Progressive Centre UK Director Matthew Laza reports back from New Zealand as Jacinda Ardern enters her second year in power.
Wellington is the southernmost capital in the world and, sitting twelve thousand miles away in Europe, it would be easy to overlook what’s going on in arguably the most stunningly beautiful country on the planet. The lack of attention from UK progressives to what Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government is actually doing, as opposed to the fact of her leadership, perfectly exemplifies the dangers of Brexit Britain. Far from opening up to become ‘Global Britain’, our country is instead turning in on itself, interested only in the minutiae of treaties.
What was striking meeting with Jacinda Ardern and her team was how their relentless positivity has been central to Kiwi Labour’s rapid renaissance. As the sharpest political analyst in Wellington, Josie Pagani, described the situation before Ardern’s overnight accession to the leadership on the eve of last year’s general election: “the message from Labour was often ‘your life is miserable, New Zealand is a dreadful place and getting worse, the world is scary, don’t let it in, and by the way you’re fat – vote for us!’! It’s a message I find British Labour exudes all too often.
Ardern was thrust into the top job just seven weeks before polling day when the incumbent Andrew Little gallantly realised that his drab messaging was risking an electoral catastrophe for his party, then polling in the early 20’s and falling. The party caucus instantly crowned incumbent deputy leader Ardern as his successor. (In a healthy rejoinder to the maxim that all political careers end in failure, Little is universally regarded as doing an excellent job as justice minister in Ardern’s cabinet and is more popular than he ever was as leader. Proving the wisdom of realising that the top job isn’t always the right job.)
Labour had been out of power for almost a decade since Helen Clarke lost office in 2008. In a pattern all too familiar to British eyes, the Clarke government, like so many of those social democrats who won power in the late nineties, was credited as a good, reforming administration. But, by the end of the noughties voters felt it had run out of steam and at three successive subsequent general elections Kiwi voters backed the safety-first approach of the right of centre but ‘big-tent’ National party (think an antipodean version of Merkel’s CDU), even as the global financial crisis took its toll on working families.
So Ardern found herself – like other next generation centre-left leaders starting to come to the helm of their parties – with the ‘double-dilemma’. How to build on the achievements of a third-way government but acknowledge that the world, the economy and voters’ mood are very different from the closing years of the twentieth century? And how to counter the relentless ‘tax and spend’ attacks from a centre-right confident it had the right to govern?
The Ardern antidote hasn’t been to turn the clock back and offer either a ‘third-way lite’ proposition or a re-hashed vision of the seventies but instead to redefine a politics of hope that is quintessentially social-democratic but definitively forward looking.
The campaign, into which she was instantly thrust, crystallised that approach from the start. Under the slogan ‘Let’s Do This’, the positive messaging was relentless. The genius of that slogan is it both sweeps away any ‘fifty shades of beige’ notion of a bossy, dour Labour party and also sticks it to the right who maintain that change isn’t possible. And it worked. Its important to remember that Labour didn’t top the poll. In fact, despite adding almost a dozen points to their vote share Labour still ended up over seven points behind the Nationals. It was the openness of Ardern’s approach which saw her into the premiership. Skilfully she was able to convince the rural populist New Zealand First party, left ‘monarch makers’ in NZ’s PR system, to put Labour into power.
In the year since Ardern has become feted globally as the first prime minister ever to take maternity leave and that is clearly something worth celebrating. But a year on its vital that we progressives look at what the Ardern administration is doing in detail at home as well as the change it signifies.
Obviously, like all governments, it has had its tricky moments, but two policies really stand out as being ones we can learn from.
The one that will most directly determine Labour’s chances of re-election is the one that dominates not just the headlines but came up pretty much anytime we asked a Kiwi what they made of the government. Kiwi Build is a scheme to spend $2 billion providing 100,000 affordable houses over the lifetime of the three-year parliament. That’s a lot of homes and a lot of money in a country of just under five million people.
What’s crucial about this policy is a word that the British left seems very uncomfortable with these days: aspiration. Whilst, rightly, the government is, taking other steps to help the poorest families, this is a policy unashamedly targeting middle-class, working first time buyers locked out of a booming property market. It directly addresses the sense of economic imbalance felt by so many since the crash by saying ‘with a bit of help from the government your dream of home ownership can still become a reality’. In doing so it helps to rebuild confidence in the enabling role of the state that lies at the heart of our politics. We have to show ‘we can’ if we want voters’ permission to do.
But vital too is rethinking what success for the role of the state looks like. Which is why Ardern is determined that New Zealand becomes the first country in the world to formally measure its success against a range of social and environmental measures in an annual living standards and wellbeing index alongside the more familiar economic matrices. Not merely window dressing, the aim is that all future public spending decisions will be determined not just by impact on GDP, but also by their impact on people and planet.
It is noticeable that Ardern and finance minister Grant Robertson are determined to combine fiscal stability alongside their commitment to social justice. In conversation with our Global Progress delegation, Robertson was unapologetic that Labour had to address its Achilles heel of voter perception as a party of ‘tax and spend’. Indeed, it was a wobble over tax policy that was Labour’s most difficult moment in last year’s election campaign. So, a boost to family tax credits in his first budget was matched by cancellation of a tax cut planned by the outgoing National government. Labour is determined to ensure a new billion-dollar regional growth fund is seen not just as a price of coalition with the ‘non-Auckland’ NZ First but as a practical tool to address the imbalance between economic growth in the largest city and the rest of the country. Anyone worried about the ‘Londonisation’ of the UK economy should be watching closely. But none of this will be done at the expense of driving up debt.
New Zealand was the first country to achieve universal female suffrage, the only country that has delivered two women Labour prime ministers - in Britain we can’t even get a woman on the leadership ballot paper - and now it seems set to be an incubator for a new post-crash model of social democracy. One that doesn’t draw a false distinction between economic responsibility and economic and social radicalism.
‘Let’s Do This’ I say to my fellow British progressives, let’s start to inject some of that positivity into our policy offer by looking to the future and not just dusting down ideas from the past.
About the author
Matthew Laza is director of Progressive Centre UK. Formerly the director of Policy Network, he served as senior communications advisor to the then leader of the UK Labour Party, Ed Miliband. Previously, Matthew spent over a decade as BBC current affairs journalist. He is a regular speaker at international and domestic progressive policy debates.