Andrew Little faces brutal reality of politics as the rise of Jacinda Ardern continues
EDITORIAL: Sometimes an amputation is needed to stop the bleeding and to limit the damage.
That's the position Andrew Little found himself in when he decided yesterday to step down from the leadership of the Labour Party only 53 days out from a general election.
Timing aside, it was the right thing to do for himself and the party. A range of polls had the line graphs all pointing in the wrong direction. Little saw the red writing on the wall and as tough as it would have been for him to digest, he acted on it.
Polls are one thing, but when you're not connecting with voters – for whatever reason – and you openly question your leadership, as Little did, your hand is forced.
To Little's credit, he made the move swiftly, but not without significant damage to the party, which now looks to his former deputy Jacinda Ardern to take the party into polling day on September 23.
Ardern is Labour's sixth leader since 2008, when Helen Clark failed to win a fourth term. After trying and discarding Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe, (an interim stint by David Parker), then Little, Labour has been a model for instability. Such fragility at the top has made the job so much easier for the National-led Government, which simply had to look competent to appear outstanding by comparison.
So, what now?
Ardern has long rated well in most preferred prime minister polls, in some cases third. That's especially high for someone who has publicly and repeatedly said they didn't want the top job.
Now that she has taken up the mantle that popularity, by sheer exposure alone, will likely mean a boost in her support.
The key for Ardern is how to transfer that popularity into cold, hard party votes.
With polls showing Labour on life support around the 24 per cent mark Little's action was drastic, but ultimately necessary.
The bruises and scars of Labour's inability to settle on a leadership combination may still be raw and all too familiar, but at least Labour's new top two offer a real point of difference when taking on the electoral powerhouse that is the National Party.
Plainly put, a young woman leader and a Maori deputy leader in Kelvin Davis offer a contrast to southern man and political veteran Bill English (now contesting his 10th election) and his Westie deputy, Paula Bennett.
Elections aren't solely won on how popular the leader of a party is, but for many the face, voice and vision of that person can make all the difference.
In a way, Ardern has nothing to lose. She's been given one of the biggest hospital passes in recent New Zealand political history. Because she has inherited such a mess the pressure and expectation transfer to National, whose election it is now to lose.
If she can somehow help Labour claw its way up to about 30 per cent on election day without gnawing too much off potential coalition partner the Greens, it should make for a fascinating race to form the next government.
If Ardern does fall short and fail to become the next prime minister she would surely survive as leader and be better for it after such a trial by fire.