How long can it be before the Labour Party elevate Jacinda Ardern to the deputy leadership? The logic of such a promotion seems compelling, and her rise inexorable. It also reflects the changing nature of political parties and electoral politics, in which "star power" is valued over merit.
It seems likely that Jacinda Ardern will soon become deputy leader of the Labour Party, and incumbent Annette King will agree to step down, having secured a political payoff. Behind the scenes the negotiating and manoeuvring will be intense, but the outcome seems fairly predictable. Labour will want to put their best foot forward for the election in September - and this involves making good use of one of their most powerful electoral weapons, the new member for Mt Albert.
Should Labour replace King with Ardern?
Ardern's impressive byelection win - collecting about 77 per cent of the vote - is one more indication to Labour and the electorate that she is the obvious choice for the deputy position going into the election campaign. Political commentators and analysts appear to be in near-consensus about Ardern's suitability for the job.
Today Chris Trotter argues forcefully that Annette King needs to step down, saying "In the name of God - go!" - see his column in The Press: Labour's future has a single name.
Trotter is in no doubt that Andrew Little needs to act fast: "If Little doesn't respond to Jacinda Ardern's emphatic by-election victory in Mt Albert by promoting her to deputy-leader, then he's a fool. Success merits promotion. Any failure on Little's part to acknowledge Arden's pulling-power in Auckland will only fuel suspicions that he lacks the fortitude to shake up the delicate factional balance of Labour's caucus. Little simply cannot afford to let such suspicions grow: not inside Labour, and certainly not beyond it. Voters only make prime ministers out of politicians who can see not only what needs to be done, but who also possess the guts to do it."
In another must-read column on the topic, Claire Trevett also seems convinced of Labour's need to promote Ardern: "Ardern's Auckland base, her ability to communicate well from children to Auckland business leaders, her popularity and her deft touch with 'soft' media make her an asset Little could better utilise by having her as his deputy. It is an asset he cannot afford to ignore. King's value to Little is indisputable but largely for internal reasons - she is in Wellington to run the ship while he travels the country and can control caucus with one pinkie finger. But Ardern's value is external - and in an election year that is the greater need. King remains valuable for Little, not least because of her ability to control caucus. But his need now is votes - not a guiding hand" - see: Annette King lashes out at 'ageist' idea of stepping to one side.
Trevett draws a distinction between two types of deputy leader: the internally focused deputy (such as King) vs the externally focused deputy (that Ardern would be). Political parties have been moving away from having traditional-style internally focused deputies who carry out a managerial role behind-the-scenes. These days, parties are more likely to choose deputies who have an external focus on selling the party - they are "retail politicians". This is because campaigning has become more the central role of political leaders and parties than organising, or even policy creation.
Trevett also has another way of describing the choice between Ardern and King: "Ardern's win in Mt Albert prompted fresh speculation Little should replace his steady pacemaker King with the crowd-pleasing sprinter Ardern as deputy for the home straight to the election."
Fairfax political editor Tracy Watkins seems to think there's no real option but to elevate their star performer: "Ardern has the sort of national name recognition that her fellow MPs can only dream about. Ask people in the street and hers is one of the few names among her Labour colleagues that people can produce. That profile is not always appreciated by Ardern's colleagues ... But when the common wisdom holds it that elections are won or lost in Auckland, Little might need to be more hard-headed" - see: Andrew Little's morning after headache in Mt Albert.
Little would be wrong, Watkins argues, to keep Ardern out of the deputy position: "Little has repeatedly passed her over for Wellington based veteran Annette King. If Labour want to ring the generational changes under Little's leadership he can't afford to keep making the same mistake".
For Stacey Kirk, the deputy decision comes down to a simple question: "how badly does Labour want to win this election?" - see: An expected steamroll - Mt Albert win gives Jacinda Ardern near unstoppable momentum.
Again, Ardern's suitability for the position comes down to both her strategic location and her ability to connect with the public. Kirk says that the current Labour leaders are "both Wellington-based and at the General Election, both will be standing as list candidates. There will be no Auckland representation in their leadership team, or even their top three, with Finance spokesman Grant Robertson the MP for Wellington Central. That should not be underestimated. And neither should the opinions of nearly every non-political person at a backyard barbecue who says "I don't follow politics too much, but I really like that Jacinda Ardern lady". (There are many)."
Kirk says that National's leadership refreshment in December should also play a part in Labour's thinking: "Against a new National leadership team in Bill English and Paula Bennett, Labour leader Andrew Little and veteran Annette King will forgo any arguments of tiredness that most Oppositions would expect to be able to level towards a third-term Government." And, "With National changing their lineup and the Prime Minister just two months ago, Labour is well justified in an election-year refresh without too much flak."
Gordon Campbell seems supportive of an elevation for Ardern, but mostly because of what he sees as King's lacklustre performance: "King adds very little externally to Labour's crossover appeal. Year in and year out, she barely figures in the national debate... There are other policy-based reasons for moving King aside. Since 2008, King has been unable to get any political traction on successive Ministers (Tony Ryall, Jonathan Coleman) in the Health portfolio. This could be because King's prior track record as Health Minister has left her with a serious credibility problem in advocating major change to the kind of policies she had previously defended, and/or had a hand in implementing. In different hands, the Health portfolio could and should be delivering more electorate gains to Labour, given the parlous state of the public health system" - see: On the Mt Albert aftermath.
King fights to hold on
There's been a public attempt by Labour to cool down any suggestion of a deputy leadership change. This has been led, of course, by Annette King herself. Unsurprisingly, she's reacted angrily to suggestions of being replaced, with various political reporters experiencing her wrath.
For example, today Claire Trevett reports: "King's response was a quite astonishing and vociferous defence of her turf. She claimed the talk around Ardern was ageist. She even went a little bit Trump, accusing media of having a vendetta against her" - see: Annette King lashes out at 'ageist' idea of stepping to one side.
Furthermore, according to Trevett: "Speaking to the Herald she questioned what Ardern could offer that she did not, other than relative youth. When it was suggested Ardern's Auckland base was one, King replied "does it really matter these days?" and said she could travel the country as a list-only candidate."
And as well as suggesting a preference for Ardern was "ageist", King added it was "sexist". Nicholas Jones reports her asking: "What would changing me for Jacinda bring that we don't already have? Someone that is younger? Well, is age everything, or is it a combination of fairly new talent and experience ... No one says that Winston [Peters] is too old. Isn't it interesting. I hear that as a woman I'm too old, but Winston who is older than me isn't too old. So I find it a bit sexist, really" - see: 'Don't expect a change': Andrew Little on renewed Labour deputy speculation.
(Incidentally, Gordon Campbell describes King's comments as "insulting" to Ardern - see: On the Mt Albert aftermath.)
Trevett's article also quotes Andrew Little's denial of any moves afoot to change the deputy, saying "don't expect any change", there is "no vacancy" in the position, and that he isn't "planning any changes".
Similarly, Ardern herself has spoken out on the matter denying any bid for deputy, and explaining what she told Annette King on the issue: "Just simply the fact that this is not an issue for either of us, and the fact that it's a distraction to the things we're focused on - that's been the nature of my conversation with Annette, who, I want to reiterate, is a very good mentor and friend" - see RNZ's Jacinda Ardern hoses down deputy speculation.
So is there any caucus and wider party disquiet on the matter? According to Tracy Watkins, any disquiet might perhaps be about Ardern more than King, as "King is a caucus favourite and popular with the party faithful" - see: Andrew Little's morning after headache in Mt Albert. Furthermore, apparently Ardern's "profile is not always appreciated by Ardern's colleagues. There is said to be a level of resentment that she is a popular pick for TV appearances and women's magazine pieces. King is also said to be resentful of Ardern's high profile and was widely rumoured to have dug in her heels during the last reshuffle because she believed she had a stronger stake on the deputy leadership on merit". And Watkins says "There seems to be a gentleman's agreement between her and Little that the deputy's job is for King to decide."
One commentator disputes the need to make Ardern the deputy. Russell Brown sarcastically says "of course what Labour needs in election year is yet another leadership shakeup" - see: Mt Albert: Cooperating, competing and carpooling.
Instead of elevating Ardern to deputy, Brown proposes that Labour should be making more important moves: "it should be (and presumably is) working on doing that by presenting a strong Auckland lineup: Ardern, Wood, Sepuloni, Russell, Twyford, Henare, Salesa, Sio and, yes, probably even Willie Jackson, who is perceived quite differently in parts of the city than he is at large. I genuinely think Auckland voters will place more value on that than on the symbolism of deputy leadership. How many ordinary people can currently name the deputy leader of any Parliamentary party?"
Will there really be any change?
Given the fact that Little denies any change is planned, that King is furiously holding her ground, and that even Ardern appears far from ambitious for the position, is there really any chance of a change in deputy? And how would it happen?
According to Trevett, "If Little does make the switch, it will be when he does a mini-shuffle to slot Raymond Huo into the caucus." She also outlines the problems that Little has in pushing King aside: "The trouble is he cannot risk replacing her now King has publicly stated her wish to remain in the job. Little could take the risk of upsetting the likes of MP Poto Williams and Maryan Street over his decision to recruit Willie Jackson to Labour, but he can not afford to get offside with King. King has great loyalty in Labour and Little will not be able to replace her unless she recognises it is a necessary idea herself. He somehow has to make it seem like it was her idea all along. And that is now too late. Ardern would likely refuse if King was upset by it."
According to rightwing blogger David Farrar, King's popularity in caucus is incredibly high: "If the Deputy Leadership was an open vote in caucus, King would win around 25 to 28 of the 32 votes" - see: Ardern vs King. However, Farrar also says, "But the wishes of the Leader are often given a lot of deference in the selection of Deputy. If Little concludes he is unelectable, he may ask King to fall on her sword to bring Ardern in, hoping that she can increase the party vote for Labour. However he would run the risk of being upstaged by his own Deputy, as never a healthy situation if the main reason people are voting for a party is the Deputy Leader, not the Leader."
In reality, King is unlikely to be as worried about holding onto her deputy position as she seems, especially given that everything changes in a few month with the general election. It's what comes after - if Labour goes into government - that really counts. There is no doubt that King will want a very senior ministerial position - such as Minister of Health. And therefore her current fight has more to do with that. So if she is replaced, she will be bargaining for a payoff, and currently she can be expected to get something very good.
Finally, although most of this debate is occurring in the wake of the by-election win, the idea of promotion was discussed last month by Audrey Young, in her very good article, Elevating Ardern now gives Little best shot.