“I’m pregnant, not incapacitated,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded when someone asked her how she would cope.
Exhausted working mums across New Zealand cheered, then returned to their family dinner of cereal. Not only can little girls dream of becoming prime minister, their exhausted pregnant mums can dream it too.
When the New Zealand Labour party introduced an internal gender quota in 2013 (50% of MPs in the caucus to be women by 2017) it was a solution to a problem many voters didn’t know we had after nine years of a Helen Clark-led government. When voters did rally around gender issues, it was to show passionate support for retirement home worker Kristine Bartlett, who went to court to win pay equity for a sector dominated by women and the minimum wage.
The quota was a response to a pattern of female candidates not being selected in safe Labour seats. The boys were hanging on to that privilege, often with the help of union block votes. But what kept women out of politics wasn’t the lack of a caucus quota. It was the incompatibility of family life with anti-family political culture.
If you coach the kids’ rugby team, volunteer as parent-help at school camp, or rush home after work for dinner and bath time, you have less influence with party apparatchiks. Forcing mothers to choose between attending evening and weekend party meetings or make their kids’ sports match has kept many women out of politics in their prime years.
That pressure is multiplied by a cultural perception that you can’t be a good mother and a good politician at the same time.
However the prime minister and her partner, Clark Gayford, have shown that you can have the top job and a baby at the same time without having to play palace politics. It will be tough for them but “I’m not the first woman to multitask,” Jacinda acknowledged. She also recognised that she will have access to more resources and support than many working mums, including a partner who can stay at home to look after baby.
She also has an experienced deputy to cover for her. Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters will step up when she takes six weeks off in June for the birth. No one expects a disturbance in the government’s programme. Peters is a safe pair of hands, although his three previous periods in government have not ended in unity: he’s been fired, resigned or walked off on the job. His party has blown apart then reformed; been out of parliament completely then back in. He’s held every top post, from foreign affairs to treasurer, and now he’ll get to retire having served as acting prime minister.
It will work fine because the parties overlap on big issues. Both Labour and its populist New Zealand First coalition partner shared nationalist rhetoric in opposition, and support limits on immigration and foreign ownership. Both believe in government intervention in the market on behalf of the many not the few, oppose low-wage policies and support infrastructure investment in left-behind regions. Peters talks about the human face of capitalism: “far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe,” he said on the day he became deputy prime minister.
Fault lines could emerge, though. New Zealand First is a socially conservative party. It pillories identity signalling and loathes environmental gestures on the basis that they undermine business. But, in a country where most liberalising social reforms have already been implemented, the driving instinct of this government is the core Labour mission to represent working people and redistribute wealth.
As a progressive Labour moderate, I think we must learn lessons from the popularity of this position. It represents a resistance to the forces that have battered progressive politics around the developed world in recent years. Leftwing parties have failed to make an adequate argument for redistribution or to defend social equality and solidarity. Centrist parties stopped championing the welfare state when they embraced third way politics and a policy equivalent of ‘fifty shades of beige’. How confusing it must be for them today to see rightwing nationalist parties like Marine Le Pen’s National Front fight to keep state-funded welfare against Macron’s ‘neo-liberal’ labour-law reforms.
The left has been asking people to vote for a state that intervenes on their behalf, without presenting an adequate case for why they should do so. Third way politicians failed to reinvent the welfare state in response to the ideological hegemony of the right in the years since Thatcher and Regan, while our valid defence of liberal institutions has ironically aligned us with the establishment.
Meanwhile, new progressive thinking about identity and environmentalism has often been associated – fairly or not – with culture wars. As parts of the working class have fought back against what they see as an assault on their way of life, the left has been caught on the side of the establishment, supporting cuts to welfare and cultural and economic change that stands against our traditional support base.
The Labour-New Zealand First government has positioned itself on the right side of this public mood. Although it helps that populism passed its peak in support in the 1990s, the revolutionary idea of a prime minister having a baby helps to capture the public imagination. It expresses the benefits of a supportive working class culture in the most positive way possible. It shows that social change can be joyous and is within reach for everyone. Voters are going to be on the same side, which makes Jacinda’s pregnancy – and this coalition – good politics as well as progressive.