Opinion: Ardern gives Labour a chance, but she has hard choices to make

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Labour has grounds to be cautiously optimistic that replacing Andrew Little with Jacinda Ardern could trigger a revival in the party’s miserable fortunes.

Amazingly, optimism is a commodity that never seems to be in short supply in the party despite the constant disappointment inflicted on its long-suffering members.

The new Labour leader says she will be herself, and work hard for all New Zealanders.
Source: Breakfast

What Labour could do with is a lot more caution before casting its new leader as the Wonder Woman of New Zealand politics.

Her capacity to reconnect Labour to the literally hundreds of thousands of voters who have drifted away from the party since the Helen Clark era has become the prevailing wisdom despite there being little evidence as yet to make such an assumption.

Source: 1 NEWS

That is not to say it won’t happen. Given she is a highly articulate, straight-talker, there will be a “Jacinda effect”.

By example, no other politician hanging out their shingle at this year’s election looks capable of galvanising those in the 18 to 30 age group who seem to be pathologically adverse to voting.

The word “charisma” is also getting heavy usage from her rapidly burgeoning unofficial fan club.

Her measure on that score is skewed by the almost total absence of that ingredient in the image her predecessor as leader presented to the public.

What might be termed the “Little effect” - a polite way of summing up the former leader’s sheer unelectability - offers what for Ardern is a useful contrast. But that will fast fade in the public’s mind.

Little was by nature an operator and organiser far more at home in the back rooms rather than a salesman in the showrooms.

Labour has long needed someone able to sell ice cubes to Eskimos. Little could not sell a life-jacket to a drowning man - even when he was that man.

A danger lurks in the current fanfare being accorded to Ardern.

Labour colleague Trevor Mallard did her no favours in saying she could quite easily slice 10 percentage points off National’s current standing in the polls.

That was a way of saying Labour could win the election without sounding arrogant.

Our political editor says Ms Ardern's opening press conference was a positive sign for the Labour Party.
Source: Breakfast

But it risks setting expectations which she fails to meet.

The figure that Ardern needs to keep firmly at the forefront of her mind is that her elevation adds up to Labour having had six leaders in the space of just a decade.

That ought to be a sobering statistic.

Had you not been aware of the circumstances surrounding Tuesday’s caucus meeting, however, you could have been excused for thinking Labour had just won the general election, rather than indulging in a last-minute exercise in survival.

Amidst such euphoria, it is easy to forget the scale of the leap required to bridge the gap between leader and deputy leader.

In her prior capacity as deputy, Ardern had run up all of four months’ experience in a senior management position in the party.

She has never stamped a particular personal vision on the policies that have emerged from the shadow portfolios she has held during her nine years as an MP.

Neither has she shown that she possesses the finely-tuned political instincts of a John Key, a Richard Prebble or, crucially in her case, a Bill English.

Perhaps most important of all, she has never landed a sustained hit which really rattled Labour’s old foe.

One conclusion which it is hard to escape drawing from events of the last few days is that she is not just a sharp cookie, but a tough one to boot.

She would like people to believe that the leadership just landed in her lap. She would like people to believe that the exact same thing happened when Annette King was persuaded to step down as deputy leader in her favour.

As the heads have rolled above her, she has continued to insist Labour has no Plan B as to how the party fights the election.

Mike thinks Andrew Little should not have quit and Jacinda will struggle as the new leader after making little ground as deputy.
Source: Seven Sharp

It is inconceivable, however, that she did not think very long and hard about the direction she would take Labour if she was in charge.

Given Little has all year been barely one step removed from being dead duck, rather than merely lame duck, it would have been remiss of her not to have done so.

Now at the helm, Ardern has little time to right the Labour ship before Election Day.

She has to turn that disadvantage into an advantage. She has momentum.

She is on the kind of roll that new leaders enjoy. She needs to keep setting the campaign agenda.

She needs to deal to the Greens and New Zealand First treating Labour as a doormat on which they can squabble with one another while simultaneously gobbling large chunks of Labour’s core vote.

When it comes to policy, there is only one that matters in this election -immigration.

Arden needs to cut the number of immigrants with even more severity than Little did in tightening up entry requirements. And she needs to be unapologetic about doing so.

That may cause much unhappiness within Labour’s ranks. Too bad.

Labour cannot duck the hard choices if the party wishes to remain relevant.

That is the bottom-line.

Relevance is the difference between Labour surviving as a political force or continuing what is becoming an ever faster decline which threatens to turn the party into little more than a glorified debating society.

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