The Dim-Post

March 20, 2016

Duration of Opposition leaders

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 8:11 am

There’s a lot of criticism around about Labour leader Andrew Little, after what’s been a pretty awful week and a pretty lousy couple of months. And there are, presumably, whispers in the party about maybe replacing him, maybe bringing back David Shearer? Or Bringing Jacinda Ardern forward? Because there always are, although Little will be harder to get rid of than the other leaders because of his support in the union movement and that movement’s kingmaker role within the modern Labour party.

But maybe being Opposition leader – widely observed as being ‘the worst job in politics’ – is just a really hard job and it typically takes a long time to get good at it and build up credibility with the public? Here’s a bar chart of how long our recentish opposition leaders were in the job until they were elected or deposed. The dataset is small so definitive conclusions are tricky, and we transferred from FPP to MMP during this period. But maybe Key’s quick rise was atypical and the best way to change the government is to pick a leader – like Clark or Bolger – and let them build up their competence and credibility over time?




  1. Sadly, in the kneejerk, impatient world we now live, most politicians don’t seem to have any desire to wait for a leader to find their feet. If they don’t gain traction immediately they are out on their ear. Yet, when you look at Helen Clark, one of our most successful recent prime ministers, she started off poorly, but managed to lead her latte to success.

    Perhaps parties need to start looking at the long term game, and be willing to hold the line to allow their leaders time to bed-in. As long as it’s a revolving door of leaders, a party won’t be trusted to govern as they look reactionary, rather than settled with a long term plan.

    Comment by avoicetoday — March 20, 2016 @ 8:50 am

  2. *lead her party

    Comment by avoicetoday — March 20, 2016 @ 8:51 am

  3. What you describe here is being called “The Kirk Model” by Little’s supporters. They point out that Kirk lost to Holyoake in 1966 and 1969 but then, after National replaced Holyoake with Marshall, became PM in 1972. Similarly, they say, Little may lose to Key in 2017 and perhaps 2020 but should be given an opportunity to try again, perhaps against Key’s successor, in 2023.

    Comment by Matthew Hooton — March 20, 2016 @ 9:27 am

  4. I kind of like ‘lead her latte’.

    I’ve heard the Kirk model too…intriguing to me because another parallel is one reason Kirk lost in a’69 was Kirk didn’t trust any MP with an understanding of economics and kept them away from the area, which meant Labour was unable to capitalize on the 1967-68 downturn.

    One important difference though is Kirk only took over in 1966 – nine months before the election.

    Comment by robhosking — March 20, 2016 @ 9:37 am

  5. What about Bill English? Almost exactly two years as leader.

    Comment by eey0re — March 20, 2016 @ 9:41 am

  6. …the best way to change the government is to pick a leader – like Clark or Bolger – and let them build up their competence and credibility over time?

    One too many hyphens : pick a leader like Clark.

    Comment by NeilM — March 20, 2016 @ 9:57 am

  7. Surely it depends on the point in the electoral cycle?

    Taking over the losing party after a change of government is hard, so you wouldn’t expect immediate results from Bolger, Clark, English or Goff. (English is missing from your graph, BTW.) Losing a winnable election is less-easily forgiven, hence the short terms in opposition for Key, Cunliffe.

    If Little is the best person for the job and National are governing so competently then it wouldn’t be a good idea to roll him after one or two losses, Labour should keep him until he wins in 2023 like Hooton suggests. Are Labour supporters happy to just write off the next two elections though?

    Comment by David — March 20, 2016 @ 10:09 am

  8. I think the dataset is just too small, and the cut-off too arbitrary – look at Lange, for instance.

    Keeping Little is the best option at this point, but the reality is he just isn’t going to beat Key in ’17 at this rate, and he’s hanging on for a 2020 win by default. It’s a disaster for the Labour Party.

    Comment by Nye — March 20, 2016 @ 12:30 pm

  9. If Labour think Little has the attributes to win an election they should stick with him even if there’s short term turbulence but no one really thinks Little’s an election winner unless the rules change to give the unions 20% of the vote at the general election.

    Comment by Nye — March 20, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

  10. Labour should keep him until he wins in 2023 like Hooton suggests. Are Labour supporters happy to just write off the next two elections though?

    You seem to be assuming that voters will vote for the status quo no matter how bad the status quo is. That’s rather insulting to voters.

    Comment by Ross — March 20, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

  11. It’s not opposition leaders, its the Labour Party in general that is unpopular. And the same thing would be happening to National too if they didn’t have John Key.

    Comment by Korakys — March 20, 2016 @ 12:59 pm

  12. You missed Bill English from your graph, and also Jenny Shipleys time as opposition leader after the 1999 election. I think Labour should have kept David Shearer on as leader instead of going for Cunliffe, but atleast the Labour activist base got what they wanted and if they don’t like the fact John Keys still in power they can put some of the blame on themselves. I think Andrew Little got of to a good start, but voters (and the Labour Party) should ask if they want a Prime Minister who will regulate interest rates the way Muldoon did. And also the cap on immigration and earlier talk about Chinese sounding names of Auckland house buyers (if you don’t think its rascist imagine if Labour made a similar stunt about the number of Auckland house buyers with jewish names, and talking about jewish money driving up Auckland house prices), and opposition to the falg referendum and TPPA is making Labour look more and more like New Zealand First and less like Helen Clarks Labour government

    Comment by Nicholas O'Kane — March 20, 2016 @ 1:43 pm

  13. Quite the U-turn, Danyl.

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — March 20, 2016 @ 1:51 pm

  14. …a party won’t be trusted to govern as they look reactionary, rather than settled with a long term plan.

    @avoicetoday – I think you mean reactive.

    Comment by Gregor W — March 20, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

  15. “Are Labour supporters happy to just write off the next two elections though?”

    When you’re up against a government whose main accomplishments seem to be talking big but backing down, then implementing watered down versions of popular opposition party policies and claiming credit, it’s probably more a question of priorities.

    The Green Party has lived like this for ages. Many more people are happy with variations of the policies it advocates than seem to be comfortable actually voting for it…. or at least admitting voting for it.

    Comment by izogi — March 20, 2016 @ 3:27 pm

  16. I am not sure where this idea that Andrew Little has had a pretty lousy week/month has come from??? That is other than Audrey Young political editor of the NZ Herald.

    Please explain why you think AL has had a lousy week/month. You say this Daryl, but don’t give any reason why.

    On the other hand Key should be challenged over things like coming out and saying big business should pay their fair share of tax. FFS he has the power to make this happen, why hasn’t he done something about it already. David Cunliffe was talking about this last election.

    Comment by anker — March 20, 2016 @ 9:41 pm

  17. …wouldn’t it make sense to include the Green party leaders? They’ve basically been the opposition for years. Or are we only looking at the parties that play ‘personality’ politics* by pinning everything on their Glorious Leader (TM)?

    *Or are vulnerable to being portrayed that way by the leader

    Comment by flynnthecat1 — March 20, 2016 @ 10:38 pm

  18. a leader’s only as effective as the team supporting him. nzl labour have bunged absolutely everything for 7 years now, soooooo…. repainting the house ain’t gunna fix this one.

    Comment by Che Tibby — March 21, 2016 @ 6:16 am

  19. I went to wikipedia and pulled out some numbers than might be interesting. From 1935 onward (i.e. the year from which the two established parties have held the role of PM and leader of the opposition) and excluding Andrew Little (as his end date is unknown):

    Average tenure of opposition leader:
    Lab: 1,323 days
    Nat: 991 days

    Former PM in role as leader of opposition?
    Yes: 860 days
    No: 1,313 days

    Future PM in role as leader of opposition?
    Yes: 1,755 days
    No: 865 days

    Average tenure of an individual as leader of the opposition has pretty consistently trended down over the whole period, from roughly 1500 in the 30’s to 60’s to 750 days today.

    There appears to be little statistical difference between the two parties when it comes to poor opposition leaders (i.e. not a former PM and did not go on to become PM):
    Lab: 782 days (4 observations)
    Nat: 961 days (4 observations)

    Both parties are willing to hold on to an opposition leader if they are a future PM:
    Lab: 1,951 days (4 observations)
    Nat: 1,559 days (4 observations)

    National is much more ruthless at getting rid of former PM’s in the role of opposition leader:
    Lab: 1,235 days (4 observations)
    Nat: 560 (5 observations)

    Comment by Phil — March 21, 2016 @ 1:06 pm

  20. I think Mr Hooton had a bit of a grin going as he typed his last sentence. But that’s where it’s heading at this rate. I do think it’s hard to beat the Nats while they are operating in this slightly right of middle of the road fashion, and are happy to rob everyone else’s policies blind, but I’m still quite persuaded by another of Danyl’s points a while back, that Labour are just really bad at politics full stop. The left-right block % difference isn’t so great that even with the Nat’s admittedly difficult approach noted above, they couldn’t be defeated by Labour becoming awesome at politics instead of awesomely bad.

    Beyond all that, I don’t sense any primal recognition in Key, that this Little guy is going to take him out. I mean, Muldoon didn’t see another sucker coming along when Lange became leader – he saw his nemesis, he saw, that he’d met his match. IMHO.

    Comment by Joe-90 — March 21, 2016 @ 1:07 pm

  21. Why is it ‘the worst job in politics’? Surely it is a politician’s dream-job to have a mandate to snipe, promise, cajole and play to the gallery safe from any actual responisbiltiy to deliver a jot of substance? Many appear to think that works for Key. So what is the actual difference between one who appears to be tilting at a record-breaking number of years as PM and the trail of corpses he has left behind him??

    I would argue that it’s a nonsense to imagine that competence, voter-appeal and an ability to come up with fresh ideas are all chopped liver, and should be disregarded because it’s really really hard to be opposition leader.

    It may be tempting to think that if a person has the right kind of appeal then staying in the role would be a given, and a person would get a go at batting like in schoolyard cricket. but unfortunately the opposition is stuck in a mind-set of rather than working on its voter appeal, and cultivating fresh ideas they imagined that replacing Key just required ‘someone popular’ to supplant him.

    The reason for Labour’s rapid change of leaders is because they have underestimated the abilities of John Key and undervalued the intelligence of the electorate. Andrew Little may have the kinds of gravitas that Cunliffe lacked, but beyond the appeal of tribally-motivated voters there is a recognisable salient factor which dominates voters’ choice of a politician – that of his or her competence. I’d suggest running the opposition benches like a focus-group – floating ideas just to see who will salute them – is a potentially suicidal approach. Similarly just hanging around long enough waiting for ‘your go’ won’t be enough. Even Wisnton Peters knows you can’t just bore people into wanting to vote for you.

    Come to think of it, many if those notions apply to schoolyard cricket too.

    Comment by leeharmanclark — March 21, 2016 @ 5:12 pm

  22. – Out of 14 elections contested by Leaders of the Opposition in their first election as leader (since 1938), the Opposition only won 3. This compares to 6 out of 12 won by experienced LOTOs.
    – However, this is easily explained by 12 of the 14 first-time Leaders facing a government in their first or second term, and as every current member of the opposition knows, those are hard to beat. If you break up the data by 1st/2nd/3rd term government and look at vote swings rather than just won/lost, it doesn’t look like there’s a big systematic difference between first-time and experiences LOTOs.
    – Best guess from limited data: Experience of the LOTO doesn’t matter very much. (More speculative guess: The LOTO doesn’t matter very much at all unless you have a once-in-a-generation leader, and if you have a once-in-a-generation leader you should probably worry less about winning the election and more about him appointing himself or Roger Douglas as Finance Minister.)


    Data for elections from 1938 to 2014 (compiled in this comment box so errors probable):

    Opposition leader in first election as leader:

    Wins: 3 (Muldoon ’75 swing +6.1, Lange ’84 +4.0, Key ’08 +5.8)
    Losses: 11 (Hamilton ’38 +7.4, Holland ’43 +2.5, Nash ’51 -4.1, Nordmeyer ’63 +0.6, Kirk ’66 -2.3, Bolger ’87 +8.1, Clark ’96 -6.5, English ’02 -9.6, Brash ’05 +18.2, Goff ’11 -6.5, Cunliffe ’14 -2.4)
    Govt 1st term: 1W 6L (av swing +0.3)
    Govt 2nd term: 5L (+1.9)
    Govt 3rd term: 2W (+4.9)

    Opposition leader with experience as leader:

    Wins: 6 (Holland ’49 +3.5, Nash ’57 + 4.2, Holyoake ’60 +3.4, Kirk ’72 +4.2, Bolger ’90 +3.8, Clark ’99 +10.6)
    Losses: 6 (Holland ’46 +5.6, Nash ’54 -1.7, Kirk ’69 +2.8, Rowling ’78 +0.8, Rowling ’81 -1.4, Moore ’93 -0.5)
    Govt 1st term: 1W 2L (+1.2)
    Govt 2nd term: 1W 2L (-0.2)
    Govt 3rd term: 2W 2L (+5.8)
    Govt 4th term: 2W (+3.9)

    Comment by bradluen — March 21, 2016 @ 5:27 pm

  23. There are some interesting numbers being quoted, but I wonder if some of the recent discussion here is at risk of applying too much analysis based on a small dataset that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with recent circumstances. It’s easy to spot trends and commonlities that happen to line up in small amounts of data when there are so many possible criteria to choose from, whilst possibly ignoring the criteria which might have been highly relevant in the day (but don’t line up between elections).

    Comment by izogi — March 21, 2016 @ 5:54 pm

  24. No amount of looking at past statistics will improve Labour’s ongoing inability to do basic political strategy and comms. That’s their core problem, not who they push out front.

    Comment by Sacha — March 21, 2016 @ 6:53 pm

  25. Sacha +1 … but I’d go further. Not just the ability, but the desire. The “can” needs the “must”.

    In their 3rd term in opposition, National were utterly desperate to win, and brutal in pursuit of that goal. Brash wasn’t just replaced as leader, he was effectively pushed out of Parliament, and his “loyal” caucus erased him and many of his policies overnight. (They didn’t stop believing in the policies, they just stopped saying they did, and dumped anything that stood in the way of victory).

    By contrast the Labour caucus (now at exactly the same point in the cycle) seem, if not comfortable, than certainly a long way short of ruthless. I don’t know how many strategy sessions they’ve had since they lost power, but if anybody has told them the truth (“we’ve been predictably mediocre for years and all we do is keep repeating the same failures”) then they haven’t been listened to.

    As befits a party that can cheerlead for Muldoon and Brash while they pursue polar opposite policies, National MPs’ priority is power, first, second, and only. Labour MPs’ priority seems to be keeping onside with their mates, and keeping their jobs in Parliament – even in opposition. They want to win, they just don’t have to.

    Personally I’d halve their salary after every election defeat. There wouldn’t be many more.

    Comment by sammy 3.0 — March 21, 2016 @ 8:43 pm

  26. Spot on, Sammy.
    Part of the problem (at least from a competence/ new blood perspective) is that career troughers with unassailable sinecures are very well paid, win or lose.

    Comment by Gregor W — March 21, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

  27. Two words that would solve Labour’s problems: term limits.

    Comment by Sanctuary — March 22, 2016 @ 1:15 am

  28. Now’s a good time for Goff to stage a Leadership Coup. Just joking. I like Andrew Little but he still has a way to go to convince most ordinary Kiwis that they should get his vote. Meanwhile, Key is looking more appealing to some voters. If it wasn’t for all his early nonsense such as asset sales, and the ridiculous flag debate, I reckon more voters would give their vote to him even if they are traditional Labour voters.

    Comment by Daniel Lang — March 30, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

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