The Australian papers called it a ‘coalition of losers’; for the first time since New Zealand adopted proportional representation in 1993, the party with the most seats didn’t form the government. But Jacinda Ardern’s Labour party is looking more like a ‘coalition of doers’. And its only week one.
It has been a progressive sugar rush so far.
The minimum wage will go up. Unions will have access to workplaces again. Collective bargaining will be back. There is a commission for climate change and one for people wrongfully imprisoned, plus the introduction of $1 billion for regional development and a fuel tax to build light-rail on Auckland’s congested roads. And a billion new trees will be planted.
If they carry on like this, building stuff instead of banning stuff (as Labour party member Shane Te Pou said), this could be a great Labour government.
And if the centre-right National party now in opposition, spends the next three years campaigning against higher wages and better working conditions, then Labour will be happy about that.
Post-election polling shows that the three most important issues, by far, were poverty, housing and inequality. Labour was perceived by overwhelming margins, as the best at handling all of these issues. The only issues National was perceived to be better at handling were tax and the economy, but these were not, for once, among the most salient issues voters listed when asked what influenced their vote.
While Jacinda Ardern has made global headlines for her success, Labour has more work to do than is customary for a triumphant new government. This is still a Labour party that went into the election campaign with a detailed policy on driving lessons for teenagers, but not on tax.
Three weeks before the election, Labour’s own polling put it neck and neck with National. It then lost seven points in two weeks under relentless assault over its tax intentions before giving an unequivocal pledge on tax that stemmed the outgoing tide.
Meanwhile, the policy platform that Labour is now about to implement in government is the same one that it had three months before when the party was facing oblivion. The change was Jacinda Ardern – and Labour got lucky. They were lucky that a Green Party co-leader gave a campaign speech in which she proudly admitted to benefit fraud to demonstrate how hard it is to survive on a benefit as a single mum, which caused both a surge in the Green vote at Labour’s expense that led Labour to panic and change leaders; and then caused the Green leader’s resignation.
They were lucky about the timing of that sequence of events. The Green leader’s speech could have been later. Labour was lucky to wake up to the collapse of its own vote in the nick of time, and it was lucky to change leaders on literally the last day that was possible, even after campaign billboards featuring the previous leader were already up. Labour got lucky that the Greens imploded while it was still possible to change its leader.
And most of all Labour got lucky with Jacinda Ardern’s stellar campaign performance. No-one could have predicted how flawlessly she would execute the job.
It was still not enough to make Labour the biggest party. So if Labour wants to cement its position in government it will have to change the party, not just the leader. That means being confident enough in Labour principles to take the risk that a well-designed tax switch, cutting taxes for wage earners in favour of a fair tax on capital will be popular with voters. A poll during the election campaign showed that over 50% of voters supported a capital gains tax (New Zealand is rare among OECD countries in that it doesn’t tax capital gains as income.)
Prime Minister Ardern won because she has an intuitive grasp of what troubles Kiwis, and the ability to express Kiwi values in a way that makes us proud of those values, as well as the aspiration to act on them. Labour in government has a positive nation-building agenda but in opposition it alienated supporters of that agenda too often by being a party of social engineering not social mobility. In government it needs to stick to the job of a Labour party – to make people better off, not better people.
It’s rare for the country to unite so strongly behind a determination to reduce poverty, house the homeless, and make our country more equal. This is an historic opportunity.