What happens to Labour after Jacinda Ardern? It might sound odd to be wondering this, just months after she and Labour won an unprecedented landslide victory, and while she continues to enjoy stratospheric popularity ratings and has years of serious governing ahead of her. And yet, those are good reasons for her and her party to be thinking about succession.
I started thinking about this when I recalled the experience of the last two stable, broadly popular governments—Helen Clark’s and John Key’s. Even when there’s an experienced, hand-picked successor to take over, things don’t always turn out that well, as Bill English could attest. In fact, both those governments found themselves consigned to opposition when their long-serving leaders stepped down, eventually sliding into a rolling maul of leadership contests and instability, with voters responding accordingly. Remembering those situations, I couldn’t help thinking of the phrase attributed to King Louis XV: “après moi, le déluge,” or “after me, the flood.”
Perhaps this sort of outcome is inevitable, part of the natural political cycle. But it was seemingly inevitable that no party would secure an outright majority under MMP, and that a minor party like the Greens would be punished for being part of a government—until the last election. So perhaps there’s no reason in principle that political parties can’t do succession well, and that a popular government can’t set up its next generation of leaders for a win.
However, succession is hard in any arena, and it’s best done when conditions are in your favour—just as they are now for Labour. There are obvious steps to take, like grooming promising new MPs for higher responsibilities and recruiting new talent into the Parliamentary pipeline of would-be MPs. But even then, it would be hard for Labour to replicate the success the Prime Minister enjoyed last year. After all, she’s been described by one of her own as having “the X factor” and possessing an ability rare among politicians to empathise with voters, suggesting that the success she’s enjoying shouldn’t be taken for granted by the party.
And given the post-Clark and post-Key experiences, if it wants to avoid an eventual deluge, Labour might be wise to start asking itself during this term, “after Jacinda, what comes next?”