There’s a Labour Party billboard at Potters Park on the corner of Dominion and Balmoral roads in Auckland featuring Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern on one side, with the “A Fresh Approach” slogan.

On the other side of the wooden frame is another Labour board – this one just for Jacinda Ardern, Mt Albert.

She’s bigger, without her mate. She’s still beaming, but seems more relaxed. 

Little’s decision on Sunday night to open the way for his exit, due to poor opinion polls, thrusts Ardern front and centre.

As Labour angsts over Little’s future and comes up with every logistical reason not to make the leadership change the public says it needs, the symbolic and financial challenge of changing campaign imagery should be the least of its concerns.

Just take Ardern’s solo picture and paste it over the double image currently adorning the red signs around the country. Edit the slogan too, graffiti-style with the addition of two white letters to make it “A Fresher Approach”. Take your marks, reset, go.

If this trivialises the existential crisis facing Little and the Labour caucus, it is meant to. Labour is past the point of sweating the small stuff. 

It has a capable, relatable, nationally-known and highly-regarded contender already smiling out at the people of New Zealand, who might, just might, win the party back the percentage points it needs to reclaim its rightful place as the leading component of a centre-left coalition.

In a new Newshub poll, she is back ahead of Little in preferred Prime Minister ratings in polls, and would knock off New Zealand First’s Winston Peters with little effort if made leader. She matches Peters too, in being familiarly known by her first name  — and being able to flash a smile that could burst a ballot box.

She’s urban but not too urban, being from Morrinsville and the University of Waikato. She’s young, having turned 37 last week, but Emmanuel Macron is 39 and vying for leadership of the free world. She’s been an MP for nearly nine years, has claimed a lifetime seat in Mt Albert, and worked under four Labour leaders. She worked as a researcher for Helen Clark before that.  

Ardern has held shadow portfolios largely in the social areas of youth, justice and social development, making her name challenging the systems allegedly caring for children.

She stood on the Grant Robertson ticket as his running mate against Little when Labour last had a leadership contest. Ardern plainly admires Robertson and you get the feeling she’d rather he was in pole position now to provide Labour with hope of a future. But she is, and in current circumstances she needs to accept that and press forward.

Labour’s current campaign billboards promise a fresh approach, but that approach could be even fresher with Ardern at the helm. Photo: Tim Murphy

Unopposed by her colleagues for the deputy leader role just four months ago when Annette King stood aside, she’s been blooded in the hot seat of media interviews and panels, up against National’s Paula Bennett. She’s defended Little in at least one forum which dripped with hostility for his leadership and chances, holding her nerve and decorum.

The bottom line, now, is that Ardern is the best hope Labour might have. They need not only an instant answer, the fabled circuit breaker, but someone who could upend the 2017 chessboard by removing many of the orthodoxies National and New Zealand First have assumed.

Andrew Little and Bill English were the best things going for each other; in terms of public appeal both have delusions of adequacy. Ardern provides the starkest of choices.

Labour has been here before, in 1990 when they ejected a dull persona for one with charisma. But Mike Moore was trying to defend a vastly unpopular, in-fighting administration taken hostage by an alien ideology and after flashes of hope, fell to a historic landslide defeat. Ardern would at least lead a united Labour caucus with a friend in Robertson at her side and policies some think are too populist – and she is challenging not defending. Challenging a three-term National government presiding over economic stability but social inequity and acute social pressures.

She also has the advantage Moore lacked of MMP. Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First are still a contending coalition, even with Little’s personal anchor dragging along the bottom.

All Ardern needs is those precious few percentage points by September 23 to put Labour back in the ascendancy in that potential bloc, to re-calibrate what the mix of a potential centre-left government might be. She’d need to deal with Peters, who’d be – by his age – more disposed to negotiating and drinking with a middle-aged man. But Clark got past that.

Ardern is still putting her weight behind Little, predicting to Newshub that he will take them to the election. She is deputy until the end, but the end is nigh.

People like Ardern. She’s untested in power but history is littered with young, fresh leaders who brought something else to the political equation. 

There are dozens of reasons why she, or Labour, might not go for a leadership change, but they are reasons of hesitation and caution, of painting by numbers for a ‘what-if’ for 2020 rather than a broad sweep and a blaze of colour for 2017.  

Robertson and her colleagues, probably including Little if he thinks it through, need to rally around and personally support her. In an interview in Next magazine just last month, Ardern spoke of her personal anxieties about letting people down. “I’ve got a pretty big weight of responsibility right now. I can’t imagine doing much more than that.”

Yet even then she was solely focused on getting out of Opposition and being able to do what Labour aims to do for the electorate. “It’s like being in a supermarket and trying to pick which queue to go into and not knowing if you should jump out of that queue because suddenly you’re going to be next at that counter, of you’re not,” she told Next. “That’s what opposition feels like. Except it’s a line that’s been going for nine years.”

Now, through both the poll results and Little’s public loss of nerve, all the queueing options have evaporated. For victory, only one counter is left open.

Time to reverse the billboard, Jacinda.

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

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