Jacinda Ardern looks set to become the new deputy leader of the Labour Party as Annette King steps down. But while it looks like a no-brainer and only helps Labour this election year, it comes with its own set of risks

Barely 48 hours ago Jacinda Ardern told RNZ that talk of her becoming Labour's deputy leader was a "distaction". That job, she said, as just "not an issue". Her leader Andrew Little was even stronger, saying repeatedly, "there is no vacancy" and "don't expect any change".

Of course, saying "there's no vacancy" left the door open for Ardern should Annette King choose to step aside. And today she's done just that. King has given way to the overwhelming logic of generational change within Labour and Ardern will, I expect, walk into the deputy shoes even more seamlessly than Bill English walked into John Key's.

It's a move that's both full of promise and risk for Labour. First, the promise.

Ardern is Labour's most attractive face. I write that somewhat facetiously and fully understanding how loaded that word is. The baggage of looks and appearance has hung over women politicians for decades; just ask Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley. Ardern has the opposite problem. She has been deemed "pretty" and "good looking". On one hand that's a handicap as she tries to be taken seriously, but let's not pretend it's also not part of the reason for her popularity with and recognition amongst voters.

Because this is Ardern's true political attractiveness - and value to Labour: She is known. She has a personal brand that no other Labour MP has; not even her leader. She has those two most valuable, (almost) untrainable political virtues - likeability and authenticity.

That's brought rare political currency. The evidence? The power of the first name. Only a handful of politicians get first name cut-through in the minds of voters. Big Norm, Rob, Ruth, Winston... Say Jacinda and most voters will know who you mean. 

That's why her rise to the deputy's job has seemed so compelling, especially now she has a safe electorate seat under her belt in Mt Albert and a commanding majority.

Ardern looks like a winner, and that's a look Labour desperately needs. What's more, she's a 36 year-old replacing a 69 year-old, which can only help appeal to younger voters.

While it remains to be seen if she hits the political target, she is one of the few potential vote-changing weapons Labour has left in its arsenal. After two years of failing to budge the polls, this is a move Labour simply had to make.

But with opportunity comes risk. It's almost become a truism within political circles, but the cry around Ardern is always, "but what has she done?". She's had almost a decade in the House and a string of high profile portfolio responsibilities - from police to vulnerable children and more - and it's a struggle to point to any impact she's had either on policy or public opinion in any. As one colleague said this morning, "but what does she stand for?".

While the likes of Kelvin Davis and Phil Twyford have put their opposite numbers under pressure, Ardern seems to have left her opposing ministers largely unruffled (with the exception of irritating Paula Bennett enough to get her to snip, "zip it sweetie").

But perhaps the biggest risk to Labour is how 'the Ardern glow (TM)' bounces off her leader, Andrew Little. Just two weeks ago, the ONE News/Colmar Brunton poll had Little on seven percent in the preferred Prime Minister question, with Ardern on four percent.

What if, come July, Ardern is on 15 percent and Little is still in single digits? How does Labour deal with Ardern's glow then, if Little is looking like a little dark cloud?

The obvious answer is that they will push a united front and hope the glow lights up the whole party. But that could be hard to sell given we know Labour's caucus did not vote for Little and Ardern herself stood against him on a ticket with Grant Robertson.

Because of Labour's track record in recent years, questions immediately arise about leadership. Is there a faction behind Ardern positioning her for the leadership should Labour fail in September? And, as in 1993, could some in the party give less than their utmost in the campaign to ensure the leader they want next time round? Has Ardern passed Robertson now in the leadership stakes and would any future ticket between those two friends be the other way round? 

These questions are all asked in the context of the Poto Williams fuss a few weeks ago, when a junior MP, having met and discussed the Willie Jackson selection with Little, still went public with her criticism... and got away with it. She blatantly rebelled against Little yet suffered no sanction, which was a pretty strong indication Little still is not entirely confident that his caucus will back him in a fight.

Then, of course, there are the questions around Annette King. She has been a loyal servant of the party through various incarnations, right back to Rogernomics. The question is whether she's genuinely happy about stepping down or only politically happy. She's long said she's wanted to see more of her grandchildren, but at the same time has seemed reluctant to step aside.

And she's done a good, competent job. Can/Will Ardern wrangle caucus as well as King did? Can/Will Ardern rein in her ambition for the good of the party? Can/Will Ardern bring the same competence and steadiness as King?

The good news for Little, however, is that while it's taken a few bumps and bruises, he now has the line-up he would've wanted heading into a campaign and one that sends some useful messages to swing voters that Labour is listening and wanting to look more like them. 

In short, Ardern's promotion was essential and just too compelling to ignore. Labour now has its game face on.

And ultimately the only question that really matters to Little and Labour is how voters will respond to the change. It looks likely to be a rare orderly transfer of power within Labour and that may be the most powerful signal of all, as the party searches for the extra five percent in the polls it needs to make a race of this year's election.


Comments (21)

by Nic on March 01, 2017

The only way that 'the baggage of looks and appearance' will stop hanging over female politicians as it has done for decades will be if commentators, like the esteemed Tim Watkins, stop mentioning it. 

by Tim Watkin on March 01, 2017
Tim Watkin

Well this is the dilemma, isn't it Nic? Do you analyse the world as it is or as you'd like it to be? There's an argument both ways; I decided to address what I thought was a significant issue for Ardern, where we like it or not.

by Nick Gibbs on March 01, 2017
Nick Gibbs

I guess Adhern has inherited Key's mantle of most likeable politician. Key rode that quality all the way to the top. However he also had an ocean of talent in other areas to draw on. Talent that Adhern doesn't have. Still I guess her face will be on every Labour bill board come election time (along with Little's) . 

However she got a real job now. To look likeable on Andy's arm but not so likeable that she out polls him. If she can pull that off she deserves respect. Personally I think she's gonna out poll him.

by Nic on March 01, 2017

I understand with what you are saying, Tim.  But I do think commentators need to accept that every time they discuss the issue of a woman's appearance - even to report the views of "others" - they are feeding the idea that this is a legitimate topic of discussion.  There are plenty of us out there whose view on Adern, Clark, King et al has nothing to do with their perceived attractiveness.

by Alan Johnstone on March 01, 2017
Alan Johnstone

I rather like the move; Labour has shown that it wants to win.

There's no downside to the move; it plays well generationally and geographically in Auckland.

Sure the process was a bit sloppy with King trying to hang on before realising it was impossible, but come the 2nd week of September when we're deep in the election no one will remember that.

Arden, Jackson, O'Conner are all plays by Little to broaden Labour out of it's 25% base and reach out to grouping who have abandonned the party. I think Little recognises he lacks star power, so looks for others to sprinkle some fairy dust


by Fentex on March 02, 2017

But while it looks like a no-brainer and only helps Labour this election 

Er, how is it a no brainer to sideline a capable, proven politician for one not yet as proven?

The no-brainer part of this seems to be no-brains required, just social media rankings for selecting people.

What has Arden done yet except popularise her personal brand to make one think she's a nett improvement for Labour?

Do I not get it because I don't live in Auckland, don't drink Lattes (or coffee at all) and don't lunch in the right places?

Or is it a no-brainer because every knows she's going to roll Little when the next election fails to deliver a Labour government and it might as well start getitngused to the idea now, with her as deputy?

National just stood on a rake with it's swimmable nonsense - why the hell isn't that the only thing the opposition is tlaking about? Why the hell did they choose to distract people from something they CARE about with this?

by Alan Johnstone on March 02, 2017
Alan Johnstone

No one in Auckland cares about "Swimmable", I'm much more politically engaged than average and I couldn't articulate what the issue is.

It's a no-brainer because King isn't going to entice Aucklanders who don't vote Labour to do so. Jacinda will, how much is open to debate, but it's some.

Yes, this post is Auckland centric, but so will the election.

by Fentex on March 02, 2017

No one in Auckland cares about "Swimmable", I'm much more politically engaged than average and I couldn't articulate what the issue is.

Really? Is it all about the strategy that it's only auckland that counts?

Well huh, guess I should rethink MMP (and PR in general) then if it means Aucklanders are the only ones who get a say in NZ.

And you can't articulate what the issue of "swimmable rivers" in NZ is? Really? I find that very hard to believe - unless it's another Auckland thing is - if the beaches weats and east are okay who gives a (lieral) shit about the rivers others live near?

Really beginning to question PR now.

by Fentex on March 02, 2017

D'oh, my poor editing reveals itself again (if the beaches west and east are okay who gives a (literal) shit about the rivers others live near?).

I've been sitting steaming for a few minutes since I wrote that now because I rather get the impression I've (a middle aged Christchurch born and bred man who holidayed with relatives in Dunedin, Seacliff, Clyde and Alexandria and obviously going for swims) been told my NZ means nothing to a professional political class in Wellington and Auckland and I ought probably be happy my house in Riccarton has appreciated in value so much.

Huh, is this how Trumps electors feel?

by Katharine Moody on March 02, 2017
Katharine Moody

I'm with Nic on this one - commenting on appearance is discriminatory - and would less a matter of note if media didn't latch onto it. Did you, for example, provide us with comment on Paula Bennett's physical attributes in respect of her appointment as Deputy Leader? Think on it.

by Mikaere Curtis on March 02, 2017
Mikaere Curtis

I agree with the sentiment that discussing Jacinda's physical attributes actually enables and reinforces the bigotry around treating women as identities that must be viewed through a lens of judgement re physical attributes.

There used to be a widespread equivilent with respect to the Pakeha norm bias.  Back in the day (80s for me), then if someone did something newsworthy and they were non-Pakeha then that was how they were described.  Their ethnicity was not an attribute, it was an *identifier*.

Same goes for Jacinda.  Her received beauty is seen as an indentifier, not at attribute.  The more you buy in to this paradigm - such as by discussing it as being a valid thing - the more you enable it. 

I get it, she's pretty.  But that is simply a minor attribute to her actual achievement. Which is being a media darling.  Labour have the beginnings  of a female John Key on their hands.  I hope they support her to the point where she helps deliver a Labour/Greens government.


by Graham Adams on March 03, 2017
Graham Adams

Tim, I agree that you should “analyse the world as it is” rather than “as you'd like it to be”. Glamour and physical attractiveness has aways been a powerful drawcard in politics, for both men and women. JFK, obviously, and now Justin Trudeau, are only the most obvious examples among male politicians. Ardern’s attractiveness is a huge advantage, not least because she appears to be friendly, approachable and self-deprecating with it. She seems to be an attractive person generally, and draws people to her for that reason. To ignore that would be wilful blindness.

by Tim Watkin on March 03, 2017
Tim Watkin

Fentex, you're taking an all or nothing view to a much more nuanced argument. It's not Auckland or the rest of NZ, it's not rivers or young, urban voters. But Labour can't afford to ignore some things.

A single promotion to help it in Auckland, isn't the end of every other strategy. But we're talking about a third of all voters when we say 'Auckland'. And Labour has never done well in rural areas and has struggled recently even in provincial city seats. So it's hardly revolutionary to focus on where you can actually swing some votes.

And it's not an MMP thing. Arguably, it's the opposite. Under FPP massive resources get thrown into a handful of marginal seats. In this case they are going after a huge swathe of voters; as I say, a third of NZers.

by Tim Watkin on March 03, 2017
Tim Watkin

Katharine, if I thought Bennett's physical attributes were part of her reason for he popular appeal, I would. My point of this post was to analyse the appointment and the reasons for it - it would be self-censoring in a most unhealthy and unhelpful way to not discuss one of those reasons just because I didn't like it.

Should we also not discuss the fact she's an Aucklander because people like Fentex get vexed by that? Or because it's discriminating according to where she lives?

You might not always like the reason why someone is popular, but if you don't look honstly and frankly at the reasons, you risk misunderstanding the phenomenon. Should we not discuss racism in politics because it may promote more racism? Think on Trump. 

by Tim Watkin on March 03, 2017
Tim Watkin

Mikaere, I get the point, but my argument is that part of the reason she's a media darling is that she's popular with voters... and one reason she's popular with voters is that she's a media darling. And one reason for both of those things is that many voters says she's good looking.  

So it's circular, but ignoring it seems dishonest. And of course it was only a small part in the middle of a piece covering numrous points.

by Tim Watkin on March 03, 2017
Tim Watkin

And what Graham says. Quite agree.

by Katharine Moody on March 04, 2017
Katharine Moody

Nah, I don't buy your "circular" argument - any more than Jane Clifton:

"King has at least gone under her own steam, announcing both her resignation as deputy and her retirement from Parliament at the next election without collegial or party duress. The duress came entirely from the media; from commentaries which assumed putting a younger, prettier face on the deputyship of Labour would somehow wow disengaged voters into thinking the party groovy again."

And as she points out at the beginning of the article - neither Annette, nor Jacinda asked for or deserved this treatment from the media.


Manufactuerd consent - Noam Chomsky. Well done - but some folks in the public are more aware than others. MSM did itself no favours.

by Tim Watkin on March 06, 2017
Tim Watkin

I'm not sure what or whose argument you're calling circular; mine or someone elses. Or what what you're accusing "the media" of (as if it's a single thing, which makes no more sense than talking about "academics" or "plumbers" as they are all the same).

I didn't get into why King stood down, except to ask the obvious question as to whether she genuinely left or was pushed. Given she had two days earlier insisted she was staying, the question is rather begged. But I don't have a particularly useful answer.

Jane does; it's a really interesting take and I'm sure she knows more about that than me. But... as you're asking... I don't think anything happens in isolation. No deputy is an island. And how a few articles and blogs amount to duress, I do not know. Neither a 30 year vet like King nor the rest of the Labour leadership (who could not have been bystanders in this and who would have been seriously remiss not to have a straegic view) are going to end a career because of a few column inches or the odd TV report.

So I don't know under who's steam King departed, but I'm sure there would have been some interesting discussions!

by Katharine Moody on March 06, 2017
Katharine Moody

Hi Tim - you use the circular argument in your response to Mikaere above. In addition to Jane Clifton's points about the media role in this outcome, Fran O'Sullivan too says much the same:

"When the Press Gallery - virtually in unison - called time on her [Annette King] as Labour deputy leader, she would have known it wouldn't be long before her colleagues came out of the media cover and joined in the undermining."



by Katharine Moody on March 06, 2017
Katharine Moody

Another example of media more or less creating news and thereby forcing politicians into positions they don't have, or aren't yet ready to go to - is the Bill English interview this weekend by Lisa Owen. Bill clearly did not have a position on superannuation going forward at this stage - but after repeated questions he went on to say something; something that was largely innocuous.  However that largely innocuous comment has been picked up by most other media outlets who are now harping on at him for more detail - and of course Winston has come out and said, no coalition with any party if they bring down changes to super.

Given Winston looks like a likely kingmaker at this stage in the game, I think that the media forced treatment of the question (making news out of no news) could be more harmful, than good, to progressing the debate.  After all - it was Key's silly statement about "not on my watch" that led to the 9 long years of stagnation. I wonder whether his saying that was also as a result of being pushed into a corner by media, as opposed to it having been a properly considered and costed policy position by National?

Anyway, I hope that explains what I mean by media involvement in manufacturing consent. 

by Fentex on March 23, 2017

Fentex, you're taking an all or nothing view to a much more nuanced argument. It's not Auckland or the rest of NZ, it's not rivers or young, urban voters.

If it's not rivers OR something else, how come the something else captures the news cycle? And the rivers disappeared?

My problem with that matter was National leaned it's chin into a upper cut and Labour didn't take the opportunity but decided to cut their nails instead. Sure, if you're certain promoting Arden is a nett win do it, but maybe not when more substantive policy news is getting headlines?

And it wasn't me who wrote...

No one in Auckland cares about "Swimmable"

...and made an issue of Auckland, I was responding to others vouching that position.

If the whole thing is solely about capturing Auckalnd votes then why should I care for Labour, or anyonje outside of Auckland? If they sek power without principle by executing the most effective cynical pollcies aimed at Auckland population what fucking good are they to me?

It is bad strategy to abandon core support to win momentary advantage through cynical ploys. You alienate people and lose in the longer run. If you're only going to be a preictable middle of the road party by executing the same cynical populist tactics as any other party then no one has any particular need to vote for you.

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