There are too few leaders right now – and too many leadership teams.

School prefects, companies, sailing clubs, professional rugby franchises and political parties all broaden their responsibility to senior leadership teams. Hell, even this website has co-editors.

Kitchen cabinets are one thing. John Key had his buddies group of Bill English, Steven Joyce, Murray McCully and Gerry Brownlee.  In Australia, Kevin Rudd famously had a tight group of ministers around him who decided everything, leaving the rest of the ministry defenestrated.

So we’re familiar with functional and dysfunctional senior leadership teams in politics.

But this year our election campaign may well see the first senior, senior leadership teams facing off before the public.

Prime Minister Bill English with his deputy Paula Bennett. Opposition leader Andrew Little and his deputy Jacinda Ardern.

Where past campaigns have been singles matches between the leaders, we may now be treated to mixed doubles.

The parties are eyeing each other’s pairings and trying to nullify the power of two.

National, through its minister Nikki Kaye in Parliament and then via Paula Bennett on television appearances, was first to play the woman.

Kaye’s attack was oddly out-of-character, bemusing Ardern who has got on amicably with her through Auckland Central electoral campaigns. Bennett’s, however, was in character and a bit worrying.

She adopted a Brownlee-esque swagger, a “grow up and get over it” attitude which reeks of parliamentary bullying of another age and a third-term arrogance John Key pledged after the 2011 election National would avoid. To overwork the tennis metaphor, Bennett was that player who takes the chance at the net to smash an overhead shot straight at the body of the player metres away for the other side.

Labour as a mixed doubles partnership has possibly the weaker male, his serve needs work and his left-handed backhand is less seasoned, but he is a scrapper and senses the other guy is going in the knees and has lost pace. It may well have the better woman, her fluidity and consistency dazzling and psyching the aggressor at the net. 

Little-Ardern vs English-Bennett is actually a thing. The Labour pair appeared on the cover of the country’s best-selling magazine, the New Zealand Woman’s weekly, in a feature about their special relationship.

Labour’s polling company UMR Research has just examined New Zealanders’ attitudes to the pairings.

Take it with a red grain of salt, if you will, but the poll of 750 people in late March found their team marginally more favoured by Kiwis as a leadership ticket – 56 percent viewed them as favourable or somewhat favourable against 54 percent for the blue duo.

English and Bennett also had a higher somewhat unfavourable and very unfavourable rating of 37 percent against 27 percent for Little-Ardern. The red side did rate higher among those who were unsure or had never heard of them.

UMR found the Labour leaders fared better than National’s in Auckland, provincial and rural New Zealand, but fell behind in Christchurch and Wellington. The Nats win men by a healthy seven points and Labour the backing of women by 10.

National voters like their own leadership (89 percent favourable) a little more than Labour voters like theirs (85) and New Zealand First people are way more favourable to Little and Ardern (49 to 31). Predictably the Labour Party’s declared partner, the Greens are 71 per cent favourable to the red team and just 27 percent for National.

It is interesting enough data. In a way it is obvious – English has lower personal support in public opinion polls than Key and Bennett is hardly in evidence as preferred Prime Minister, while Little’s poor rating is balanced by Ardern’s strong showing (she was even with Winston Peters on 9 and Little was on 7 percent in the latest Colmar-Brunton 1News poll).

While Labour might be looking for a straw to grasp at, in the end when the campaign lights come on and the TV debates are held, the public gaze and judgment will descend on just English and Little.  

In the meantime, Little and Ardern need to get another likeability rating up:  Labour’s party vote is stubbornly stuck around the late 20s when for any certainty of governing it needs to be up into the 30s.

Only then might it look to form a leadership group really in need of leading – its own caucus, the Greens and New Zealand First.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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