It’s the leader, stupid

By Josie Pagani
8 September 2017
New Zealand New Zealand
New Zealand Labour has conjured a jaw-dropping surge from nowhere to the brink of government
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It turns out I was wrong.

Since Labour lost office in 2008 I’ve been arguing it needed to change to win back support. Changing the leader would not be enough – it also needed to update policy and it shouldn’t just wait for the pendulum to swing back.

But it looks as though choosing the right leader really was all they had to do.

Jacinda Ardern has brought New Zealand Labour to the brink of government.

Labour hadn’t been ahead in any public poll since early 2007. A month ago it was at 24 per cent and sinking. The Greens surged at Labour’s expense. Panicked, the Labour party set out to save the furniture, and its parliamentary caucus swiftly replaced the hapless Andrew Little with Jacinda Ardern. Something they could do, only because it was merely months out from an election with no need under the party constitution to involve rank and file members in the vote for a new leader.

Now it looks like they might win the election.

On the evening of the first televised leader’s debate, Labour surged to the top of the polls for the first time in a decade; 43 per cent to 41 per cent for the conservative National government.

Jacinda, as everyone seems to be calling her, is now the most preferred prime minister.

She has become a superstar overnight, mobbed in public walkabouts, gushed over by commentators and armies of fans.

Here’s the setting: by about a 2-1 margin New Zealanders believe the country is heading in the right direction. They approve of the job the government’s doing, and prime minister Bill English has solid net favourable ratings. He’s a reasonable and pragmatic politician in the Christian Democrat tradition of Angela Merkel – with less interest in austerity.

Until now a desire for change after nine years of National government hasn’t been a problem for the incumbents, because voters didn’t think Labour was ready for government.

Jacinda Ardern has changed that. She hasn’t put a foot wrong since she became Opposition leader.

As the Green party imploded she carefully but firmly distanced Labour. Green voters swung behind her and Labour no longer looked like part of a ragged left bloc.

As soon as Labour broke free of perceptions that it was beholden to smaller parties, it gave comfort to more moderate voters to jump aboard too.

Her Obama-grade high-wattage smile has propelled her positive campaign, and she put a firm end to attempts to bring the government down by personal attacks and scandal mongering.

She rejected the urban miserabalism of the far left that sees a crisis around every corner and New Zealand going to hell in a hand basket.

Australia’s clumsy foreign minister helped.

Long story – but it turns out you can’t be a member of the Australian parliament if your dad was born in New Zealand before 1948 (or indeed if by any other means you hold dual citizenship). Unusually for an Australian, the deputy prime minister there, Barnaby Joyce, knows who his father is. He was born in Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island. With a nod to Aussie’s usual sheep based jibes at Kiwis, they’re calling him ‘Baaa-rnaby’ now in Canberra. He might be kicked out of parliament. His undoing was the work of an Australian Labour party staffer who used to work for New Zealand Labour and asked a Labour MP here to look into the citizenship question.

A diplomatic blaze broke out. Julia Bishop, the conservative Australian foreign minister, said she wouldn’t be able to trust a New Zealand Labour government. Not the worst thing an Australian has ever said about New Zealand.

Jacinda Ardern was able to gently chide her own team, showing she puts country ahead of party, stress her commitment to the relationship with our Aussie maaates, and win foreign policy prime minister-in-waiting credit.

And thanks to all the critics: a TV host who asked how she could be prime minister when she might take time off to have babies; the multi-millionaire leader of a small vanity party who described her/Labour as ‘lipstick on a pig’; the host of the TV debate who asked her what she would be wearing (Jacinda shot back: “Will you ask the prime minister the same question?”) The backlash among women has lifted Jacinda ever higher.

The uncertainties of proportional representation make this election too close to call. The Greens might make it back to parliament and there could be a Labour-Green government. Or they might be wiped out, and National could govern on its own.

But to understand Labour’s stunning turnabout in fortunes we should study closely the trilogy of messages UK Labour ran in 1997: the future not the past, leadership not drift, and the many not the few.

In New Zealand today, the government is asking for support on the basis of its management in office. Its strategy focuses on the past, while the fresh, charismatic 37-year-old Labour leader looks like the future.

The government is drifting, unable to outline a vision for the country while Labour has campaigned on the slogan ‘Let’s Do This’, harnessing a sense of purpose and momentum.

And where, not long ago, Labour was aligned in voters’ minds with sectional interests (identity politics, welfare beneficiaries over workers, the ‘university common room’ over the ‘smoko room’) it has now put the government on the side of the few. It has campaigned against a house price bubble that has made home ownership unaffordable for the many, on the costs of tertiary education that have confronted students with debt, and on whether a few companies should get all the benefit from commercial sales of our pure water for themselves.

The policy menu is a bit sketchy. If Labour fails to win from here it will be because it has failed to do enough policy work in the last nine years to have a credible tax plan today.

But if it wins, it will show you don’t need that grunt after all. Then the challenge is not just to be in government, but to be a good Labour government.

Image credit: Matthew Shugart