LABOUR’S GOING TO LOSE the General Election, and everybody with a shred of objectivity left to them knows it. The government of Chris Hipkins is doomed, and it’s not just the polls that are giving us the bad news, it’s Hipkins himself. He has nothing to offer the electorate: nothing that it wants to hear; and he knows it. Political promises are useless now. There are simply too many voters convinced that, after 14 October, Labour will be in no position to honour them. Hipkins is in the same position as a country experiencing hyperinflation: no matter how many zeros get added to the notes rolling off the printing presses, the currency remains worthless.
The real question is: “Why is Labour going to lose?” At the beginning of the year the party stood at 38 percent in at least one of the major polls. Hipkins’ takeover from Jacinda Ardern had been executed flawlessly and his “bonfire of unpopular policies” had been well-received. For a few precious weeks, the electorate believed Labour was listening to them. Had Hipkins and his colleagues followed through: focussing, laser-like, on “bread and butter” issues as promised; they would now be odds-on-favourites to win the electoral race. But, they didn’t follow through, they stopped listening, and Labour’s long, slow slide into the sub-30 percent electoral “death-zone” commenced.
It is clear now that Hipkins’ really didn’t care one way or the other about the “unpopular policies” – and neither did most of his colleagues. There was no factional divide in either Cabinet or Caucus over issues like Three Waters or Free Speech: no ideological conflict with passions running high on all sides; just the polls, the focus-group findings, and the tactical opportunities they presented.
That’s why what was probably the least popular of the “unpopular policies”, Three Waters, underwent only cosmetic changes. The Māori caucus wanted it because Iwi leaders wanted it, and if they didn’t get it, they might start knocking on Te Pāti Māori’s door. No one else in the Labour caucus proper felt strongly enough about the issue to organise any kind of serious resistance. So, Hipkins allowed Three Waters to be tweaked and re-named, and hoped that the public would be satisfied with a ludicrous name change. They weren’t.
It was left to Labour’s resident policy boffins, Grant Robertson and David Parker, to come up with something to replace the “unpopular policies” theme. It had to be about tax (because tax was National’s headline policy initiative) and it had to be bold enough to get the voters thinking and talking about Labour’s radical proposals all the way to the polling booths. To give Robertson and Parker their due, the plan they came up with felt like a winner. Certainly, it would have kept the political spotlight fixed upon the Government. Parker’s investigation into who-pays-what in tax had already predisposed the public to radical change – the polls were saying so quite emphatically – so, it just might have worked.
But, if the polls were pointing to widespread public support for making the super-wealthy pay their fair share of tax, Hipkins was adamant that the focus-group reports were all pointing the other way. From the other side of the world, in Vilnius, Lithuania, the Prime Minister issued his “Captain’s Call”, voiding Robertson’s and Parker’s plan, thereby making Labour’s election defeat inevitable.
Why did he do it? Because, deep down, Hipkins is a conservative politician, with a conservative politician’s deep-seated horror of anything that threatens to upend the status quo, and a genuine conservative’s loathing for all those who presume to challenge it. Oh sure, he is a Labour Party politician, but only because he got into parliamentary politics via student politics, where a rhetorical commitment to the Left is more-or-less de rigueur.
At heart, however, “Chippy” believes in the hierarchies of expertise and competence by which New Zealand politicians are surrounded from the moment they enter Parliament. It matters not at all whether they enter the circles of power as political advisers, Members of Parliament, or, in the cases of Hipkins’, Robertson and Ardern, a good measure of both: the idea that all great political ideas come from below, from the people, is dismissed out-of-hand as antiquated nonsense. Those who believe otherwise do not fare well in the NZ Labour Party of the Twenty-First Century.
The great irony, of course, is that if the Labour Party had somehow remained a mass party, made of, by, and for the New Zealand working-class, then Labour’s present difficulties would never have developed. A party permitted – nay, encouraged! – to engage in robust policy debates would have equipped its parliamentary representatives with a set of policies which enjoyed the democratic imprimatur of a political movement boasting powerful and organic attachments (through trade unions and community groups) with something very close to a majority of the voting public. A party of that sort would require a lot of convincing to take on board policies that struck its members as peculiar, offensive, unfair, unscientific and/or at odds with plain, old-fashioned, human decency.
Such a party is, of course, an impossibility in a society dominated by neoliberal ideology. Such a society cannot countenance any serious political movement that is not dedicated to preserving the interests of the ruling elites, or run by anyone other than their enablers in the professional and managerial class. What Chris Hipkins (and Jacinda Ardern) have shown us is that remaining in office is, ultimately, much less important than ensuring that no policies are contemplated – let alone enacted – which might undermine the neoliberal order.
Unpopular policies, especially those that encourage social division, are nothing for neoliberals to worry about. It is the policy capable of attracting two-thirds or more of the electorate’s support, the policy holding out the promise of actually challenging and changing the neoliberal status quo, that must be resisted – at any cost. A policy calling for the introduction of a Wealth Tax, for example.
The next time you see Chippy on the news, take a look at his eyes. There you will see the sadness and resignation of a man who not only knows that he cannot, but also that he must not, win. Labour is going to lose the election, not because it wants to, but because it has to – before it remembers who it was created to serve.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 25 August 2023.