What looked like a campaign set to be dominated by third parties now has suddenly been tilted back towards the big two. Jacinda Ardern's election to the Labour leadership makes many new things possible, but one key thing even more likely

Beware cries of a Labour miracle. While Jacinda Ardern is "a young proposition", she's not just been pulled from the bullrushes, and while the past 36 hours have seen a remarkable 'Jacinda Effect', she's not the saviour. But she has changed this election campaign utterly.

The election of Ardern to the Labour leadership, after Andrew Little signed his own execution warrant by admitting he was thinking about wielding the axe himself, has sparked a remarkable reaction; one we haven't seen for many a year. Perhaps it's partly reporters' relief that they will now not have to endure seven weeks of electioneering by two strikinginly uncharismatic men. Or, to be fair, perhaps it's the logical calculation that Labour was starting to flatline, but now Ardern's 'game-changer' qualities kick-started the party's heart and the contest is on again. That's certainly the message anyone keeping even half an eye on the headlines this week will have taken away.

So exactly how has the game changed? Overall, what was looking like a third party election, now potentially tilts back to the big two.

But let's look at it one party at a time, starting with Labour itself.

While a week ago I might have said the party was battling away – and certainly the people I spoke to were talking a good fight – the sheer beaming enthusiaism of the past day and a half shows just how deep in the shade it was. It's night and day. The base is energised and – with reports of 1000 new volunteers in little over a day – expanding. 

Now, for a short while, voters will take another look at Labour. She has the chance to contrast herself with both the percieved incompetence of the Labour Party of recent years and the 'stale, pale and male' National Party. Hence her promise of "relentless positivity".

At a notable first press conference, Ardern showed the past three Labour leaders how to make a first impression, something they all failed to do. She was strong and decisive. Then, to use a sporting metaphor, the pressure she had created paid off, when she created a 'moment'. Turning to Mark Richardson on the AM Show, finger pointing, and speaking on behalf – not of herself – but of all women, she showed her fighting spirit and, more importantly, that being young does not mean she's timid. Ardern told Richardson he had no right to expect that women should discuss their fertility plans with employers. A lack of surety has dogged Labour for years, but that first impression showed confidence and that most precious thing, authenticity. Voters will note that.

Perhaps, most of all, women voters. And that matters. One of the most important things John Key did was lure women away from Helen Clark's Labour government. Ardern will need to win them back and this gave her an opportunity to take a stand that many women will appreciate.

Yet it will tend to be appreciated more by women – and voters in general – who are already in tune with her values. So it's not an issue Ardern wants to dwell on. There's little point in her simply winning the liberal vote back off the Greens. She needs to tack to the centre, a lesson surely drummed into her during her years working for Clark. She needs to take votes off National and New Zealand First if she wants a Labour-led government.

For all the initial hype, that won't be easy. Little wasn't helping Labour, but he can hardly be blamed for voters' lack of belief. The polls slumped to record lows after the interns fiasco and Metiria Turei's passionate benefit fraud admission, which simply reinforced perceptions that Labour lacks competence and something to believe in.

'The Ardern Effect' has to overcome a strong economy and stable government. Labour's baggage might be hidden behind Ardern's radiance for a few days, but it's not disappeared. Labour isn't suddenly no longer a bit of a mess. The change of leadership has made some things possible again, but it's far from a slam dunk. The next week and whatever new policy Ardern announces to make her mark is vital. It must appeal to the centre, not the left, of her party. And she has to learn how to ignore endless advice and continue to be herself.

Talking about centre voters... National. In some ways this changes little for Joyce and the strategists. The central message that it is a safe pair of hands and a Labour-led government could lead to chaos is potentially more potent with an untried 37 year-old at the helm. National will still spend much of the campaign crying "unstable, unstable". 

However with just seven weeks to play, however apt that message, it may struggle to get cut-through if Ardern's relentless positivity soaks up the attention. 'Strong and stable' may suddenly be the worst kind of message. But it's who Bill English is, so they will struggle to pivot from that. National risks looking complacent and stodgy in contrast to the fun, fresh party to its left. Boredom is now its greatest threat and so this potentially changes everything. Confused yet?

National will need to create some jeopardy around Ardern. Her age offers some potential, especially in contrast to a potential coalition partner in Winston Peters. But it's treacherous ground for older men. It's not sexist to doubt the wisdom of electing someone who has questioned her own readiness to lead the country and would be New Zealand's youngest ever Prime Minister. But you can bet, just as National did she she was elected deputy, (calling her "a superficial, cosmetic facelift" for the party) it will be women ministers such as Paula Bennett, Maggie Barry and Nikki Kaye who will be the most scathing. 

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that National aren't at least a little scared. It's been proven in the past that governments who deliver sound economies can rue the day, when that very economic security emboldens voters to take a punt on something new.

But National still has competence on its side. It has hip-pocket trust. It has the default vote of many. The party is united, familiar and there's no great groundswell for change. What's more, it has money to spend on new promises if it decides a bribe is in order. 

The Greens have been rewarded for doing their job by finally prodding the sleeping giant into action. It may yet be too late, but Green MPs would say they met their part of the bargain implicit in the Memorandum of Understanding by getting to 15 percent. Labour had failed to hold up its end by not getting to 35 per cent. The problem with that line is that it's been a zero-sum game between the two for nigh on nine years, as they essentially took vote from each other. Both have failed to grow the pie.

Although James Shaw is already using the line that 'a party vote for the Greens is a vote for Ardern as PM', she could just steal back the votes Turei has so cleverly won. Now they need to convince Labour to let them do their work on the left, while it looks to plunder National and New Zealand First. But Labour MPs are hardly loving the Greens at the moment, blaming them in part for the poll slide that started all this. So it'll be interesting to see how those tensions are managed now that both parties have taken the gloves off and are going full tilt to maximise their own party vote. 

The Kelvin Davis Effect creates all sorts of problems for the Maori Party. Maori voters who felt Labour was not showing them enough respect are suddenly confronted with a culturally connected Maori on the party's billboards. That should staunch vote loss to Flavell and Fox. But more importantly it may make it a lot harder for Howie Tamati and Hone Harawira. If it's possible, Waiariki becomes even more vital, or the Maori Party could be toast.

But, as so often is the case, Winston Peters and New Zealand First are a big winner from the politics of the past couple of days. Oh, that vain hope that New Zealand First might almost catch Labour and Peters might be in a position to at least share the Prime Ministership may well be gone. A sustained burst of enthusiasm for Ardern would stop Labour sliding into 'end of an era' territory. But that was always a looong shot.

More realistically, Ardern gives Labour the chance to climb back to a number that begins with a three. That means less momentum and attention for New Zealand First, but more importantly it all-but guarantees Peters' kingmaker status. While Labour's continued slide may have meant more vote for New Zealand First, it may not have made the party more powerful. It could have meant National could have carried on with its existing partners or simply meant that Labour and the Greens were so far behind National that New Zealand First had no negotiating power and no choice but to prop up a National-led government.

A stronger Labour Parthy – if that in fact ensues – actually means a more powerful Peters. He gets more leverage, more ability to play the two parties off against each other, and more real choice. 

So in a funny way, the Jacinda Effect changes very little and simply makes what has looked like the most likely scenario for the past year – Peters as kingmaker – even more likely. On the other hand, it changes everything and the sense of uncertainty and risk is higher than ever. MMP eh? Sometimes it doesn't make much sense. But it makes for a fascinating two months.


Tune into hear me discuss all these issues with Guyon Espiner and Lisa Owen on RNZ's politics podcast Caucus. It's out every Thursday and you can subscribe on iTunes or listen at RNZ.


Comments (9)

by Dennis Frank on August 03, 2017
Dennis Frank

I mostly agree.  Polling to gauge the effect on the political landscape will hit the headlines in the next week or two.  We'll be able to see the extent of this switch shifting disaffected Labour voters back.

Chris Trotter told the AM Show hosts & audience yesterday morning that the poll boost to Labour from the leadership change could be as much as 10%.  Technically correct & feasible - but unlikely.  I'll go for 6%.  Also, I see Farrar provides a relevant historical comparative analysis of the effect of leadership changes on poll ratings: http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2017/08/what_is_the_normal_poll_boost_for_a_ne...

I'm guessing that 3% will shift back from both NZF & Greens.  More interesting even than seeing if that happens is whether a measurable portion of the 0.8 million voters who didn't vote last time signal their intention to Labour this time.  Cunliffe's declared intent to obtain their votes, and the consequent Labour campaign, failed to motivate them last time. 

The media usually ignore this huge swathe of the electorate, probably because the establishment prefers to foster the old delusion that democracy works.  It would be more helpful to publicly identify them as the Couldn't Care Less Party  (CCLP), give them a poll rating, and randomly select members for media commentary.  No valid reason for the media to discriminate against them.

Your reference to the zero-sum game that the left have been playing for so long deserves applause.  Helen Clark's idiocy in rejecting a constructive collaboration with the Green Party was persistent.  Failure to invest the MoU with sufficient substance to make a government in waiting evident to swing-voters is her legacy.  The leftists keep failing to learn from the All Blacks:  you compete in order to join the team, you collaborate when you belong within.  An alternative government in waiting is the team centrists want to see, and swing-voters always decide our election outcomes.

by Rich on August 03, 2017

The Greens (Shaw, anyway) seem to actively reject the idea that they could get to 26% and lead a coalition with Labour. Was that their MoU - that they would focus on niche policies and point solutions (rivers and beneficiaries) and leave the big picture to Labour?

by Dennis Frank on August 03, 2017
Dennis Frank

Only someone in the Green caucus or strategy group could answer that.  It's a chicken & egg situation:  you need the personnel with suitable skills to front portfolios sufficiently well to seem potential cabinet ministers to swing voters, but the Greens are only part-way towards a suitable assembly due to the leftist-alignment handicap having operated so long past its use-by date.  Competent folk with a suitable track record of accomplishment are understandably reluctant to work confined by that strait-jacket, so their support for the Green cause usually doesn't motivate them to join the party & volunteer for candidacy.  Lucy Lawless presumably being the obvious example.

The key to reaching 26% lies in the 18% who James Shaw told us after that last election thought of voting green and then decided not to (according to exit-polling).  I pointed out that following that up with more explicit market research was essential but haven't heard any result if they did so.  If they do grow their vote this election they'll no doubt conclude that clinging to the leftist alignment worked.  Doing so would prove they can't see the big picture.  Clue:  NZF fails to deliver enough leverage to Winston, he gives up & retires, the NZF vote evaporates, the centre-ground of our political terrain is then vacant.  The green movement, always neither left nor right, has always been there.  The Greens just don't get it...

by Tim Watkin on August 03, 2017
Tim Watkin

Dennis, but six percent back from what? 23? 25?

As a spokesman for the media (!), the ones I know don't ignore that swathe of non-voters. Last election there were heaps of stories about the missing million. The election before that too. But they didn't turn out either time. And while I can't put my hands on it now, the evidence I recall seeing suggests that those who don't vote tend to split relatively evenly. Certainly, there's evidence young people don't all vote left, and that's who many (not all, but many) of those non-voters are. 

Point is, there's been a lot of talk about them, but they still haven't turned out. So why expect anything different this time? The only difference may now be someone who is 'youth adjacent' leading a major party. 

I'm not sure quite what you mean in your criticism of Clark though. The MoU came well after she'd left the scene. And there's a bit of mis-remembering about Clark and the Greens. She stood aside to let Fitzsimons win Coromandel, remember. The Greens supported her first government. The second one was poisnoned by the genetic seeds business. Third time, it was Peters and Dunne that forced her hand. The Greens couldn't offer her a government; those two could. There was every indication she would have happily worked with them, I think.

Point is, this idea that Clark hated the Greens doesn't really pan out, except for 2002. 

by Tim Watkin on August 03, 2017
Tim Watkin

Rich, I'm not sure in which country the Greens could double their usual vote to 26 percent, but it isn't New Zealand. That would require an electoral earthquake the like of which we haven't seen for a century. 

After the past couple of elections, the Greens just want to improve their vote and get turnout up. Your target is purely fantasyland, sorry.

by Dennis Frank on August 04, 2017
Dennis Frank

Fair point about Coromandel, I'd forgotten that.  But where's the reciprocity this time?  The Greens stood aside to help Labour take Ohariu off Dunne.  After that public announcement, Labour gave them a big fat zero, right?  That's Helen Clark's legacy.  Remember that after the intelligent folk in my generation went green in '68, she joined the Labour Party instead of the global youth revolution and persisted in her refusal to acknowledge the green movement until she saw An Inconvenient Truth almost 40 years later - when the penny finally dropped.  A very slow learner.

The Greens reaching 26% is contingent upon them deciding to abandon their parliamentary leftist alignment, in order to represent the entire green movement.  Continuing to focus solely on the leftist third of the movement, and ignoring the other two thirds, is a loser's strategy in the long-term. 

Both bunches of leftists think competing with each other until the election is sensible - ignoring the natural desire of swing-voters to decide between viable alternatives.  They'll choose the status quo unless they can see an alternative government looming.  The collaboration in designing and presenting that alternative has not been forth-coming - both parties have decided that a skeletal MoU will suffice.  Quite a gamble.  If it gives the Nats a fourth term, they've only themselves to blame...

by Moz on August 08, 2017

The Greens reaching 26% is contingent upon them deciding to abandon their parliamentary leftist alignment, in order to represent the entire green movement.

I'm not denying that right wing green-ish people exist, but from what I can see whenever they're faced with a choice between right and green policies, they vote overwhelmingly right. Which means that a green party chasing their votes would need to be quite right wing to have any chance at all. I'd be looking at Zero Population Growth or similar movements to take their votes rather than a formerly green-left party.

If nothing else, it would take a long time for the media and likely to voters to get over any change in policy. Can you really imagine Metiria being treating kindly if she pulled a Winston and started bashing beneficiaries and other criminals?

The possibility that there are centre-green voters is more appealing, but it can be useful to look at Australia for comparison points. Their "rank the parties" voting system means that you get a wide range of parties, usefully in this case including "the science party" (all the obvious things but want to double Australia's human population), ZPG have run in the past, there have been actual right-green parties but none of those have made it past joke status (not that joke status stops people being elected to the senate, they just have to get lucky). This is mildly complicated by the use of fake-green parties by the right, but interestingly that's largely stopped - perhaps the votes weren't there?

by Moz on August 08, 2017

I think the realpolitic here is Labour capturing the leftward swing of the centre and using The Greens as an excuse when they're criticised for being too sensible. "It's hard to imagine our support agreenment with The Greens continuing if we leave in place the anti-environmental policies of the last government". "most people voted for change, and one important change resulting from our MOU is to implement the committments Aotearoa made in Paris". Even just enforcing the laws already on the books would be a big, positive change. Maybe Greens should ask for that :)

I think there's a lot of room for Labour to take The Greens for granted, in a positive way. Negotiate with Winston First and The Maori Party, knowing that as long as the outcome is decently left The Greens will support it. Not forcing Winnie into the same room as anyone from the greens is likely a kindness to both sides.

by Tim Watkin on August 09, 2017
Tim Watkin

Dennis, I'm afraid I disagree with you on two fronts. I think damning Clark because she didn't choose to change the world the way you chose it a bit unfair. Many ways to skin a cat, eh?

And, while you're not alone in your thinking about the Greens abandoning their social justice values for pure green policy, I think it's wrong-headed. The NZ Green movement from its birth involved social justice. To say they should ignore that part of themselves is like telling them to cut off an arm. Or, it's like telling Labour to only have policy in employment and labour relations.

But even if they did, I don't think they'd make 26 percent (even before the Turei meltdown). No single issue party is going to do that, even if it was focused on an issue that important. Voters just won't back single issue parties to that sort of size.

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