The people’s princess

By Josie Pagani
4 August 2017
New ZealandNew Zealand
Weeks out from a general election, the surprise new leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, Jacinda Ardern, can't lose. For the party to win she’ll have to be a little more prepared for some people not to like her.
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Earthquakes have become dreary, and destructively common, in New Zealand these last few years. Political earthquakes: Not so much. There’s been a plodding consistency around the popular support for the conservative government.

That is until last week, when a solid electoral mudslide gathered so much speed, it culminated in a seismic event.

And suddenly everything is different.

About ten days before the change, Labour put the final touches on its election offer: boosts to benefits, low-income support and family assistance.

Then the Green party leader, Metiria Turei, launched her party’s welfare policy with a news-baiting admission: When she had been a single mother in the 90s she had lied to authorities to claim extra benefit support. She had a choice, she said between feeding her baby and paying her rent.

While the left expressed sympathy, Labour was wedged – its activists would have seen criticism as cruelty towards poverty, but many working-class Labour voters were aghast. And Labour had a relationship agreement with the Greens. They were campaigning together as a government in waiting.

The fiasco dominated news for a week while pollsters were in the field. The Greens were picking up Labour supporters concerned about poverty. The other parties were picking up Labour support because… well, benefit fraud is generally frowned upon. Labour support was collapsing – rumoured to be down to 20 % in one overnight poll, and to 23 in its own leaked assessment.

It was not certain that Labour would survive the election at all and speculation was growing that Labour could finish third. Or fourth.

Labour’s leader, Andrew Little, a trade unionist whose main political gift is his skill at hiding his political gifts, admitted in a TV interview that he had thought about quitting.  That was the final straw. Labour MPs struck with fierce speed and Little was replaced with his deputy.

Jacinda Ardern is the fifth Labour leader in nine years of opposition. Installing her as leader has almost certainly saved the New Zealand Labour Party.

She can’t really lose now.

If Labour’s eventual vote doesn’t recover much, it will hardly be the fault of a woman who has had to patch together a campaign from the most rudimentary and broken tools in only a few days.

But it probably will rise because she brings freshness, positivity and a strong Labour message. Her appealing personality has helped reposition Labour quickly away from its miserabilism and to dump its habit of bland and risk-averse promises, of task forces and inquiries.

Yet eventually there will have to be stronger substantive shifts as well.

Arriving at the dawn of their 2017 campaign after all this time in the wilderness, the best that Labour could come up with for its billboards was ‘A fresh approach’ – an excellent tag line if you were a greengrocer, wrote NZ Herald journalist Claire Trevett, but not a reason to vote Labour.

There was no critique of the National government’s New Zealand, explaining the failures of the last nine years nor setting out how a Labour government would reform the country in line with voters’ values.  No battery of policy and institutional innovation that would permanently change the country’s contours was on offer.  The delivery of public services? Our country’s place in the world? Fiscal innovation? Bringing new social and constitutional norms into reality? Tumbleweed.

There was plenty about poverty, housing, the environment – but this fell far short of a vision for a better, hopeful New Zealand that had a place for everyone. The party had too little to say to the many, a lot for the few.

Around the time pollsters were struggling to find Labour voters, a leaflet profiling four of Labour’s candidates was dispatched to members. School teacher, school teacher, school teacher, the candidate copy read.

Then this: claims that children are “starving”. Going hungry perhaps, but literally starving? Jobs were described as a “luxury” in an economy where the unemployment rate is falling below 5%. These statements were vetted and distributed by the architects of Labour’s message.  Labour stopped talking within the constraints of reality and had grown deaf to the politics of its own positioning.

The new leader has an historic opportunity to pivot out of this ideological botch.

Her first steps have been sound. She euthanised the moronic slogan and couldn’t find time in her diary for a photo opportunity with the Greens. She told reporters she would campaign not as part of a left bloc, but as Labour – it’s taken nine years to hear a Labour leader say that!

She has political capital to execute change, but already the activist left is looking to Jeremy Corbyn’s resurgence. But – in contrast to the UK – in New Zealand, voters approve of our country’s general direction by about two to one. A message built on taking a wrecking ball to the the establishment will not fly.

After the election, whatever the result, she will have to encourage a contest of ideas, and re-open the party to those who have walked away, including working-class voters who live more than an hour’s drive from the nearest Commonsense Organics store.

Harder-to-reach suburban voters, who provided massive majorities for Labour in the 2000s, will be difficult to win back. Labour’s activists will bitterly resist any outreach to this part of New Zealand.

There is a danger that taking back votes from the Greens will produce such an increase in Labour’s vote share that the party again forgets it also needs to bring voters across from the governing National party.

But we have a few hopeful weeks in which everything has changed. I imagine this is how it felt to be Canadian when Justin Trudeau suddenly up-ended politics there: this is a chance to re-set the conversation and make the election about positive, progressive change.

It really is an earthquake.

Image credit: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images