Tenure of Opposition Leaders

Danyl McL blogs:

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?

Danyl has Shipley and English missing from his graph so I’ve done one with them, and going back to WWII.


The tenure has been shorter under MMP. Since Helen Clark, so opposition leader has done more than 40 months.

Matthew Hooton noted in the comments:

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.

The funny thing with Little is he did really well in his first nine months or so on the job. But since the TPP debacle, it has been all downhill.

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