Hooton on Labour’s leadership problems

Matthew Hooton writes at NBR:

Jacinda Ardern?s eclipse of her leader Andrew Little in the preferred prime minister stakes has occurred sooner than expected.

In the first public poll taken entirely after Bill English?s controversial move on superannuation and Ms Ardern?s elevation to Labour?s deputy leadership, Labour is at 31%, its Green allies on 11% and National on 47%.? The Labour-Green axis wouldn?t quite have the numbers to govern even with Winston Peters? NZ First, but that will certainly change as Mr Peters uses immigration, Treaty issues and broader race relations to target soft National support over the months ahead. ?

More importantly, the Newshub-Reid Research poll put Ms Ardern in second place as preferred prime minister, ahead of Mr Little and even Mr Peters and behind only Mr English.? This is something Ms Ardern said two weeks ago simply wouldn?t happen.

Significantly, the poll question was unprompted, with respondents able to name whoever they liked, with no predetermined list of potential prime ministers to choose from. (In the old days, ambitious politicians would lobby pollsters to include them on these lists in the hope of getting at least a point or two.)

For Ms Ardern to have the unprompted support of more than one in 10 New Zealanders suggests she has the strong appeal among at least some demographics that her supporters claim.? The reasons for this appeal may remain a mystery to Ms Ardern?s detractors but even as he gave his valedictory this week the source of John Key?s popularity remains incomprehensible to his.

Labour pushed Jacindarella hard as deputy and now she is ahead of Andrew Little who languishes in fourth place.

The government of course mocks Mr Little for his poor polling performance, the way Labour mocked Mr Bolger and National mocked Ms Clark through her difficult first two years as Labour leader.? But a more positive way for Labour to look at the situation is that they are now as well hedged as they could hope to be under the circumstances.

Ms Ardern?s role as deputy leader is not the traditional model of staying back in Wellington running the operation while the leader goes out and wins votes.? Her purpose is to share the stage with the dour Mr Little to soften his image and win votes from demographics he can?t reach.? This in turn may give Mr Little the confidence to improve his awful David Shearer-like media performances, and there is some evidence that has already happened.

Yep, from the Greens. Watch Green support wane and Labour’s grow…a little bit.

Should all this succeed, and Labour steadily moves up in the polls over the next three months before the campaign proper, then so much the better.? But Ms Ardern?s immediate success in the polls also acts as insurance should Labour find itself, in late June, heading toward another record-breaking electoral disaster on September 23.

The defamation case looms next week and that could see Jacindarella move to take over.

Under rule B12 in Appendix A of Labour?s constitution, its cumbersome rules for changing its leader are suspended for three months before an election and Labour MPs are able to choose whoever among them they believe is best to be leader without involving Wellington union bosses or Labour?s increasingly swivel-eyed activist base. That is, within this three-month window, there is a brief restoration of the rules Labour used to choose Ms Clark, David Lange, Norman Kirk, Walter Nash, Peter Fraser and Michael Joseph Savage as opposed to those used to select David Cunliffe and Mr Little.

This so-called ?Geoffrey Palmer clause? was designed to stop Labour marching toward an electoral debacle under an obviously unsuitable leader.

The party is of course far from that point yet. Given its recent history, it sees its 31% support as quite encouraging and, if Mr Peters wins a little more support off National, that would even be enough for Mr Little to become prime minister.? But Ms Ardern?s polling success means the party has a useful emergency option should it again dip into the mid-20s.? Its strategists remain quite comfortable with how events are unfolding.

They don’t need to wait, because if caucus votes no confidence in Little, which is distinctly possible if he loses the defamation case, then they only need to put one name up for the leadership to avoid that clause and the chosen one to lead assumes the role automatically.