DOES THIS GOVERNMENT have the gumption to go on the offensive against its National and Act opponents? The evidence, to date, suggests not. All we have seen from Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues since National eclipsed Labour in the polls is the risible politics of “anything you can do I can do better”. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but, in electoral politics, flattering your enemies is not a winning formula.
At the core of the Government’s supine response to National’s reflexive policy kicks: tax-cuts, reduced spending, fuelling moral panics on education and youth offending, getting tough on gangs, racist dog-whistling at He Puapua and co-governance; is the Centre-Left’s besetting fear that fighting-back against the Right will cost it votes.
Teasing out this core anxiety, it soon becomes clear that the Centre-Left’s fear arises from its conviction that the overwhelming majority of the electorate is susceptible to the ideological arguments of the Right. That being the case, it only makes sense for them to inoculate themselves against the Right’s attacks by saying “Me, too!”
But, if the electorate is susceptible to the Right’s policy pitches, then it is only because it has been years since they heard the Left come to them with anything remotely resembling a passionately argued case for radical change. One would have to go all the way back to the general election of 1993: to the Alliance’s left-wing manifesto (which attracted 18.3 percent of the popular vote) to hear a political party ask for the electorate’s help in upending the status-quo.
It is difficult to understand the Left’s reticence on matters of policy. Certainly the Labour Party’s history argues strongly in favour of implementing radical change without apology and defending the gains made against all comers. After governing for 14 years, Labour had the satisfaction of losing power to a National Party which had only become electorally competitive by pledging to keep the core economic and social reforms of the First Labour Government in place.
It is possible to argue that Labour repeated that feat with Rogernomics, which, following a half-hearted attempt to rally its supporters against the Lange Government’s “more market” reforms in 1987, the National Party embraced with frightening enthusiasm in the days and weeks immediately following the 1990 general election.
To make this case, however, it is necessary to argue that Labour found it impossible to grasp the ideological and electoral implications of National’s wholesale conversion to neoliberalism. Following the Mother of All Budgets and the Employment Contracts Act, Labour’s continued adherence to the core elements of the neoliberal economic order left it stranded in exactly the same position as National between 1950 and 1984. By refusing to abandon Rogernomics, Labour began its long, slow decline into an attenuated version of its principal electoral rival. A party equally committed to maintaining the neoliberal status quo. National Lite.
All attempts by Labour’s rank-and-file membership – especially following the Alliance’s demise in 2002 – to put an end the Parliamentary Labour Party’s love affair with neoliberalism ended in failure. Unfortunately, Helen Clark’s successor, the enthusiastic Rogernome, Phil Goff, was not a remotely credible salesman for the refreshingly social-democratic programme forced upon him by the likes of Helen Kelly, Marion Hobbs and Michael Wood. Labour’s dismal Party Vote of 2011 – just 28 percent – was taken by the Labour Right as proof that stepping away from the status-quo could only end in disaster.
Undaunted, the Labour Left continued to agitate for a final repudiation of neoliberalism, even managing to elect the only mildly apostatic David Cunliffe as the Party’s leader. Outraged at this rank insubordination, a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party – spearheaded by MPs who are now senior Cabinet Ministers – made it clear that Cunliffe’s support within the Caucus was weak, vulnerable and unequal – intellectually, emotionally and politically – to the task it had set itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the 2014 general election Labour crashed to an even worse defeat – just 25 percent of the Party Vote.
The Party was now in the unenviable position of being unable to go either forward or back. With a clear majority of Labour MPs vehemently opposed to abandoning neoliberalism, and their minions in the party organisation conducting a ruthless purge of all those who had promoted and supported Cunliffe, the leadership of Andrew Little was characterised by a steady retreat from the progressive economic policy positions won between 2008 and 2014. Unsurprisingly, that retreat was matched by a relentless decline in the voting public’s enthusiasm. Had Jacinda Ardern not stepped into the breach, it is likely that Labour’s Party Vote would have continued to decline – quite possibly into the teens.
Ardern’s great achievement in the 2017 general election was to allow her own natural ebullience and rhetorical energy to generate an impression of political rejuvenation. Though she never actually said as much, “Jacinda” did not go out of her way to correct the widespread misconception that Labour had, finally, freed itself from ideological captivity. When she said “Let’s do this!”, a great many people construed her words to mean: “Let’s move beyond Rogernomics!”
Certainly, Winston Peters and NZ First understood the public’s eagerness for a break with the old order. Indeed, so caught up was he in the currents of history that the old campaigner felt moved to have a crack at capitalism itself – a rhetorical blast only half-heartedly echoed by Ardern.
But “kindness” and social-democracy, although closely related, are not identical twins. Had Covid-19 not intervened, the growing gap between the Ardern Government’s rhetoric and its performance would almost certainly have seen it thrown out in 2020. As it was, the country enthusiastically rewarded “Jacinda” for six astonishing months of political heroism. She had faced down the let-it-rippers of the corporate Right and welded the “Team of Five Million” into a remarkable political community. Only someone very special can deliver Ilam and Rangitata to the Labour Party!
But, even with an absolute parliamentary majority, a move away from neoliberalism has proved to be beyond the Parliamentary Labour Party’s imagination. The sixth Labour government’s radicalism on matters relating to ethnicity and gender has not been matched by those relating to taxation, government regulation, poverty and housing. Even on Labour no-brainers like health and education, the government cannot seem to get it right.
Always, gnawing away at its confidence and empathy, is the dictum that seriously challenging the economic and social status-quo is the surest route to electoral death. Labour’s colouring-in book, and National’s, have to be the same. All that matters is which party is better at staying inside the lines.
And so, we can only imagine a Labour Government willing and able to take the fight to Christopher Luxon and his largely talentless caucus. We can only dream of a Prime Minister with the steel to, for example, call out Luxon for inviting George Osborne to address his caucus. Saying something like this:
After all, what is Osborne famous for? (Apart from tipping the Brexit vote in favour of ‘Leave’ by threatening the electorate with economic torture if it voted the wrong way.) That’s right, he’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer who bailed-out Britain’s biggest banks and corporations and then paid for it by imposing years of bitter austerity on its working-class. Yep, he’s the one who ran down the NHS to a point where Covid-19 was able to kill hundreds-of-thousands of his fellow citizens. This is the politician Luxon would like the National caucus to learn from. What does that tell us about the sort of government he intends to run?
Multiply attacks like this a thousand times between now and election day 2023, and how much that was electorally useful would remain of the National Party and its leader? Reinforced by Labour’s unequivocal and irrevocable repudiation of its neoliberal past, and a policy platform dedicated to repairing the damage of the last 35 years, the Prime Minister and her Cabinet might be pleasantly surprised at how enthusiastically a majority of ordinary Kiwis availed themselves of the ballot box.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 10 May 2022.