Jacinda Ardern isn’t trying to win this election. She’s trying to win the next one, writes Joe Pagani

It almost paid off. Metiria Turei made one of the biggest gambles in New Zealand political history when she admitted to benefit fraud while on the DPB. But it was a call made with good political reasoning, and fuelled by ambition. Doing so took the Greens within a stone’s throw of Labour’s vote share.

Precisely because of this, the first, subtle, actions of Labour’s new leader have been damage control – winning back those who abandoned ship on the party’s left – before she can turn her attention to the centre.

For all the talk of MOUs and cabinet positions, deep down, the Green party see themselves as the opposition in waiting. Their objective is not to reach government at any cost – if it were, they would be prepared to work with National.

Instead, the Greens see Labour as obsolete, a party which has lost what it stands for in modern New Zealand, and the Green brand of more stringent leftism as the way forward.

Last Monday’s string of polls almost proved them right. The Green party has always held 15 percent as an ambitious target. In 2014 their vote stagnated, and future gains appeared distant. To re-ignite the party, the Greens used the welfare system as a wedge issue – either you were for the Green’s revamp of the welfare state and Metiria Turei’s complaints, or you were against it.

For a party seeking to win over middle New Zealand, this would have been an electoral catastrophe. For a party attempting to wedge another 5 percent off of their more centrist partner, it was brilliant politics.

Green co-leaders James Shaw and Metiria Turei. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The New Zealand Election Study found that 15.8 percent of New Zealanders want to see higher benefits. This was more or less backed up by Newshub’s poll, which showed 18 percent of New Zealand siding with Turei on her admission.

For the Greens’ purposes, if 85 percent of New Zealand despised Turei, and 15 percent adored her, they had won.

Like clockwork, Labour’s left flank collapsed and the Green vote share surged to 15 percent. Aside from this being a record tally for the Greens, it left them needing only 5 percent off Labour to overtake them as the main opposition party.

The new leader has hammered her target home over her first week.

In steps Jacinda Ardern as Labour’s last ditch attempt to stem the tide. A long-term favourite of the party, she is not there to be a placeholder – she is there to be Prime Minister. To achieve this, Ardern has shown her first target as being the Green party, rather than National.

The new leader has hammered her target home over her first week. The first story of her leadership was a genuine defence of a woman’s right not to be asked about her plans to have children. This played well across the media, but specifically with Green voters who value social justice higher than other sets of supporters.

With her first major policy announcement as leader, Ardern continued the raid into Green territory with the announcement of a bold scheme of light rail to Auckland Airport. This, once again, will be prized highly among Green voters, who want to see fewer cars on the road, and more public transport.

To a working-class miner on the West Coast, Auckland’s light rail is meaningless.

If the rumours swirling about free tertiary education are true, this will be another excursion into the Green’s young, urban base.

Finally, while Ardern did not explicitly end the MOU, she distanced herself from the Greens, and promised to campaign not as a left bloc, but as the Labour party. This will end an air of legitimacy among Labour voters that was given to the Greens are part of the MOU. Those who previously thought of a Green vote as a vote for a “more left-wing branch of the Labour party”, will have to reconsider.

Cannibalising the Green vote will not win Labour the election, but it will make them look stronger.

It is important for Labour to strike now. Many who made the mental commitment to leave Labour and vote Green have done so without yet casting a vote. These voters are far easier to bring back into the fold.

Once a voter has committed to a new party by casting a vote for them, it takes far more persuading to get them back.

Of course, cannibalising the Green vote will not win Labour the election, but it will make them look stronger. Ardern would become the first leader since 2002 to grow Labour’s vote share. She would be the conquering hero who took them from the brink of disaster to a noble defeat. It would cement her platform, and allow her to spend the next three years developing a government in waiting.

Winning the centre, and taking the party back to 40 percent cannot be done purely by changing leader. It will take years for Ardern to build Labour back up. She will have to earn the trust of rural, regional and suburban New Zealand. She will need policies which excite people, and a caucus which has proven their salt as a government in waiting.

But none of this is not what she needs on September 23. On election day, she simply needs to grow Labour’s vote share.

Ardern’s strategy will not win the 2017 election, but as you read this, she is paving the road to a victory in 2020.

Joe Pagani has worked in politics, government, and political advocacy, and is a Labour Party member

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