Jacinda Ardern's elevation to Opposition leader has turned the election campaign on its head and transformed Vote 2017 into one of the most compelling races for more than a decade. Claire Trevett asks can Labour turn around its lowest polling in just seven weeks?

Within a day it had begun. Labour was pumping out an online advertisement featuring its new leader Jacinda Ardern and the tagline "I'm with Jacinda" - its twist on the "I'm with her" slogan used by supporters of US Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton.

The hashtag #FeelTheArdern is also in use - a rip-off of Bernie Sanders "Feel the Bern".

Ardern supporters are yet to start chanting "Oh, Jacinda Ardern" to the tune of the White Stripes' Seven Nation Army in the style of British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn's fans, but it surely won't take long.


Suddenly an election campaign than was supposedly all about housing, heath and happiness is all about a 37-year-old from Hamilton.

Otago University law and politics professor Andrew Geddis says Labour has no choice. To borrow another Americanism, he describes Ardern as Labour's "Hail Mary" moment - the sporting term referring to a last desperate move.

Geddis reckons Labour has to get at least 100,000 more votes to do it taking them into the 30s in the polls.

"This is it. This is the Hail Mary play. The very last play of the game where you just throw the ball as far as far as you can and hope your guy catches it and wins the game."

Labour has just 49 days to catch that ball.

Neither terminology nor history are on Ardern's side.

The Hail Mary pass is usually unsuccessful and there have been a string of failed last-ditch leader changes both in Australia and New Zealand from Kevin Rudd taking over from Julia Gillard in 2013 to Mike Moore taking over from then Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer in 1990.

Jacinda Ardern is social media-savvy, as this selfie shows.
Jacinda Ardern is social media-savvy, as this selfie shows.

Moore did not win the election and also lost (by a small margin) the 1993 election before being rolled by Helen Clark, who also lost in 1996 before triumphing in 1999.

That does not mean Ardern cannot defy the odds - even NZ First leader Winston Peters has said she will be worth a five or six point bounce in the polls, although he has questioned whether it will last to the election.


Ask Grant Robertson how Labour will pull it off and he says two words: "Bob Hawke".

That refers to former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke taking over the Labor Party just a month before a snap election in 1983 and leading the party to a landslide victory.

Public relations director Mark Blackham was Moore's former press secretary from before the 1990 election until after the 1993. He says Ardern's situation was exactly the circumstances in which it could be done.

"When someone really fresh and novel takes over, you have a different set of pressures on you, or almost an absence of pressures because people are, in some ways, not expecting as much. That means it's a lot easier to impress them."

He says Ardern could be a "political phenomenon".

That would mean concentrating on the public rather than just the media - getting out every day and allowing word of mouth to do its thing.

"It builds up a 'people wave' " where people tell each other about meeting her."

Linda Clark, a public lawyer and former political editor for RNZ and TVNZ, says the first rule to win an election in 49 days is to "not be in a position where you have to win an election in 49 days".

She says Labour has to get into the 30s in the polls to have a chance.

However, she believes National's vote is soft.

"I think for a while now, there is dissatisfaction and anxiety about things like housing and how tough it is for people to get by. But there hasn't been anywhere to go with it.

The Labour Party new election poster featuring new leader Jacinda Ardern with their refreshed campaign slogan for election 2017. Photo / Supplied
The Labour Party new election poster featuring new leader Jacinda Ardern with their refreshed campaign slogan for election 2017. Photo / Supplied

"Labour's best hope is that what they can suddenly do is demonstrate that they are the safe harbour. And if she can do that, then they're in with a chance."

Auckland University political marketing lecturer Jennifer Lees-Marshment says harvesting soft National voters means issuing policies that are believable - and acknowledging National is not all bad.

"If they do talk about National, they should acknowledge National's strengths to show respect to those voters who voted National in the last three elections, but give them the opportunity to move to Labour for a better version of National - not an inferior version of a competent government."

For any chance of success Labour needs to do more than snaffle votes from other parties on the left, says Geddis.

It needs either disengaged voters or soft National voters.

Geddis warns neither category have shown any inclination to budge in nine years - the disengaged voters did not respond to Labour's "missing millions" campaign in 2014 and soft National voters stayed with National.

"For me, Labour's major problem is the fact that the electorate doesn't appear to be the 'mood for change' electorate that we saw in the United States and the United Kingdom. Things have been pretty settled here for the last nine years."

He says polls on confidence and voter satisfaction remained as high now as in 2014 " and that is hard to fight.

"You know what you're going to get with Bill English and if people are comfortable with where the country is and where it is going, then they're going to stick with what they know."

Ardern is already tilting at young voters - she described herself as "youth-adjacent" at 37 and has signalled one of the stamps she will put on the campaign is a policy to help tertiary students with the cost of living.

Much of the talk so far has centred on whether she will be able to galvanise the youth vote. Auckland University political scientist Jennifer Curtin points to Ardern's ease on social media as a good way to reach those voters, many of whom don't bother because they do not think their vote will count.

Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern during the party's new election slogan launch at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern during the party's new election slogan launch at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

She says Ardern has also turned the campaign from a "ho-hum" affair into something that seems like a real race - and that will also get those voters out.

But there is another voting bloc that could prove more crucial to Ardern's ability to pull it off. Those voters are easier pickings because they do actually vote. They are women.

Curtin has researched the gender gap in voting since the 1960s using data from the NZ Election Study.

It shows that though, historically, National had strong support among women in the days when many were stay-at-home mums, that began to drop off in the 1990s particularly after Helen Clark took over the party. Labour's support among women was six to eight points higher than from men under Clark.

Former Prime Minister John Key (and possibly the string of male leaders of Labour) managed to turn that gap around, but it shows how fluid the vote is.

However, Curtin warns there's a risk in pigeon-holing this race as being all about the youth or women vote.

Ardern, she says, needs to choose policies that appeal to a range of demographics, such as super-annuitants and students.

National's campaign chair Steven Joyce says National is not worried about the impact on support among women any more than other voters.

"I'm concerned about all votes. And you can't get, as we have to get, nearly one in two of all votes without worrying what everybody thinks.

"So that is always really top of mind, what the different voting groups think, to the extent you can do that.

"There is always a risk you end up pigeon-holing or stereotyping people based on their gender or age and you have to be careful about that too."

The Herald's own Herald ZB Kantar TNS survey shows more women than men believe social issues such as health and education are important compared to core economic issues. And those are areas Labour is already campaigning on.

The fluid nature of the women's vote is why Ardern was not overly concerned about the recent kerfuffle over questions about her own family intentions and debate on whether it was appropriate to ask such questions.

New Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and deputy leader Kelvin Davis after their caucus at Parliament Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
New Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and deputy leader Kelvin Davis after their caucus at Parliament Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Helen Clark offered some advice to Ardern in the wake of that. That advice was to "ignore the sexist attacks and get the job done."

When Ardern delivered her first press conference, her friend and finance spokesman Grant Robertson stood behind her and at least once muttered a cue on how to handle a question.

Robertson is one of Ardern's core kitchen Cabinet. It was pre-assembled. The others are Chris Hipkins and the battle-hardened Trevor Mallard and Annette King - all old friends of Ardern's.

The networks Ardern built in Helen Clark's office and her extensive links within Auckland's creative sector are now also paying dividends.

Yesterday it was confirmed that former Clark communications advisor Mike Munro was being brought on board. Other former Clark staffers are also on standby.

But Linda Clark cautions against over-engineering Ardern.

In terms of communication, Ardern comes ready-made. Just add water.

She points to Ardern's first press conference as "undiluted Ardern" - firm but funny and deftly handling everything thrown at her.

"She just has to stick to her own game. That's where Labour has struggled, it's had a succession of leaders who, good men though they may have been, you could hear them thinking when they spoke.

"You could hear them calculating 'how is this coming across?' 'will people like this?'

"That's all gone with Jacinda. She doesn't have that second guessing that's happening as she's speaking and that's why she can make a direct and very genuine connection with people."

Linda Clark contrasts the looming English versus Ardern debates with the 2008 debates between the inexperienced John Key and Helen Clark.

Expectations were low for Key and he exceeded them with one line - asked to define being rich, Clark got bogged down in OECD definitions while Key simply said it was not having to worry about paying the bills.

"The first thing any observer learned from Key is not to underestimate something that is different, or looks a little bit inexperienced," says Linda Clark.

"In fact, that was what people liked about Key and up against someone as polished an encyclopaedic as Clark, Key was still able to come across as the more likable and interesting person."

Blackham also points to Key, saying people tend to remember him in the latter years rather than in 2008.

"He was still quite awkward and new and fresh at the time. He was stepping in at a time people were looking around, or more interested in the new.

"That's what he did and it's what [Ardern] is doing."

Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern during the general debate in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern during the general debate in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

But there are differences. Key had led National for two years by the 2008 election and was outstripping Clark as preferred PM.

Ardern already has a high profile but it is predominantly through "soft" media such as breakfast television and women's magazines.

Lees-Marshment says being relatable is not Jacinda's - or Labour's - problem.

"What they need to do is focus on making her a serious, future Prime Minister."

She says that means ensuring Ardern does not just talk about children and the poor.

"She's got to show a command of all the different area, especially the economy and business."

Geddis agrees Ardern will have to persuade voters there is something worth voting for behind that relentless positivity.

The debates against English provide both opportunity and risk.

"The potential pitfalls are exactly how she comes off against English in the debates.

"She's got the potential to outshine him on TV, but in the debate there's also the risk that underlying narrative of a lack of depth and lack of experience will be brought forward, so she's going to have to rebut those."

It means there is little room for slip-ups on detail.

Ardern will be fronting all major policy announcements - and Geddis says she had better be well-briefed.

National will make some adjustments to its campaign in the face of a new opponent. But ministers have all been singing from the same song sheet in this frenetic week - the leader doesn't matter if everything else remains the same.

Ardern gave herself a 72-hour window to start answering that question.

That ended yesterday afternoon. By then there was a minor portfolio reshuffle and a new slogan - 'Let's do this". Ardern has also signalled a turbo-charge of the policy on tertiary education and is expected to make a major transport policy announcement over the weekend.

And she showed a ruthless streak - effectively sacking her first minister before even getting into Government yesterday, by telling Metiria Turei she would not have a place in Cabinet. Soon after, Turei announced she would not be putting her name forward to be a minister.

The message is that Ardern's sole focus is Labour.

Expect to see wall-to-wall Ardern this weekend.

At some point, Ardern will have to show she can hold together a government of disparate parties.

Jacinda Ardern walking the third floor corridor before their caucus at Parliament Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Jacinda Ardern walking the third floor corridor before their caucus at Parliament Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

That has understandably been put on the backburner.

The Greens remain on board, but New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is another question altogether.

Ardern began the week joking that she enjoys single malt - but yesterday she ruled out a post-election agreement that would see Winston Peters serve as Prime Minister.

Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger sacked Peters from National in 1991 then brought him on board as a coalition partner in Bolger's government between 1996 until Bolger was rolled by Jenny Shipley in 1997.

He thinks Peters will side with National if the other option is being the third string in a Labour-Greens Government.

Bolger was also the victorious Prime Minister after the 1990 election following Moore's last-minute takeover of Labour.

"That brought New Zealand's largest political victory ever. To me."

He says it might be easier for Ardern because she is heading into the campaign from the Opposition rather than as Prime Minister at the tail-end of an unpopular government.

"But it will be very difficult because you can't re-write your policy message with any credibility in two weeks.

"A new face is one thing, but is there any new thinking?"

He sees Ardern's task as showing she has values that align with those of New Zealanders and he does not think she has time to do that.

She has 49 days to prove him wrong.

The checklist

An assembly of tips to win the election in 49 days
• Don't do anything stupid. MPs should be on a "no stupidity" message or it will undercut Ardern.
• Details matter. Blundering on the details of Labour's policies will call into question credibility.
• Look at me, look at me. Don't get bogged down talking about side-issues or other parties.
• Learn from John Key - the Key of 2008 when he went up against the experience of Clark, rather than of 2014.
• Acknowledge National's strengths to show respect for voters who voted National in the past three elections - then win them back with believable policies.
• Don't just talk about children and the poor - the economy matters.
• It's not all about Auckland. Don't forget the rest of New Zealand.
• Be bold. There is nothing to lose.
• Don't get pigeon-holed as all about the youth or female vote.

Labour's new leader well-versed in modern language


English: 20,800 followers
Ardern: 72,800 followers


English: 99,826 likes
Ardern: 66,607 likes


English: 2,640 followers
Ardern: 15,100 followers


English: Joined in June.
Ardern: No profile.

She's a digital native, he's learning a new language.

Massey University political scientist Claire Robinson, who specialises in political messaging, says Jacinda Ardern already has a huge edge over Bill English in the online battleground - an intriguing, potentially vital election subplot.

"Bill is a much more naturally private sort of person," says Robinson. "If he wasn't leader of the National Party he wouldn't be posting as personally as Jacinda does.

"For him, it is like learning a new language. She has been brought up with the language and is comfortable in it. For [younger] generations there is no divide between how you speak on social media to how you speak to your friends."

That's not to say English's efforts to increase his social media presence are in vain.

He has had a few viral moments thanks to his questionable taste for spaghetti on pizza and enthusiasm for walk-runs.

While attracting much ridicule from some, the posts have helped English foster his own dorkily-relatable image.

However, English's more personal social media posts often feel like they're written by an advisor.

Ardern's posts are more natural, featuring an important dash of self-deprecation. After revealing in her first press conference as leader that she hadn't had time to contact her Niue-based parents about her promotion, she later tweeted their response.

"Txt from Mum 'congratulations honey ... shall I come & paint your fence before the campaign starts?' Proud & ashamed of my yard all at once."

And after film director Taika Waititi tweeted his congratulations, she thanked him and added: "PS Know you have a pretty important film on the go, but if you want some ads as a side project"

Ardern has the most Twitter followers of any MP at 73,200 and counting - dwarfing English's 20,800.

Robinson warned it's important to not read too much into social media, which often serves as an "echo chamber" among similar groups, something particularly evident on platforms such as Twitter.