National has itself to blame for attention moving to Labour in the wake of the Mt Albert byelection. Labour and Greens were given the field to themselves and the scale of Jacinda Ardern's victory over her nearest rival, the Greens' Julie Anne Genter, has immediately raised interesting questions for Labour's leadership.
Ardern is the fresh face every major party needs if it is to return to power, though she has been in Parliament longer than Andrew Little and, like him, has repeatedly stood and lost in an electorate winnable for Labour at general elections. But her victory on Saturday has given Ardern the street credibility of an electorate MP and leads many outside the party to wonder why she is not deputy leader.
The balance she would provide for Little looks irresistible. Her image and manner is more youthful than his, she represents an Auckland electorate, he and his present deputy and finance spokesman all live in Wellington. It may be just coincidence that four of past five election winning prime ministers have been Auckland MPs but all parties are sensitive to the need to appeal to the country's largest population centre. That was one reason National made Paula Bennett deputy to Bill English after John Key resigned.
Gender balance was no doubt another consideration. Labour already has a female deputy, as Annette King has been quick to remind us after the Mt Albert result. The case for Ardern was ageist, she suggested, asking what Ardern could offer that she could not, other than youth. That was an unusual outburst from a deputy so experienced and one that is unlikely to have enhanced her standing with the leader and the caucus. It is the sort of comment a secure deputy would not make, which suggests she is already being urged to stand aside.
If she does not go quietly, Ardern might be encouraged to challenge her for the position. An internal contest six months out from the general election might sound like the last thing Labour would want but it could work in its favour, so long as Ardern was the only challenger. It would keep attention on Labour and probably give her a more convincing endorsement than an uncontested succession would be.
Labour needs to do something to freshen the face it is presenting to the electorate. Little has had a spring in his step since Key resigned and his manner has become a little less mournful. He is facing a National leader who does not have Key's agreeable nature an appears intent on taking the Government back to the party's heartland. Having distanced himself from feminism and Waitangi he told National's "tree huggers" at the weekend they were to blame for urban house prices.
But the change of leader has freshened the Government as it seeks a fourth term. Labour, meanwhile, is still relying on the Greens to put it in contention. The byelection results were not encouraging on that score. The Greens polled poorly and the very low turnout does not suggest much excitement at the prospect of a new coalition. Labour needs a lift and a bright young deputy might provide it.