He did not make much impact from Labour's caucus retreat in Martinborough.

The one example this year of Little at his best was, ironically, attacking the very person who will determine whether or not he becomes Prime Minister, Peters himself - prompted by some undeserving criticism by Peters on Little's commitment to the Pike River families.

It was refreshing to see Little taking off the kid gloves usually worn in dealings with the likely kingmaker after the election.

But overall, Little falls short of what voters expect in an alternative Prime Minister.

He can't hope to have the likeability factor that "everyman" John Key had. He doesn't have the razor wit or breadth of experience that Bill English has.

But he can broaden his appeal beyond the one-dimensional image of the tub-thumping unionist.

He may have heeded the lectures in style over summer from former Metro editor Simon Wilson: he has apparently bought a new dark suit and got rid of the glasses in order for television viewers to see his eyes.

The reality is that it is not enough to say you are the alternative Prime Minister. You have to look the part and sound it - and sound like you want it.

There will be differences in the way Little pitches his message. According to advisers he will be more revealing of himself in order that voters can know him better and start connecting with him better.

Little's political judgment has been questioned for agreeing to share the state of the nation event with the Green Party when there are few enough chances for Opposition party leaders to shine.

The verdict on that should be reserved until after the event. If the Greens hog the limelight, and even get equal billing, it will have been a mistake.

But if Little comes out of it looking more like an alternative Prime Minister and the Greens spell out in sensible terms why they want him as Prime Minister, it may pay off.

Policy wise, Labour will be more focused this year on fewer core issues - housing, education, health and jobs - and the sitting targets National has used to great effect against Labour in the past two elections have been minimised.

There will no promises of tax increases or capital gains tax to thrash it with in the campaign. Any such changes will be developed by a commission next term and put to a vote at the following election.

Labour and the Greens are preparing to come up with a common economic direction statement to eliminate the tension that was evident in the last election campaign.

Little has brought a fresh level of stability and discipline to Labour but if he doesn't lead Labour to power, it is almost certain his chief lieutenants, Phil Twyford and Grant Robertson, will slog it out for the leadership after the next election.

Little will get only one chance at power. He has to be the best that he can be, and he isn't there yet.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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