‘I’ve got what it takes,’ says the charismatic Labour leader taking New Zealand by storm
‘She’s actually got the X-factor, in a way I haven’t seen in a politician for a very long time’
‘Jacinda effect’ sees support for would-be PM surge ahead of next week’s vote
It is a week before the New Zealand election and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern is raising her voice above the cacophony at the Tahunanui community centre in the coastal town of Nelson, where a crowd has come to meet the 37-year-old woman hailed as the latest saviour of the left.
Just weeks ago her prominence on the general election campaign trail would have been unthinkable. Ardern, then deputy leader, had declared that every colleague would have to be hit by a bus before she would step up as the “designated survivor”.
Yet here she is, following the surprise resignation of her predecessor, promising to end child poverty to a room full of mothers, who, along with young people, are her greatest champions.
“I thought it was an awesome opportunity to come down and see a fabulous, vibrant young leader,” says Kerry Cooper, who spends her evenings phoning everyone she knows, talking them into voting for Ardern. “I thought it was an opportunity to see history in the making.”
Empathy and approachability are Ardern’s stock-in-trade and they are on full display as she campaigns along the working-class west coast, encouraging juvenile offenders to pursue their Plan A and laughing with locals at the Blackball Hilton pub, where everyone wants to buy her a whisky. Her famous smile drops as she speaks with the bereaved families of the Pike River mine disaster. It is back the next day for a rally of 400 in Greymouth.
It is an impressive performance from a politician who said for years that she was not interested in leading the Labour party, let alone the country. She has given multiple reasons, including a desire to have a family; a concern that her anxiety would preclude her from the top job, having already “ballooned” as deputy; and a wariness about the demands of the job, something she observed working under the then prime minister, Helen Clark, in 2005.
But when she talks – unwaveringly meeting your eye, her body bent forward in earnest concentration – a steely ambition is evident.
Yes, she says, she misses hanging out with her rescue cat and partner Clarke Gayford, who is renovating their Auckland home, but the former Mormon who once aspired to be a police officer has decided she wants the top job and is working relentlessly to claim it.
“You can’t ask other people to believe you and vote for you if you don’t back yourself,” says Ardern, sitting in the Blackball pub, sipping water and swatting away a hovering media manager who keeps tapping his watch.
“Every day is the proof point that I’ve got what it takes to do this. And I did believe that when I said yes [to be leader], I did believe that.”
Ardern has frequently spoken of the anxiety she has experienced. As recently as June, she said: “When you’re a bit of an anxious person, and you constantly worry about things, there comes a point where certain jobs are just really bad for you.”
So how is she managing now? “I am a thinker and I do muse over things a lot and am constantly assessing whether I am doing enough or what I should be doing more of to make sure I am not letting anyone down,” Ardern tells the Guardian. She has stopped reading media coverage of herself, she says.
“I set quite high expectations. So do a lot of people. Is the experience that I have [of anxiety] normal? Probably. Probably.
“But as with every stage of this job that I’ve been in, I’ve simply thrown myself into it and every time just had the belief that I’ve got what it takes and just powered through, and that will take me right through to the top job.”
It is hard to dismiss Ardern as “stardust”, as National party leader and incumbent prime minister Bill English did. Her persona is that of a serious politician: intense, devoted and with “no personal life”. But her political nous is leavened by a generous dollop of uncultivated charm and humour. In New Zealand politics, this is a rare combination, and one that has spawned “the Jacinda effect” , which has seen Labour surge 19 points in the polls since she took over. For the first time in nine years it seems possible that the opposition could unseat the National party next Saturday.
This is a woman whose favourite film is The Dark Horse, a gritty drama about a bipolar chess player trying to escape gang life – an “acceptable nerd” whose bedside table is stacked with political biographies and whose interests include Antarctic explorers and DIY plumbing.
She manages her own social media accounts (“That’s been quite important to me”), and told an audience in Nelson that her mum had slipped snacks and a note of encouragement into her bag that morning – something she hadn’t done since Ardern was 10.
In Nelson, a man heckled Ardern for failing to answer the “real questions”, but she remained focused on the woman in front of her, clasping her hands and telling her that grandparents who are primary carers for their grandchildren would be treated as foster parents under a Labour government and receive financial aid. Ardern pulled the crying woman into a hug. “Thank you,” said the woman. “I believe you when you say you’ll help me.”
Since the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, the global community has lurched from one upheaval to another, combined with the resurgence of the far right, a political climate Ardern sees evidence of in New Zealand. “What Brexit and the Trump outcome really said to me is we do have a sense of financial insecurity that really exists in a number of countries, and politicians have the choice: to respond to that financial insecurity with messages of hope and a plan around how we are going to – in the face of ongoing globalisation and automation – make sure that there is a future for our workforce and our young people. Or we can respond to the fear that exists.
“And I think that fear has legitimately come through in those elections and that really was a message to me about what we need to be talking about to allay those fears.”
On 21 January, the day after Trump’s inauguration, Ardern joined thousands in Auckland as part of the global women’s march. So how would she reconcile her public opposition to Trump with dealing with him as the potential new prime minister? “I will be a diplomat,” says Ardern, with a broad smile. “Despite us coming from different parts of the political spectrum, that is not new for world leaders and I have to respect democracy and the people who’ve chosen their leader in the United States.”
Labour’s former deputy leader Annette King first met Ardern when she was working for Tony Blair’s office in London in 2006 – a job Ardern says she took out of financial desperation, never meeting Blair in her time there. “Many of us recognised a long time ago she’s actually got the X-factor,” says King. “She’s incredibly intelligent, compassionate and you can see how she can empathise with people in a way that I haven’t seen in a politician for a very long time.”
Hours after being elected Labour leader, Ardern faced a barrage of questions about whether she intended to have children. She bit back fiercely, calling the questions “unacceptable”.
But, she tells the Guardian, she has grown used to sexism during her nine years in parliament, in which she was twice voted New Zealand’s sexiest politician and faced endless queries about the status of her womb, her diet, and how she feels about her body (for the record: she’s fine with it).
“I definitely try not to get too caught up in putting too much of a gender or age assessment on everything – I’ve just got to get on with it,” says Ardern. “It is tricky. All I can say is the way I’ve always tried to handle it is just prove them wrong every time – and that means playing the long game sometimes.” It would be wrong to give the impression Ardern is universally loved. Her critics say she is inexperienced and vague on policy details – a politician who appeals because of her youthful glamour.
She has also been criticised from across the political spectrum for plans to cut immigration by 20,000 to 30,000, arguing record levels under the National party government have put pressure on housing, hospitals and schools.
But possibly her greatest asset – and the most serious threat to English’s campaign – is that people seem to trust her. “Jacinda has reached out and touched every age group and every community,” says Lorna Crane, who travelled to the Blackball Hilton to meet Ardern.
But although it is her face on billboards, nailed to fences beside Auckland motorways and hammered into muddy paddocks in Canterbury, “Jacindamania” has largely been ignored by Ardern herself; she insists she has her eye squarely on winning the election.
“Do it for all of us,” Jeremy Corbyn recently urged her, reflecting the hopes of many Labour voters inside and outside New Zealand.
“I am certainly going to try to keep positive momentum for the progressive movements from around the world,” says Ardern, when asked if she has been passed the torch from Bernie Sanders and Britain’s Labour leader. “But I can only be myself. I am never going to replicate any other leader. They’ve done amazing things in and of their own right, but I’m Jacinda Ardern, and I hope that I can bring it home this election.”
Jacinda Ardern talking to the media in Auckland this week and, below, taking a selfie with primary school pupils in Christchurch Main photograph: Fiona Goodall/ Getty Images New Zealand’s PM and National party leader, Bill English, dismissed Ardern as ‘stardust’, but Labour support has surged in polls