In a potential circuit breaker less than eight weeks before the election, Labour Leader Andrew Little has stepped down after poor poll results and his parliamentary colleagues have elected his deputy Jacinda Ardern to replace him in an uncontested vote.
Ardern announced she was reconsidering Labour's election policies over the next three days when asked about Labour's tax and retirement age policies.
Labour's parliamentary caucus met after Little stepped down and voted in Ardern unopposed with Māori Development spokesman Kelvin Davis as her deputy. New Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, who has just turned 37, told a news conference in Parliament today's events were not what anyone in the party expected or wanted.
She praised Little for his loyalty to the party, and said she and the caucus remain committed to winning at the election. She noted Little had nominated her to be leader and his decision to step down was his alone.
"This team is about to run the campaign of their lives," she said.
"As a party, Labour has huge aspirations for New Zealand. At stake is a chance to build a better future than we found it," she said.
She and the party leadership will take stock let the next 72 hours, with more announcements to come around policy and her own vision. She said she did not expect to make many changes to the Labour shadow cabinet.
Ardern says the memorandum of understanding with the Greens is "absolutely in place". However, she does not want to be drawn into discussions about other parties' plans and policies, and says this will be a Labour campaign.
Ardern says she has "nigh on 20 years working in and around politics", and has a rural background.
She will bring a different stamp to the Labour campaign - "relentless positivity will be amongst it" - along with articulating the party's vision for New Zealand.
Ardern says she did not ask Little to stand down, and was informed of his decision this morning. Ardern said Little would have a senior ministerial role in a Labour-led government, although she hasn't yet spoken to him about his role.
'I'm taking responsibility'
Little told a news conference in Parliament he remained determined to be part of the fight at the election, but recent polls had built a narrative that was damaging to Labour.
The party would be better served by a new leader who could bring a fresh voice, he said.
He had not seen a list of potential candidates, but said if Jacinda Ardern ran she would have his "100 per cent backing."
Little said he'd had "amazing comments" from all his colleagues, but was aware the party needed to break the narrative.
It was made pretty clear to him that it was his choice whether or not to stay on, he said.
Later, Labour's leader's office issued a release on Little's behalf, in which he said he was proud to have been leader after 25 years in the Labour movement.
"While obviously this is a sad decision, I have been privileged to have led a united, talented team of Labour MPs, proud to have progressed the values and issues that New Zealanders care about and proud to stand with working New Zealanders," he said in the statement.
"The Labour team of MPs and staff have worked incredibly hard during my leadership, however recent poll results have been disappointing," he said.
Labour's own polling through UMR showed Labour's support dropped six points to 23 percent in recent weeks, while the Greens rose three points to 15 percent, New Zealand First rose five points to 16 percent and National fell five points to 42 points.
"As leader, I must take responsibility for these results. I do take responsibility and believe that Labour must have an opportunity to perform better under new leadership through to the election. I am determined to make sure that Labour fights this campaign with the greatest of resolve, because far too much is at stake for far too many New Zealanders," Little said.
"New Zealand needs a Labour-led Government, and in order to achieve this Labour must fight without questions over its leadership."
Andrew Little's leadership and Labour's slump in this week's polls into the low 20s had been at the top of the agenda for the caucus meeting.
Little pulled out of his regular Tuesday morning media appearances to prepare for the meeting. He made the announcement before the meeting began. There had been reports that Ardern and Kelvin Davis had the numbers for a challenge. But it never came to that, given a potential contested leadership vote would have portrayed the party as divided.
He and Labour faced a stark choice: either he fought on and Labour risks another three years in opposition, or he fell on his sword and the party took the chance Ardern would catch the electorate's imagination before the vote in less than 50 days. Postal voting starts on September 11.
Labour polling in low 20s
Meanwhile, the polls got even uglier for Labour and Little yesterday.
Newshub's Reid Research poll published last night showed support for Labour fell 2.5 percentage points in the last six weeks to 24.1 percent, which was a record low for this poll and down from 30.8 in March. Support for the Green party rose 0.5 percent to 13 percent, while New Zealand First rose 3.6 points to be 13 percent.
These support levels were record highs for both Green and New Zealand First in the Reid Research poll and came as National fell 2.2 points to 45.2 percent, its lowest result in this poll since just before the last election.
New Zealand First has been the biggest beneficiary of the destabilisation of support for the major parties in last two months. The combined opposition vote in the Reid Research poll is now over 52 percent and as disunited and chaotic as the opposition appears at the moment, they actually have the numbers to change the Government.
Just as Labour's support is soft, so is National's. The electorate appears particularly volatile, as it has been in other elections recently overseas. It's anyone's guess what a potential change of Labour leader might do for the electoral calculations.
Winston Peters' support as preferred Prime Minister rose 2.2 points to 11.9 percent in the Reid Research poll, also a record high for this poll. And ominously for Little, Ardern's support rose 2.1 points to 8.7 percent, while Little's fell to 7.0 percent from 7.1 percent.
English wary of complacency
National leader and Prime Minister Bill English said Labour was in disarray, but he cautioned against complacency among his supporters.
"The basic problem is not really the leadership it’s just that they don’t have a positive view about what New Zealand can achieve," English said.
"But we’ve got a lot of hard work to do, because they will select a new leader. The polls indicate that we still don’t have enough support to form a strong Government after the election, so it’s going to be a tough competition," he said.
Asked about the likely mood in the National caucus meeting, he said: "I think it will be a bit subdued. These are the consequences of making poor political judgments, not having policy, for the Labour party. It’s got to deal with those consequences, but there will be no complacency in our caucus because we don’t yet have the levels of support that we need to have to be an effective, positive sort of Government after this election."