Change on the way in New Zealand

As you’ve almost certainly heard, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday announced her retirement after a bit more than five years in the job. Her Labour Party will meet on Sunday to choose a replacement, although if no-one gains two-thirds support in caucus it will go to a ballot of party members.

Current deputy leader Kelvin Davis has ruled himself out for the leadership, but there is a range of other possible contenders. Ardern also announced, to no great surprise, that this year’s election will be held on 14 October, so the new leader will have less than ten months before having to defend their position.

The odds will be against them. It was already looking like a difficult election; Labour has been trailing in the polls for most of the last year, having previously led its centre-right National opponents by up to twenty points (at the 2020 election it was 50.0% to 25.6%). It would be unfair to describe Ardern as deserting a sinking ship – her position was far from hopeless – but National leader Christopher Luxon, himself relatively new to the job, would have been liking his chances.

They look even better now, due to New Zealand’s extraordinary set against unelected prime ministers. In the last eighty years, seven people have taken on the job mid-term (Ardern’s replacement will be the eighth), and every one of them has lost the subsequent election. Compare with Australia, where the last eight cases include six wins (Holt, Gorton, Keating, Gillard, Turnbull and Morrison) against only two losses (McMahon and Rudd).

So Labour needs a new leader who will do something exceptional – much as Ardern herself did in 2017, when, taking on the leadership only two months out from the election, she dragged the party into a competitive position. Even then, however, Labour still finished nearly eight points behind National; Ardern only made it into government by dealing with the devil in the shape of far-right leader Winston Peters.

Once in office Ardern’s popularity climbed, especially with her response to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. In that year’s election she crushed her opposition: Peters’s NZ First was wiped out, and Labour won a majority in its own right, the first since the introduction of proportional representation. (Ardern nonetheless maintained a coalition with the Greens, preferring to have them within the tent.)

Now, with the health crisis having wound down and her own novelty value worn off, Ardern has decided to call it quits. Politics at the top is a thankless job, made worse by the fact that Ardern, as a young woman on the left, pushes some major buttons for culture-war hostility. She is still only 42 and has plenty of time to succeed in a second career if she chooses.

October’s election will be, at least in part, a judgement on her legacy. But if Labour loses, it will also give her fans the chance to say that she, and she alone, could have won it. They may of course be right, but a certain scepticism is justified.

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