The great man of history theory – does leadership matter?

Shortly after I started as a bus driver at Go Wellington as a Bus Driver I recall overhearing drivers talking about the company changing shifts to reduce drivers’ overtime pay. One driver, a former bank teller believed the problem was the union leadership. In his view what the Tramways Union needed was “a smartly dressed lawyer in a suit and with a good haircut to come and sort everything out.” Instead of this, the drivers ended up with me as their union president, no suits but I did eventually get a haircut. More importantly, what drivers got was a democratic union where drivers stood together and improved their pay and conditions.

The Great man of history theory is nothing new and has been quite seriously rebuffed by historians for many years. In Leo Tolstoy‘s War and Peace he firmly rejected the “great man” (and when he wrote this in the 1860s, it was men who were being written about), a theory claiming that in fact, they are only “history’s slaves.”

Yet, much of history is still written about and from the perspective of our leaders. In politics, it is a truism that leadership is of paramount importance, yet few can really define what ‘leadership’ really is. The common features tend to be personal strength, decision-making powers, bringing together and managing a team, the ability to communicate, and in effect being the human embodiment of a political ideal or movement. More cynically, money, good looks, fame, and various superficial qualities also help.

It is certainly true that the performance of a party leader can decide an election result, and this is understandable as they are in a position of responsibility where they must exercise judgment. The risk though is that the personal qualities or weaknesses are given greater emphasis and boring detail like tax policy is reduced to who came up with the best slogan or soundbite.

This issue is not a new one. Whilst it is currently vogue to blame all the world’s ills on social media, the reduction of politics down to a popularity contest of leaders predates Twitter. It has probably always been a feature of politics and certainly something that has constantly been a feature of democracies. Leaders with deep voices for example have tended to perform better, as physiologically we find them more authoritative.

The problem is, once we understand that to be a successful leader it helps to have certain qualities and mannerisms, those with ambition quickly start to act the part. Building a personal brand based on characteristics common among successful leaders has become the tried and trued playbook of many ambitious upcoming politicians, business leaders, and others aiming for positions of power. Maybe this is just smart and anyone who is ambitious needs to learn these unwritten rules? But when many believe politics and civil society is in decline, should we not think more critically about leadership?

There can be very little doubt about the importance leadership has played in recent politics. My recent post about Rishi Sunak and the state of the British Conservative Party outlines, the challenges facing the UK Government today make it very difficult for the Tories to win the next election. Whilst Rishi Sunak certainly has some of the qualities of a successful leader, he is simply too constrained by the situation he faces to really lift support for the Conservative Party now, though this may change. Likewise in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern’s meteoric rise to power in 2017 and global popularity shortly after, dissipated throughout 2022 as the current economic crisis hit.

To paraphrase Harold MacMillan, what shapes the course of political history is “events dear boy, events”. Having certain qualities can get one into leadership positions, but ultimately one’s time in power is judged by how one responds to events. And more often than not, leaders only have limited control of these or their own legacy.

Jacinda Adern – How will her five years in power be remembered?

Last week people in New Zealand and around the world were shocked to hear that Jacinda Ardern had resigned as Prime Minister. An unexpected end to her extraordinary five years in this role. Her exit, like everything else she had done as a leader, was on her terms.

Jacinda Ardern has surprised people throughout her political career, not least when she took over as Labour Leader in August 2017. She took the New Zealand Labour Party from a long way behind in the polls to government in just a few weeks.

I first heard of Jacinda Ardern just after the 2008 election. Labour had just lost power after nine years in office. Ardern was one of the new MPs being touted as the future of the party. At that time I was not a party member, having left in 2002 and did not rejoin until 2013. Whilst I was hearing Jacinda’s name a lot, much of the noise was from the Wellington bubble and party insiders. It was only later that I, like most New Zealand voters was to see the political force she really was.

I first met Jacinda at Labour Leadership campaign hustings in Auckland in 2014. She was Grant Robertson’s running mate and I was the campaign manager for Andrew Little, who went on to narrowly win that leadership contest. We were standing outside this hustings event leafleting for our respective campaigns. I realised just before the meeting that my cell phone was about to die, so asked if I could borrow her charger. Unfortunately, she did not have one, and for the next 90 minutes, I nervously watched my phone’s battery bar decline.

Jacinda came in as a list MP, having unsuccessfully contested the safe Tory seat of Waikato in 2008. In 2011 and 2014 she ran in the Auckland Central electorate, which prior to 2008 had been considered a moderately safe Labour seat. Jacinda was unsuccessful both times and remained a list MP until 2017 when she won Helen Clark’s old electorate of Mount Albert. Shortly after this, she became Deputy Leader of the Party.

Up till this point, Jacinda only had limited support outside the political bubble in Wellington. She was a strong performer in parliament and from 2014 onwards had started getting some very good soft media building her brand as a relatable politician. But it was once she became deputy leader that her profile really began to grow. When polling started to show her personal support was ahead of the party leader, her promotion was only a matter of time.

In August 2017, just a few weeks out from the New Zealand General Election, Andrew Little resigned as party leader as it was clear that he was unlikely to win. A few days later Jacinda was elected leader. In the days that followed Labour’s polling numbers started to bounce. As the campaign wore on, National Party (the NZ Tory Party) Prime Minister Bill English, who had taken over the role only a few months earlier, began to sound rattled. By the time of the main leader’s debates, Jacindamania had taken hold.

Despite all this, it was still far from certain that Labour could win the election. After nearly a decade of polling behind the National Party, the last-minute polling surge still felt like it could still fall away again.

In my blog post from 2020, I described the last time I met Jacinda, just one day after she became the Leader of the Opposition:

A few weeks before leaving New Zealand, my friend Rob and I were in Burger Fuel on Cuba Street the hipster trendy part of Wellington. Piko was renting an office space in the old Wellington Trades Hall and we were doing painting and renovations of the space. In our crappy paint-covered work clothes we sat in Burger Fuel when Rob alerts me to who had just walked into the restaurant. 24 hours beforehand, Jacinda Ardern had replaced Andrew Little as leader of the Labour Party. We both knew Jacinda so said hello and talked about the Stand with Pike campaign we had been working on which Jacinda had pledged to support a few hours before. This slightly awkward conversation with the new leader of the opposition did not last long. None of us, I suspect even Jacinda, knew that in a few weeks’ time, she would achieve one of the greatest upsets in New Zealand’s political history and become Prime Minister

Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government: Style over substance or a guiding light for progressive politics?

A few weeks later I moved to London. By the time I had left, the polls had narrowed and it looked as though the election would be close. I arrived in London on Monday 11 September, and that afternoon went down to New Zealand House in Haymarket to vote for the New Zealand Labour Party. Whilst I wanted NZ Labour to win, I still did not believe they would. As I watched the election results come in just under a fortnight later, it still seemed like the National Party would just hold on for another term. But a series of factors conspired, resulting in what is still one of the most surprising NZ political victories in living memory.

Social democratic values and policies are in fact far more aligned with the New Zealand public than the Tories. I believe the same is true in Britain, as I outlined in my blog posts on why the UK Labour Party lost the 2019 election. Yet in both countries, the Tories win more elections than they lose. In the years 2008 to 2017 when the NZ Labour Party were in opposition, Labour policy often had far more support than the Labour Party. For example the Key Governments’ partial privatisation of state-owned assets in 2011 which Labour opposed. On that specific issue, polls showed public opposition to privatisation. Yet in 2011, National was easily reelected and Labour’s share of the vote declined.

Jacinda’s strength as a leader became apparent during the 2017 campaign. She was able to bridge the gap between policy and people’s perceptions. She convince people that Labour values were aligned with their own, in a way that many of her predecessors simply had not. Her warmth, her strong communication style and her positivity gave a human face to centre-left politics, one that voters could relate to.

The results of the 2017 election were close, and whoever formed a government would need to form a multi-party coalition. Here again, Jacinda showed skill and strength by being able to build bridges with New Zealand First, a socially conservative centrist party, and the Green Party. This required compromises which disappointed much of Labour’s base, yet got Labour into Government so they could implement at least some of their policy agenda.

Over the last five years, Jacinda has held up as a model of progressive political leadership throughout the world. There are many examples of where she has shone as Prime Minister. The best example is her response to the Christchurch Mosque shooting in 2019:

Her statement immediately following the attack against the Christchurch Muslim Community was clear “they are us” , a clear condemnation of Islamophobia by a world leader. When Donald Trump asked what he could do to help Jacinda replied he could show “sympathy and love for muslim communities”

Jacinda and Gun Control

They are us. Three words to the Muslim world showed compassion, humanity and inclusion after an act of evil.

The New Zealand Government’s initial response to the pandemic in 2020 was another example of strong leadership. In crisis management, it is crucial that you quickly assess the relevant information and then act decisively. The decision to close the border and put in tough restrictions was not an easy thing to do, but it undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. Not least as the health system Labour inherited when they came to power in 2017 had been badly underfunded and under-resourced for a decade. After only 30 months in power, there had not been enough time to turn this around. The restrictions were tough both for people in NZ and for people like me living overseas and unable to return. Much as people may now blame Jacinda and the Labour Government for the tough restrictions, they might also want to consider the impact of National’s mismanagement of the health system for nearly a decade. This mismanagement of the health system left it vulnerable to collapse during the pandemic.

In October 2020, Arderns’s Labour Government won the biggest majority of any New Zealand government in half a century. Jacinda’s crisis management and clear communication during Covid, the Mosque shooting and the White Island eruption all contributed to this victory.

After Labour won its second term in office, I outlined some of the challenges the government would face:

The coming term will not be an easy one for Labour, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rumble on and the world plunges into the worst financial crisis in decades. On Saturday Labour were rewarded for their handling of the crisis so far, but the hard part is yet to come. On the one hand, they need to rebuild the NZ economy at a time when international tourism is dead and export markets are volatile. But even prior to this the New Zealand economy was unbalanced and in a precarious state. Its over-reliance on dairy exports has made it vulnerable if anything happens to this market and resulted in over-intensive dairy farming which has harmed the environment – not a good look for a country that brands itself as clean and green. It also faces growing inequality with significant growth in homelessness and poverty in recent years.

NZ election 2020: Labour win is a watershed moment in the country’s history

The above was a fairly accurate summary of the challenges Ardern’s government would face in its second term. What nobody expected at that time was the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the havoc this would cause the world economy, already severely strained by the pandemic. Governments around the world have struggled with this crisis, with New Zealand being no exception. In May 2022 I wrote the following:

In New Zealand, the opposition has been quick to blame the Labour Government in New Zealand for this, at a time when support for the government is falling fast. Having won a record majority in 2020 for their handling of the pandemic, Ardern’s government now faces a backlash over coronavirus restrictions and is taking the blame for current economic challenges. Commentary in the New Zealand media also tends to focus on inflation as a domestic issue, as such much of the commentary is often wide of the mark.

The politics of high inflation – can governments do anything?

At the start of 2022 there began to be a seachange in New Zealand politics. The Government’s handling of the pandemic had strong support in 2020 and for much of 2021. But as more and more people were vaccinated, and increasingly other countries lifted their travel and other Covid restrictions, public support began to wane. The protests outside the New Zealand parliament in 2022 were a minority of anti-vaccination campaigners. This group, inspired by the January 6 Capitol attack in Washington did not enjoy widespread support. But they demonstrated that the polarisation that other English-speaking democracies faced in recent years had reached New Zealand. Alt-right, anti-science and anti-government protests caused considerable disruption outside parliament in Wellington. Those opposed to the protest became frustrated that the police and government had not moved them on. By the time these protests ended on 10 March 2022, support for the government had taken a hit.

At the same time as these protests and a struggling economy, Jacinda faced a new leader of the opposition. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, National managed to go through three leaders in four months. By the time of the election, they were no longer seen as a credible opposition and suffered their worst election defeat in 18 years. In late 2021 National put forward a new leader, Christopher Luxon. A former CEO of Air New Zealand, Luxon came into parliament in 2020 and was immediately touted as a future leader. Whilst in no way a match for Ardern in terms of oratory or style, Luxon could credibly challenge the Government’s record on bread-and-butter issues like housing, economic management and its slow delivery on infrastructure projects such as light rail in Auckland. Whilst Luxon has trailed Ardern in preferred Prime Minister Polls, for nearly a year National had maintained a 5-7% lead over Labour. At the end of 2022, it felt like Ardern’s government would likely face an electoral loss in 2023.

Critics of Jacinda Ardern have been quick to say that her resignation now was a way of avoiding electoral loss later in the year. Others have pointed to the level of hate and vitriol that Ardern has had to put up with in recent years, including former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark who said that “Jacinda has faced a level of hatred and vitriol which in my experience is unprecedented in our country.”

One Conservative Canadian politician, Michelle Rempel Garner argues that Justin Trudeau faced many of the same if not greater challenges to Jacinda Ardern in the last year, yet they were treated differently due to their respective genders.

Below is Jacinda Ardern’s resignation speech, I will leave the reader to decide for themselves what her reasons really are:

Jacinda Ardern, announcing her resignation as Prime Minister of New Zealand

It is too soon to say what Jacinda’s legacy will be. She will certainly be remembered for becoming a mother whilst being a world leader. For her presence on the world stage as a voice for feminism and progressive politics. She ushered in a generational and attitudinal change in New Zealand politics. While internationally she offered an alternative to the politics of Trump, Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison and Viktor Orban.

Ultimately, governments are measured on their longevity. Both in terms of how long they are in office, but also how long their policies remain in place. Jacinda Ardern’s legacy will be judged not only on Labour’s successes under her leadership but also on how well Labour performs after her resignation.

On Wednesday, New Zealand will have a new Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, who will lead Labour into the October 14 General Election. Chris certainly has his work cut out for him over the next few months. That being said, the coming election is by no means a foregone conclusion. For all the challenges of the past five years, he inherits a government that has much to be proud of, not least Jacinda Ardern message of kindness, inclusion and positivity. To quote the outgoing Prime Minister, “bring it on.”