Politics

After the immolation: who will replace Andrew Little?

Andrew Little poured petrol all over himself yesterday and now he’s standing there with the lighter in his hands, screaming at us, ‘Is this what you want?’ If he burns, though, who will replace him?

Well, maybe he’s not screaming it at all of us, but when he said he and his senior team had talked about whether he should resign, he was talking to all of those progressive voters who now support the Greens or Gareth Morgan. He was saying, ‘You wanna see me burn?’ He was trying to scare them all back to Labour.

But that’s not going to work, is it? When the polls, plural, put your party at its lowest point in over 20 years, and you say you might resign, you’re stuck with it. Every interviewer from this point will start with the question, “Why are you still here?”

He won’t self-immolate. But they will take the lighter from his hands, shower all the petrol off him, and take him to a quiet room for a nice lie down in a warm bed. It seems an odds-on bet now that Andrew Little will not be leading the Labour Party into this election.

There’s precedent: we have eight weeks to go, but Mike Moore took over from Geoffrey Palmer in 1990 with only six weeks to go. Didn’t win, but probably did stop the complete collapse of his party.

So who’s their Mike Moore now?

The answer is obvious: it’s Jacinda Ardern. She has the profile, the personal support, the youthful freshness, the town-and-country appeal (the ultimate urban sophisticate who grew up in small-town Waikato), the political experience (as much as anyone who’s never been in government can have) and after you go down the list ticking all those boxes, she has the thing that Andrew Little just does not have – let’s call it elect-appeal.

Charisma. Likeability-trustability. The person you don’t mind interrupting your dinner when they’re on the news, the person you want to hear more from.

And this year, in a sea of grey men (English, Little, Shaw, Flavell), angry men (Morgan, Peters, Harawira) and irrelevant men (Seymour, Dunne), being an engaging, lively, provocative woman sure does not hurt. It’s Turei, Fox, Bennett and Ardern making the real running as leaders in this election, and of all of them, it’s Ardern who has the talent and the big party apparatus to make the most of her chances. Though she still has to be, politically, more provocative. Shock us with something.

Jacinda Ardern. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

The trouble is, while all this is probably obvious to almost everyone by now, it doesn’t seem to be obvious to Ardern herself. Put aside her commendable public loyalty to her boss and her oft-repeated desire not to perpetrate the power-hungry venalities of politics and it could be true what she says: she just doesn’t want it.

Two ways to go on that. One is to say, ffs, sometimes the good of the party comes first. Some people are born great (which is, like, nobody), some people acquire greatness (which is all that most politicians can hope for) and some have greatness thrust upon them. That would be Jacinda. It’s her time now and she has to step up.

The other way to look at it is to say that leadership is self-selecting: the calculating, determined ambition you need to become leader is an essential job skill to be leader. Leaders make themselves and you can’t talk them into it.

Which one is Jacinda Ardern? Her call, really. But now – right now, this week – is the time for her to make it. She’s the person who will take that lighter from Andrew Little’s hands and lead him to the quiet room. Is she going to stay there with him?

Who else could they choose?

The point in replacing Little is for Labour to find itself a game-changer. Someone who can talk about their policies in ways that make us take notice. Who can light up their campaign without setting themselves alight. That’s not Phil Twyford or David Parker or David Clarke, all of whom are solid, competent politicians who will not excite any more electoral interest than Little does. It’s not Chris Hipkins or Megan Woods or Nanaia Mahuta or Carmel Sepuloni, who have not managed to distinguish themselves in any of the ways that really count.

From the rest of the caucus, that really only leaves three, if Ardern won’t do it: Grant Robertson, Kelvin Davis and Stuart Nash.

Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern at the launch of his Labour Party leadership bid (with her on the ticket as deputy) in October 2014. Photo: Hannah Peters / Getty Images

Grant Robertson

Robertson very nearly got the job instead of Little, remember. In the 2014 partywide election, Robertson won 49.48 per cent of the combined vote to Little’s 50.52 per cent. And he commanded clear majority support in the caucus.

Robertson is extremely able, affable and an excellent speechmaker. He’s a natural leader, and also naturally witty and relaxed – he’s hard not to like. In many of those personal respects, he’s very like Winston Peters. Unlike Peters, though, he’s also been loyal to a fault. Being loyal to Andrew Little has meant keeping his profile lower than Little’s, which has taken some dexterity, and has also allowed Ardern’s star to shine brighter. He’s been a thoroughly competent finance spokesperson, even though the job is not a natural fit to his talents. He is, like Ardern, a politician who unites rather than divides.

What counts against him? There’s only one thing, isn’t there? No, not that he’s gay. It’s that some people think his being gay counts against him.

There’s no evidence for it. Sure, it’s easy to find low-level homophobia all over the country, in the language people use and the jokes they tell. But do we live in a country that would not tolerate having a gay prime minister? The radical feminist lesbian MP Marilyn Waring was elected three times from a rural Waikato seat in the ’70s and ’80s; transgender MP Georgina Beyer twice won the Wairarapa seat and she was also elected mayor of Carterton. It’s absurd to suggest the country as a whole would have some difficulty that the people of the Waikato and Wairarapa have proved they do not have.

It’s also a disgrace that Labour has been too timid to embrace Robertson as leader, despite his natural gifts for the job. Electing him now would in itself be the gesture the party so desperately needs. It would say: we’re prepared to be bold.

Kelvin Davis. Screengrab via The Hui / newshub.co.nz

Kelvin Davis

That’s also true for Kelvin Davis. He’s not a radical like Hone Harawira, but he has consistently stood up for the oppressed, consistently promoted fresh thinking and determined activism in the north, and consistently introduced a Māori perspective to national political issues in ways that might surprise many Pākehā but probably do not dismay them. He’s not naturally warm, but he has gravitas. You don’t turn away when he speaks. But does he engage emotionally – do we want to spend more time with him? That’s harder to see.

Stuart Nash

The third contender is Stuart Nash. Although, frankly, he’s only on this list because Labour needs to make a big bold call and Nash has the persona of a big bold politician. He’s been prepared to think differently and speak his mind. He’s articulate, too. But what else? He’s distinguished himself for being offside with various party leaders, yet for all his independence it’s hard to pinpoint any quality new ideas he’s produced.

He does have a very strong local following in Hawke’s Bay, and that’s no mean feat for a Labour politician in provincial New Zealand. Still, being popular at home doesn’t make you popular in other people’s homes, and even if it did, Nash’s provincial base is easily trumped by Ardern and Robertson’s urban support.

Stuart Nash. Screengrab via 1 News / tvnz.co.nz

What about the rest of the country?

What’s Labour’s problem? It’s been said many times, but their failure to renew their caucus with exciting new talent in 2011 and 2014 has had terrible consequences for them now. After the whipping they got in 2008, Labour should have been working overtime to bring into parliament several of the country’s best progressive leaders. Think how strong they would be as a caucus, how blessed they would be with potential leaders today, if they had managed to woo the likes of Dame Susan Devoy and Dr Lance O’Sullivan. If they had scored themselves some sports celebrities (seriously, sports people have more driving ambition than almost everyone else on the planet, and politicians need to have it too). If they had lined up a galaxy of entertainment stars the way the Greens have with Taika Waititi, Lucy Lawless and Robyn Malcolm. If they had embraced some of our progressive business entrepreneurs, in Pure Advantage and elsewhere.

Maybe it will all change for the next election. Fearless, articulate progressive thinkers like The Project’s Kanoa Lloyd and Jesse Mulligan would make Labour a better party and parliament a better place, don’t you think? And so would outspoken leaders like Moana Maniapoto and Mike King.

The biggest disaster for Labour will not be to lose the election. The hope of winning has never died but it has not been strong for a while. It will be to do so badly in the election that they do not get any new MPs. They’ve got a strong list, with several potentially great MPs on it, but they need to score closer to 30 per cent for those people to get into parliament. A shrunk caucus of the lame and the sick this year will leave them even less able to fight in 2020 than they are now.

Meanwhile, there’s Andrew Little, still standing there reeking of petrol. Put down the lighter, Andrew. Step out of those dangerously soused clothes. You’ve earned a break. And Jacinda, or possibly Grant, just pull on your damn fireproof pants and get on with it. It’s your turn now.

Want more politics? Check out the Spinoff’s Gone By Lunchtime political podcast, hosted by Toby Manhire with Ben Thomas and Annabelle Lee. Listen to the latest episode here, or subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.