Jacinda Ardern speaks to media after becoming Labour leader on August 1, 2017. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

A year on, why Jacinda Ardern was the right leader at the right time

Likability was the catalyst that made new government possible, and it’s hard to sympathise with National’s recently discovered attachment to the importance of substance, writes Danyl Mclauchlan

A year ago this week, Andrew Little resigned as leader of the Labour Party. “He’d have been a good prime minister,” one Labour operative said to me at the time, “if he’d stood for office in the 20th century.” Instead they have Jacinda Ardern, a distinctly 21st-century phenomenon; they have political power, something that seemed unthinkable the day before Little stood down, and they have it because voters liked Jacinda Ardern more than Andrew Little or Bill English. Likability was the catalyst that made new government possible.

Not all of us vote on the basis of leadership. The psychologists who study voter behaviour tell us our political preferences are partly influenced by genetic and early childhood factors – which make us or less inclined towards values like fairness, or equality, or stability, or in-group loyalty – but that we generally vote for whoever our parents voted for or, failing that, whoever our relevant peer groups vote for. The higher our education level the more likely we are to self-indoctrinate ourselves on the righteousness of our convictions, consuming news, propaganda and popular culture that entrenches our faith in some party or ideology or system.

Political parties refer to these committed, high information types as permanent voters. Terrible leader? Misguided policies? Incoherent values? Doesn’t matter: your permanent voters will still support you. They’re in the bank. Elections are decided by those who switch; often called persuadable or available voters. Sometimes they’re referred to as centrists, as if they had a very considered, sensible, moderate view of politics, but this is very rarely the case. Available voters in the US spend an average of four minutes a week paying attention to political news: their ability to form coherent policy positions is close to non-existent, and they can be persuaded to support surprisingly radical policies – if you can reach them.

They vote on other factors. Economic performance is a big one. Leadership is another. This frustrates political strategists because they don’t quite understand what makes a good leader or how to select one. We know this because they keep inflicting bad leaders on us. Likability changes, partly in response to advances in media technologies, partly in reaction to the previous leader we liked: Ardern is the negation of Key, who was the negation of Clark, and so on, iterating back to some urleader we don’t even remember any more.

Andrew Little was a lawyer, a traditional career vehicle for politicians – they do, after all, decide the laws – and a modernising and influential union leader: a type who did sometimes rise to power in western democracies during the 20th century. Ardern’s degree was in public relations and communications; her pre-parliamentary career spent as a political operative. Qualifications and appointments admitting her to a caste of political and media elites that barely existed when Ardern was born but now seem to govern the country no matter whom we vote for.

There’s still a snobbish contempt for marketing and public relations among some politicians. It’s unsubstantive, insincere: law and policy and economics are the serious vocations. But isn’t any discipline that delivers political power serious? And by the time of Ardern’s ascension, Labour’s barrier to power was primarily a marketing problem. After years of squabbling and blunders and leadership challenges and crippling electoral losses the party was desperately unpopular, and that unpopularity contaminated each of its subsequent leaders, which then reinfected the party itself, like a recurring strain of campylobacter. The party was disliked because the leaders were disliked and the leaders were disliked because the party was disliked.

Ardern’s public role in all of this was minimal (she was Grant Robertson’s deputy in the final contest that saw Little win the leadership). And her parliamentary career was unremarkable. Instead she spent her time developing a high-end celebrity brand completely separate from that of her party; like an executive at a struggling auto company launching a luxury car under a different logo. Brand Jacinda was positive, aspirational, calculatedly apolitical; depthless as a press release. It was exactly what her party needed at exactly the right time. Suddenly Labour wasn’t led by a Labour politician any more. It was led by Jacinda Ardern. And enough of the voters who absorb political events through a narrow window mediated by work, childcare, package holidays, SSRIs and binge TV, and who decide elections, liked her enough to give the coalition the numbers to change the government.

National is very bitter about this triumph of celebrity politics. It’d be easier to sympathise with them if John Key hadn’t spent nine years governing the country from the broadcasting studios of lite-entertainment drive-time radio shows and the changing room bench next to Richie McCaw. But now, they’ve decided, the public should look to more substantive, experienced leaders.

We should wake up, National feels, and realise the prime minister is just a media artefact: an illusion crafted from aspirational slogans and focus group data that dissolves under scrutiny.

Labour spent most of their nine years in opposition feeling much the same: all those serious lawyers and policy experts impatiently wondering when voters would realise we’d made a mistake and restore them to their rightful place in power. They were still wondering when Jacinda saved them.


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