Andrew Little did not take our advice yesterday. A leadership change less than eight weeks from an election did not seem wise or likely to turn things around for Labour. That initially appeared to be the view of senior Labour MPs, too, but yesterday they elected a new leader, Jacinda Ardern, after Little seemingly took the hint and stepped down of his own accord.
Normally, no career politician would want to take over the leadership of a major party polling at just 24 per cent this close to a general election. The last time it happened here was in 1990 when Mike Moore took over the leadership of a doomed Labour Government. Helen Clark, already deputy leader and heir apparent, had no desire to take over the leadership in those circumstances. She let Moore take the hospital pass and so it proved to be.
Ardern was only 10 years old when all of this happened. She represents a generation that has grown up since the 1980s and knows only what she has heard or read about the economy before the reforms of those years. But as a student of politics she may take heart from that fact that Moore survived the hospital pass in 1990 to lead Labour into the 1993 election, so whatever happens next month, she might live to fight another day.
Little's decision to step down will have created all sorts of problems for Labour's campaign. Its billboards featuring himself and Ardern are already up and it has gone to the expense of video productions featuring him. While these promotions make good use of her for their theme of "freshness", they could have been so much stronger with her image alone, and now they will be. But it may yet be a masterstroke. Ardern now has a real opportunity to show the country she is more than a youthful image - and with the pressure all on National and PM Bill English. That said, Ardern will be under close examination in testing interviews and debates. She will need to have not just a thorough grasp of policy issues but be able to summarise them clearly and forcefully in everyday language. Portfolio spokespeople can get away with public service policyspeak, party leaders cannot.
Little resigned because an election result as low as Labour's polls at present would leave it in no position to lead a government even if it could cobble a majority with the Greens and NZ First. Little expressed this view in one of his last interviews as leader last weekend. On current polls, Labour would be a weak coalition leader, pulled this way and that by the Greens and Winston Peters. Labour needs to get its polling well into the 30 per cents and needs to do it quickly if it is to go into the election campaign with credibility.
Everything is riding on the performance of its new leader in the next few weeks. The public needs to get to know her much better than it has so far. By standing aside and throwing all the limelight on her, Little has already changed the focus of politics for the moment. The Greens, NZ First and The Opportunities Party have enjoyed most of the attention of recent weeks. Now Labour is in the news and the new leader needs to keep it there. She needs to excite her party and impress its potential supporters - and she may have the personality to do it.