It takes something really significant to make political headlines these days after a succession of resignations, scandals and failures. But as I listened in the early hours to a live stream of New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announcing her decision to stand down next month, I was fairly sure what would be making that day's headlines.
Others will analyse her substantial record in office which, although only lasting five years, has seen her tackle some very major issues and bring about real advances for the New Zealand people. No doubt we will hear people speculate on what her 'real reasons' are for standing down. Threats against the New Zealand Prime Minister have almost tripled over three years, amid a rise in conspiracy movements and a backlash against vaccination. Ardern has recognised how difficult it has been to face these growing threats but denies they are the reason she has decided to go.
What they have done is weaken Labour's standing in the polls as they prepare for an election in October. If she could turn things around and win again, she would have to commit to another full term and doesn't feel she could do that with the same energy she has brought to the job up till now. As Ardern put it: 'I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple'.
She has been an inspiration to many of us here in Scotland and across the UK, desperately trying to hold on to hope and optimism in some very dark times.
There are many articles I have written that, with hindsight, I would want to change radically. There is hardly anything I would change in the piece I wrote for SR back in October 2020, when Ardern was re-elected Prime Minister with the first overall majority since New Zealand adopted PR:
New Zealand Election 17 October 2020
Jacinda Ardern's landslide victory in last week's New Zealand elections was widely welcomed throughout the world. Of course, for Labour supporters here, that welcome was also tinged with a real sense of envy. Much of her success came from her unique connection to voters, the ability to communicate with people in an open and honest way that just didn't sound like a traditional politician. She came across as authentic. Okay, it helped that she was operating in the context of a country with a strong liberal tradition, an environmental awareness and a multicultural landscape. Remember New Zealand was the first independent country in the world to bring in women's suffrage in 1893.
Ardern has the knack of sounding consensual while promoting Labour policies and values – narrowing income and wealth gaps, increasing social spending, tackling climate change, focusing on child and maternal care. Her empathetic response to the Christchurch slaughter of Muslims at prayer won her the world's respect but her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic sealed the deal with the electorate. New Zealand imposed one of the toughest lockdowns that saw the economy contract 12.2%, but also resulted in only 25 Covid fatalities. It was hard to believe our eyes as we saw crowds at her packed election rallies; and as she hugged and shook hands with supporters and volunteers. Thanks to her handling of the crisis, this could happen safely. Not for the Kiwis a campaign played out on Zoom.
The Dalai Lama congratulated her on her victory, admiring 'the courage, wisdom and leadership, as well as the calm, compassion and respect for others, she has shown in these challenging times'. Compare that to the harsh things he has had to say about Trump's presidency, his low key congratulations to Boris Johnson and his palpable disappointment at Brexit.
It's not that our politicians haven't promised a new type of politics. They've all had a go at that. It's just that they haven't delivered. Jeremy Corbyn began his leadership offering 'a kinder politics' and an end to 'personal abuse'. He urged his supporters to 'treat people with respect' and said there would be 'no rudeness from me'. He held to that high standard himself but had plenty around him who didn't. Here in Scotland, the SNP assured us that their nationalism was of the 'joyous' and 'civic' kind, yet it so often comes across as one long abusive tantrum at their perceived victimhood.
Somehow, we need to learn from New Zealand how we can have political leadership that is 'popular' without being 'populist'. Speaking to supporters at Auckland town hall after her victory was declared, Ardern thanked the nation for the strong mandate. She said elections 'don't have to be divisive' and promised to govern with positivity.
As a veteran of staying up all night to endure TV election results programmes, I found the New Zealand results programme refreshingly different. For a start, the counting and declarations were carried out at a more civilised hour than we do here in the UK. The presenters had a light engaging touch, and the panels talked intelligently about what was unfolding with insight and even some humour. It took me some time to be sure who was representing which party on the panel.
I am not so naive as to think their campaign wouldn't have had its moments but on the whole it seemed an uplifting experience. Viewed from where I stand, the UK and New Zealand really are poles apart, and not just geographically.