Heir Apparent: If Andrew 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. 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.
“JACINDA”, was the only name on Labour’s by-election billboards. Andrew Little will have noted that. When the electorate starts identifying politicians by their given name – “Rob”, “Winston”, “Helen” – it signals a significant up-tick in political familiarity. It’s easy to vote for a candidate who requires no second name. “Jacinda” has acquired a winning ring.
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. Little should tell Annette King (who first entered Parliament as the MP for Horowhenua in 1984) that she has sat there too long for any good she has been doing. Like Oliver Cromwell, he needs to tell her: “Depart, and let us have done with you. In the name of God – go!”
If I may be forgiven for quoting Cromwell a second time: removing King has become a matter of “cruel necessity”. Having embarked upon a radical re-shaping of Labour’s public image: reclaiming its former status as a “broad church” by bringing in the likes of Greg O’Connor and Willie Jackson; Little now needs to reassure Auckland’s young urban professionals (who’ve just voted for Jacinda in droves) that there is plenty of space on Labour’s pews for them.
Keeping King where she is for fear of reactivating the “Anyone But Cunliffe” brigade would not only flatter that waning faction’s significance, but also signal a serious loss of political momentum. Over recent weeks, Little has shown the country that he is willing to march right over and through his critics if that’s what it takes to get Labour ready for power. The thing is, once you begin that sort of forward march, you absolutely cannot afford to stop. Like the proverbial shark, you must keep swimming strongly – or drown.
Annette King has been in Parliament for all but three of the past 33 years. She was there through all the mayhem of the 1980s: a loyal foot-soldier in Roger Douglas’s all-conquering army. Throughout the 1990s and into the third millennium she served with distinction as a disciplined Labour staff officer. It’s a fine record, but King lacks the “optics” necessary for the 2017 campaign. Younger blood is needed at the top. A truly loyal servant of the party would see that – and make way.
Sacrifices will be necessary on Ardern’s part as well. First and foremost she must tear up the “Gracinda” (Grant Robertson + Jacinda Ardern) ticket upon which she ran against Little in 2014. The brutal truth she needs to face is that, in the eyes of the voters, at least, she has moved well beyond Robertson. His big moment arrived three years ago when he came agonisingly close to being elected Labour’s leader. He will not have forgotten, and neither should we, that he lost to Little by less than one percentage point.
Three years on, however, that losing margin may just as well have been 50 percentage points. Robertson’s star is fading. Indeed, amidst all the intense jockeying between Labour, the Greens and NZ First which is bound to follow a National defeat, he will struggle to retain his finance portfolio.
Ardern needs to move beyond the poignant television images of her and Robertson on the edge of tears, but applauding bravely, as Little’s victory is announced. The deputy-leader’s slot is hers for the taking now, and she should take it. Her star has a long way yet to rise.
In making Ardern his No. 2, Little would not only be making a statement about Labour’s future, he would also be moving decisively beyond Labour’s past. Sometimes, party leaders are required to anticipate their own, inevitable, demise by providing the public with a clear line of succession. Like a medieval king, they need to proclaim their dynasty’s strength by holding up a political heir for the people’s approbation.
Helen Clark did Labour an enormous disservice by failing to prepare the public for the day of her political death. The result has been a Game of Thrones-style bloodbath as rival contenders hacked and hewed their way towards pre-eminence across Labour’s seven kingdoms. Win or lose in September, Little owes Labour a better future than another three years of civil war. He may not look much like Jon Snow, and “Jacinda” may not look at all like Daenerys Targaryen, but after Saturday’s victory, she comes with dragons.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 February 2017.