Jacinda Ardern’s resignation shows that sometimes it’s right to walk away
20th January 2023

Written by Moya Crockett

Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.

Ardern is doing what many of us have done after accepting a ‘dream job’. She gave it her all for years, then realised that she no longer fantasised about holding onto the role – and that’s no failure, writes Moya Crockett 

We’ve all had to get used to political shockwaves in recent years, but the news that Jacinda Ardern will not seek re-election as prime minister of New Zealand came straight out of left field. Speaking at a retreat for the New Zealand Labour Party on 19 January, Ardern said: “I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.” She will leave parliament in April, 15 years after she was first sworn in as a member (the New Zealand equivalent of an MP).

My gut reaction, when I saw the breaking news alert about Ardern’s resignation pop up on my phone, was one of dismay. Ardern, leave? She can’t go. She’s something special! That’s not to say that she’s magic or that her premiership has been entirely transformative; New Zealand will face many problems when Ardern leaves its parliament, not least an acute housing crisis. But from the grim vantage point of Britain, the centre-left Ardern has always seemed like a breath of fresh air. The world’s youngest female head of government when she was sworn in aged 37 in 2017, she radiates empathy, strength and intelligence, and also possesses the surprisingly rare political quality of speaking and behaving like a likeable human being. In the UK, where we’ve been trapped for years in an increasingly bleak, divisive and authoritarian political climate, having a leader like Ardern has long felt like a pipe dream.

Some of the discussion of Ardern’s announcement has implicitly or explicitly framed her departure as a failure, via headlines such as “What went wrong for Jacinda Ardern” and “Jacinda Ardern resigns: can women really have it all?” (The latter appeared on the BBC News website and was subsequently edited.) The suggestion is that Ardern is admitting defeat by stepping down now – and in a way, she is. She’s certainly acknowledged that she no longer has what it takes to lead a country, saying: “You cannot and should not do [this job] unless you have a full tank, plus a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges.” By her own admission, she doesn’t anymore.

But resigning from any job – even the position of prime minister – doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. In recent years, many of us have recognised the power in walking away from situations that no longer suit us: research published by PwC last May found that 18% of UK workers were “very or extremely likely” to switch jobs in the coming year as they searched for better pay and job satisfaction. On a personal level, Ardern is doing what many of us have done after accepting a ‘dream job’. She gave it her all for years, then realised that she no longer fantasised about holding onto the role. It was burning her out. It was time to go.

Of course, Ardern isn’t quitting a well-paid job at an ad agency. Her personal decision will have profound political consequences: there isn’t a clear successor to lead New Zealand’s Labour party, and a coalition of right-wing parties may win the country’s general election in October (although this could have happened even if she stood for re-election). But her decision to quit also has political positives.

We’ve all seen politicians cling to their position for the sake of it, and it is uniformly unedifying. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’s guiding light was the pursuit and maintenance of power itself. Liz Truss, a profoundly ideological woman, tossed her beliefs aside in a desperate bid to remain as PM. All three politicians caused almost unimaginable chaos and devastation, and all had to be metaphorically dragged from office in their own unique ways, even as it became clear that they were damaging their countries. Imagine if any of them had had an ounce of Ardern’s self-awareness? Imagine if they’d taken a step back and reflected on whether they really had the capacity to lead a nation or if it was time to pass the baton to someone else.

It’s optimistic to think many politicians will follow Ardern’s lead and recognise when it’s time for them to bow out gracefully, for the good of their country; Ardern was striking in part precisely because she was so different from the power-hungry populists leading the US and UK. But wouldn’t that be something?

In both her leadership and her resignation, Ardern has offered an alternative blueprint for how to be a politician. She’s shown that you don’t have to be ruthless or sombre; that you can project strength without trying to behave ‘like a man’. Most importantly, she’s demonstrated that you can – and should – walk away when you no longer feel up to the challenge of leading. That’s good for Ardern, and in the long term, it’s good for politics, because every nation deserves a leader who can give the job their all. But man, it’s sad to see her go.

Images: Getty 

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