The recent high profile promotion of Jacinda Ardern to the Labour Party’s deputy leadership role all but confirms the gloves are off for this year’s election. This is the clearest message from Labour that they want to win this election, and not limp off to another disaster that was 2014. It is perhaps good and bad news that the party has finally learned that popularity politics goes a long way in getting elected. On one hand, the charisma and popularism of Jacinda is way too important to be ignored, whilst on the other hand, it is also a candid admission that selling well-argued policies to the electorate bears little weight in winning an election. With John Key at National’s helm, his immense popularism meant that a majority of the voting electorate was glued to his persona and policy announcements became very redundant to the importance of voters. Count on your fingers, how many policies do you think in 10-20 years time would it have been credited to Key’s government? Despite Labour trying to offer credible alternative positions to the agenda of the National government, Labour continued to fail during Key’s reign.
So in a way, Labour has learned that the fickle nature of NZ politics really comes down to looks and charisma. Sure the Helen Clarke administration might have been an outlier on this proposition, the point remains that New Zealanders very often have always voted for charismatic leaders from Savage to Holyoake. But often, these leaders with charisma would also have values and larger goals upon them when they were elected. Here the creeping concern I see in both Ardern’s ascension and also with John Key is the fact that the commercial media has a large role in signaling politicians based on personality and marketability. What you have in both cases is a conscionable manipulation by the corporate media outlets to sell us a leader, rather than an objective analysis of their values and intentions.
A careful examination of Ardern and Key will raise a similar disproportionate amount of coverage, despite the fact both achieved very little during their backbenches time and any drive for a particular vision. Instead, both Key and Ardern serve as a marketing exercise where the media constantly exploit in putting their own perceived agendas in the forefront of the public conscience. Anyone that has seen those TV discussion panels or heard a radio guest panel would know that most discussions would always eventually end up being a discusson on how a candidate does. Having a personality that is popular, makes it easier for the media to market themselves without the need to do much work on actual analysis.
It is clear the goal of personality politics is to assimilate the audience to bite size politics. It is to generate a conformity of ideas where the appearance and personality of the individuals wins you vote. Labour has learned this lesson, but at what cost? Winning the PR battle does not necessarily mean Labour has won the hearts of the disenfranchised. With a record low turnout of 77% eligible voters in the 2014 election, one has to wonder whether the focus on public opinion would actually shift any significant section of voters back to Labour. The problem here is that the focus on personality would dilute any messaging the party wants to communicate. Assuming Ardern does become leader in the foreseeable future, her presence much like Key, would sadly become the focal point on any political discussion. Here, the Labour Party is walking on a very precarious piece of rope where they risk alienating their own core voters when such leader doesn’t represent anything other than the status quo the media would like to portray. A clear example of this danger could be seen with the rise and utter disgrace of Tony Blair, where his personality (as a construct by the British media) has led to a decline of core Labour voters across the public conscience. Labour has since struggled after his departure and suggests personality can be a dangerous thing, especially when it is controlled by an external party.
As articulate and charismatic Ardern might be, I fear she falls into the same category as individuals of all smiles with no substance. I was very fortunate to hear her speak in 2012. However the more she spoke, the more I realised I knew very little what her intentions and values really were. Sure you have the typical platitudes to a fairer and better NZ society, but this means very little if the future leader cannot identify the systematic causes and the intention to actually change this. My belief is that the personality of Ardern will win Labour elections, but this will sadly be a mannequin of smiles whenever one opens the TV. I hope she does well, but I doubt she needs any hope when the media is loving her to bits.