WHAT ARE YOUR OPTIONS when half the country has just voted for you? How should you respond to such a resounding vote of confidence? Jacinda Ardern has undoubtedly been giving this question considerable thought for several weeks. I say “weeks” because her party’s pollsters and their focus-group moderators have been making it clear to her for months that a Labour win of historic proportions was on the cards. From the tone and content of her gracious Saturday night victory speech, it soon became clear that, from the options on offer, Jacinda had already made her choice. She would lead a government “for all New Zealanders”.
It’s a promise that works as well for those on the bottom of the socio-economic heap as it does for those at the top. Indeed, it will be interpreted by both groups as applying particularly to themselves. For beneficiaries, the unemployed, and the working poor struggling to pay the rent; Jacinda’s words will be taken to mean that their needs will not be forgotten. For the rich and the very-rich, the Prime Minister’s speech brings reassurance that their wealth is safe. For the rest of us, it just sounds right: what sort of Prime Minister would set out to govern only for her supporters?
Part of the reason for Labour’s landslide win on Saturday is just how easy National Party leader Judith Collins and her colleagues made that question to answer. Throughout the campaign, it was made abundantly clear that National’s policies were intended to advantage its friends, allies and supporters – and virtually no one else. Time and again, when questioned about the huge disparity between the tax relief being offered to those in full-time employment on generous salaries, and those working two or three minimum-wage jobs, National’s finance spokesperson, Paul Goldsmith, talked of hard-working Kiwis on the average wage – as if everyone else were shiftless wastrels who deserved nothing better.
It’s precisely this dog-eat-dog attitude that New Zealand turned its face from in this election. If Covid taught New Zealanders anything, it’s that selfishness is a potentially deadly affliction. We learned how dangerous those who insist that “protecting the economy” be accorded the highest priority – ahead of the lives of elderly and vulnerable New Zealanders – truly are. We also learned the virtues of collectivism: rediscovering the simple truth that the well-being of each of us, and the well-being of all of us, are goals that can only be achieved by working together. It was her steadfastness in advancing this simple proposition that made Jacinda unbeatable.
That is not a rhetorical flourish. From the moment New Zealand went into Level 4 Lockdown, National found itself shut out of the election conversation. Individuals close to the party report campaign operatives telling them that the voters were screening their calls. Focus-group moderators quizzed their subjects relentlessly, desperate to find the words and phrases that would trigger former National voters into answering their phones. But, it was no good, nobody wanted to talk to politicians who thought it was a good idea to criticise, nit-pick, or in any other way undermine the nation’s determination to “stamp out the virus”.
National’s desperation was etched for all to see on the increasingly distraught features of Judith Collins. It was reinforced by her frenetic visits to the party’s rural and provincial heartland. It was as if any thought of reaching out beyond National’s electoral base no longer made any sense. It had become, in the metaphor so beloved by political journalists, a simple matter of “saving the furniture”.
Except, it didn’t work. In every South Island electorate the Party Vote was won by Labour. Rangitata fell. East Coast fell. Wairarapa fell. New Plymouth and Wanganui fell. Unbelievably, Ilam – Gerry Brownlee’s leafy Christchurch redoubt, the bluest of National’s blue-ribbon seats – fell. The furniture was burning.
Labour has ceased to frighten National voters. The class enemy turns out to have a kind heart, a toothy smile, and a special knack with ginger-cake. Their own leader, sadly, looks more and more like a fruitcake.
Mickey Savage performed the same trick back in the 1930s. My father liked to tell a story from his childhood about the old dairy farmer he often helped-out after school. The 1938 general election was fast approaching, and politics was on everybody’s lips. One evening, the hard-scrabble cow-cocky, perhaps aware that Dad’s father, the local GP, was a firm ally of the Labour Government, observed: “Well, Tony, it looks as though we’re going to have the socialists again!” As my father told the tale, the farmer did not say this with bitterness, but with a wink and a smile. A few days later, Labour romped back to power with 55.8 percent of the popular vote.
There are those on the Left who fear that Jacinda’s attachment to the centre will prevent her from doing what so urgently needs to be done in housing, welfare, child poverty, industrial relations and climate change. They argue that the only people she and her government will respond to are the owners of businesses large and small. My own feeling is, that Jacinda will do as much as we compel her to do. As much as – now that she need ask no other party’s permission – the mood of the electorate urges her to do. And, given how incredibly skilled she has become at creating a mood, that could be quite a lot.
When confronted by urgent and indisputable need, Jacinda and Grant Robertson were willing to spend scores of billions of Reserve Bank-created dollars to keep the lights on. The Prime Minister is not afraid of breaking the rules of neoliberalism if that is what the situation clearly requires – and what the voters are urging her to do in numbers too great to be ignored. Far too many on the Left are unwilling to acknowledge that the only kind of socialism that endures is democratic-socialism. Or as Jacinda puts it: “Change that sticks.”
We must not be frightened of the Prime Minister’s pledge to govern for all New Zealanders. It is not a formula for centrist betrayal. It is just another way of saying that she will continue to look after “The Team of Five Million”? And hasn’t Jacinda already shown us how well she can do that?
Isn’t that why she won?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 October 2020.