Chris Hipkins surrounded by Peeni Henare, David Parker, Carmel Sepuloni
Chris Hipkins and his probable competition (Image: Archi Banal)

PoliticsOctober 25, 2023

Who will lead Labour into the 2026 election? Our top picks (and some wildcards)

Chris Hipkins surrounded by Peeni Henare, David Parker, Carmel Sepuloni
Chris Hipkins and his probable competition (Image: Archi Banal)

It could be Chris Hipkins, but it probably won’t be. The Spinoff assesses the field.

Chris Hipkins remains the leader of the Labour Party after making it clear last week he wouldn’t be stepping down from the top job, at least any time soon.

“I’m not done with politics,” the outgoing prime minister told reporters at parliament. “I’m still committed to supporting the Labour Party in opposition. I’ve still got a bit of fight left in me. We have a job that we will need to do in opposition.”

As a man of principle it seems unlikely he’d want to leave parliament immediately and trigger a byelection in his Remutaka electorate. But it’s become something of a tradition for a departing prime minister to step aside from the leadership after losing an election, though not always immediately. While Helen Clark quit on election night in 2008, Bill English stayed on for a while after National moved into opposition in 2017.

The decision for Hipkins and his caucus will now be whether they want a familiar face sticking around for the full three years, or a fresh leader. And if they settle on the latter, whether they can avoid the cycle that happened during Labour’s last time in the political wilderness – it took five leaders to get from Helen Clark to Jacinda Ardern. 

The question of who will lead Labour into the 2026 election is harder than deciding who would replace Ardern at the start of the year. Back then, the party had obvious frontrunners. Now, after a devastating election loss and with several senior MPs likely to retire, picking the next leader requires some long-term thinking. The caucus has lost so many names and the clear hierarchy of possibilities, which once included Michael Wood and Kiri Allan, has been left in tatters.

But a few names have been in the mix already, whether they’ve ruled themselves in or out. And there are some wildcards – and some even wilder cards. So here are The Spinoff’s picks for who has half a chance (or, for some, maybe a bit less) of leading Labour into the next election.

Carmel Sepuloni
Carmel Sepuloni

The frontrunners

Carmel Sepuloni

The outgoing deputy prime minister hasn’t ruled a run for the top job in or out. In political terms, that means she can’t be discounted. Labour’s 2023 election campaign centred primarily around Hipkins, meaning Sepuloni wasn’t so intertwined with the party’s loss as to make her unpalatable.

She’s been in parliament since 2008 and so is a familiar face. She’s also from Auckland, which, given Labour’s poor performance in the super city on election night, could be key to renewing support in areas like Mt Roskill and New Lynn. Sepuloni’s also proved to be a safe pair of hands and was a capable minister.

But being opposition leader requires a different set of skills to being a government minister – while Hipkins clearly relishes the attack, it’s not so apparent that Sepuloni does.

Megan Woods 

Labour’s campaign chair for the 2023 election was something of a fix-it minister under Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins. So maybe her new job should be fixing the party’s flagging poll results and turning the ship around in time for 2026? 

So far, Woods hasn’t ruled out a tilt at the top job. But she’ll be biding her time – enough for people to forget her stint as the face of Kiwibuild while housing minister. Woods has committed to staying in parliament for the full term given that, on preliminary votes, she has retained the Wigram seat. Don’t rule her out.

Megan Woods and her – maybe? – predecessor Chris Hipkins (Photo: Finn Blackwell/RNZ)

David Parker 

The senior minister had been tipped by some to resign after Labour’s election loss. So far, he hasn’t given any indication he wants to step down from politics – which could be a sign he wants to stay on for the long run. And in fact, over the weekend, there were early reports he was building support for a leadership bid. “If there is a challenge – and there isn’t a formal one now – it’s looking likely that Parker would be the main challenger,” wrote Thomas Coughlan in the Herald.

As the architect of Labour’s dumped tax switch and a strong advocate for introducing a wealth or capital gains tax, Parker would be an appealing choice for some of Labour’s dispirited base that may have flirted with going Green this election. If a wealth tax reemerges on Labour’s policy slate, Parker would be the pick to sell it to voters. 

Chris Hipkins 

Perhaps consistency is the key to Labour’s comeback – at least that’s what Hipkins reckons at the moment. The outgoing PM knows all too well what happens if you start cycling through leaders. He’s also one of the party’s most proven debaters and well-polished attack dogs. He looked more like an opposition leader than a prime minister during much of the election campaign – so perhaps he’s already showed himself to be the best person for the job going forward

Then again, he may not want it for ever. Being opposition leader, especially after being prime minister, would be a taxing job. “I want to take some time to reflect – and take some time to reflect with the team – what the best way forward is for the Labour Party,” he told reporters, which isn’t exactly fulsome proof he’ll be there in three years.

There’s also the question of whether his party wants him in this position for the long run. Labour has a track record of knifing leaders when they underperform in opposition. Hipkins may stick around for a while, but he’ll have to watch his back. At this point, it seems unlikely though not impossible that he’ll still be leader in three years.

The wildcards

Peeni Henare 

There have been whispers around Henare’s political ambitions and given Labour’s slimmed down caucus he has to be a contender for the top job. He’s a fresher face than many of the others on this list and has proved a capable minister in the outgoing government. He’s also a member of the Labour Māori caucus, which took a battering on election night but has typically wielded significant power within the party. Given that the incoming government is looking to dismantle the Māori Health Authority and may even consider a referendum on Treaty principles, Henare could be a powerful counter to Christopher Luxon.

Barbara Edmonds

Edmonds took over the safe Labour seat in Mana in 2020 and held onto it this election. She’s made a mark in her electorate and became a minister in Hipkins’ reshuffle early this year. While she hasn’t even been asked about leadership intentions, Edmonds has quickly become a senior member in the Labour Party and can’t be overlooked.

Kieran McAnulty 

He’s emphatically ruled it out multiple times, but so did Jacinda Ardern until July 2017. There’s no arguing that McAnulty’s a standout player in Labour’s slimmed down 2023 caucus. A proven minister, a fresh face, a broadly likeable individual, and someone from rural New Zealand – McAnulty would be an obvious leadership contender. 

He did lose his Wairarapa seat on election night and being list-only would be slightly unusual for a leader, but not unprecedented – Andrew Little was a list-only Labour leader, though I don’t know if anyone would want to model their leadership on him. If you believe McAnulty, there’s no way he’ll be leader by 2026. But sometimes being a leader is about doing what’s best for your party and not for yourself.

Local government minister Kieran McAnulty at parliament
Kieran McAnulty at parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Cushla Tangaere-Manuel

She’s brand new but Tangaere-Manuel has proved a strong candidate, winning Ikaroa-Rāwhiti and defeating former Labour MP Meka Whaitiri on the way. She’s one of few Labour candidates to outperform expectations and comes in without the shadows of the Covid government experience. Luxon entered parliament in 2020 and was prime minister in 2023, so it wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable for Tangaere-Manuel to move swiftly up the ranks in opposition.

The unlikelies

Grant Robertson

He’s almost certainly going to leave parliament, having chosen to go list-only ahead of the election. Quitting a safe Labour seat (that has now flipped Green) to run on the list is a surefire sign you’re counting down your days in parliament. His pitch was that he was campaigning to stay as finance minister – and that dream is now over. But maybe Robertson should consider staying on, at least for a bit. 

The outgoing finance minister is probably parliament’s best-performing debater, an absolute powerhouse in question time. Going up against a comparable novice in Christopher Luxon every week would prove electric. Is he Labour’s best hope? Or is he already packing his bags?

Willow-Jean Prime

The Northland-based MP may have lost her electorate, but Prime, a rising star in Labour’s now depleted caucus, is safely back in parliament on her list ranking. She surged up to the front bench under Hipkins, putting her in, well, prime position for a leadership run. While Prime may not have had much time to prove her abilities as a minister, having only picked up portfolios at the start of the year, that also means there wasn’t time for any major cock-ups. Her inexperience would traditionally have been held against her, but, then again, a second-term MP is about to be sworn in as prime minister.

Willow-Jean Prime entertains Jacinda Ardern’s daughter Neve at Waitangi in 2021 (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

Willie Jackson

As Duncan Greive wrote in our post-Ardern predictions, Jackson’s “self-belief, union credentials and extremely affable, working class persona would all be assets” should he put himself forward to be leader. But, Greive continued, “his freewheeling talkback-host style would likely detonate any long-shot bid within moments of it commencing”.

All of this still stands, but it’s not out of the question.

The why-the-hell-nots

Helen White

Mt Albert has been the home of past Labour leaders like David Shearer, Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern. Could the presumptive new MP for the electorate be a Labour leader in waiting? Given the fact the seat remains at risk of going blue once special votes have been counted, and that White doesn’t seem to comprehend that her preliminary winning margin of 106 votes in a party stronghold was anything short of shameful… probably not.

Helen Clark 

Bringing back a heavy hitter who’s not even in parliament? A masterstroke.

Greg Foran

The current boss of Air New Zealand vs the old boss of Air New Zealand could be the election showdown we need.

Keep going!