SO, IT’S JACINDA. At last, Labour’s front-bench is beginning to look like the work of Andrew Little – rather than the cast-offs of David Cunliffe, David Shearer, Phil Goff, Helen Clark and (God help us!) David Lange!
The last conspicuous veteran of the plague years of the 1980s has bowed to the irresistible logic of Jacinda Ardern’s by-election victory and announced her retirement. Part of that logic, undoubtedly, was the reaction of Annette King’s caucus colleagues to her spittle-flecked outburst to the NZ Herald’s deputy-political editor, Claire Trevett.
Of the Old Guard, only Trevor Mallard remains, blowing softly on the pallid embers of his ambition. If he really means to become the next Speaker of the House, then he would be wise to remain as silent and solitary as the Sphinx for the remainder of the term.
Inevitably, there has been speculation that Ardern’s rising popularity could ultimately outstrip that of her leader’s – to Little’s acute embarrassment. What’s missing from this analysis is that up until 23 September, at least, Little remains Labour’s undisputed monarch. That the King’s younger sister is beloved by his subjects matters not at all – providing he leads them to victory in September.
Should he lose the election badly, Little will, almost certainly, fall on his sword. Few would now dispute that in such circumstances the leadership of the Labour Party would be Ardern’s to refuse.
On the other hand, should Little emerge from the September smoke of battle as the leader of a new government, who among his colleagues would dare to challenge him? It would take a Labour caucus of historic stupidity to reward the person responsible for liberating them from nine years of morale-sapping Opposition by organising a leadership-spill. This is not Australia, and there’s absolutely no sign that Labour’s MPs have been captured by the plot of Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol.
So Ardern can become as popular as Princess Diana and it will still be no skin off Little’s nose. He’s auditioning for the role of New Zealand’s prime minister – not for the next series of The Batchelor. Besides, as every Labour Leader of the Opposition from Norman Kirk to Helen Clark has discovered: hitherto ground-hugging “Preferred Prime Minister” rankings have a habit of rocketing skyward the moment the mysterious mantel of national leadership is draped across their shoulders.
Not that Ardern has ever had to work that hard at being popular. Her career offers startling proof of Oliver Cromwell’s oft-quoted observation: “no one rises so high as [s]he who knows not whither [s]he is going.” Indeed, Ardern bears all the tokens of a political leader for whom “Dame Fortune” has developed a soft spot.
“Dame Fortune” (the medieval rendering of “Fortuna” the Roman goddess of luck) was often depicted as a winged (and sometimes blindfolded) goddess balancing lightly upon a ball. In one hand she carries the cornucopia of abundance and in the other the rudder by which men’s fates are steered. In medieval manuscripts, however, she is more often portrayed as the implacable mistress of “The Wheel of Fortune” – upon which, by turns, the ambitious are raised up and cast down.
It’s a powerful metaphor, capturing beautifully the strange and random contingencies of political life. A politician may appear to have everything going for him: intelligence, eloquence, diligence, good-looks; and yet make next to no impression on his fellow citizens. Another, meanwhile, may be conspicuously lacking in all of these qualities and yet, with the crucial blessing of Lady Luck, go from strength to strength.
And then there is the common English saying: “Fortune favour’s the bold.” Though lacking in the more obvious talents of statecraft, the politician who retains both courage and self-belief has every chance of securing an undeservedly long ride on Fortune’s wheel.
Jacinda Ardern could have stayed in Auckland Central and accepted another bout with National’s Nikki Kaye. Instead she “grabbed Fortune by the hair”, won the Mt Albert by-election, and in a few short days will be elected Deputy-Leader of the Labour Party.
Just how high Dame Fortune is willing to carry Jacinda on her wheel – and for how long – only the blind goddess knows.