What’s the Point of Jacinda Ardern?

by Huw Morgan

24 September 2020

Jacinda Ardern smiling at a microphone
Nevada Halbert / Flickr

If the polls are to be believed, Jacinda Ardern is headed towards a massive victory at October’s general election, and set to govern alone for the first time since proportional representation was introduced in the country in 1996. But what will Ardern and the NZ Labour Party do with all that power? Most likely, very little.

NZ Labour should never have won in 2017. Following a series of awful polls, Ardern’s predecessor Andrew Little resigned just seven weeks before election day, leaving Ardern the top job. Yet somehow, Ardern’s “relentlessly positive” election campaign, with its iconic slogan “Let’s Do This”, won Labour 36% of the vote.

The mixed-member parliament (MMP) system forced Labour into an awkward coalition with NZ First. The rural populist party – whose decision to hire the so-called “Bad Boys of Brexit” Andy Wigmore and Arron Banks to support their upcoming election campaign tells you all you need to know about their politics – opted against entering a coalition with the right-wing National party, who’d won a 44% vote share, in favour of moderating Labour’s left-wing excesses.

Ardern has since seen the country through three crises: the Christchurch mosque attack, the Whakaari volcano eruption, and now Covid-19. She is currently New Zealand’s most popular politician in living memory.

After her unexpected victory in 2017, Ardern promised a “transformational government”. Her first term, however, has been disappointing. It’s a running joke that the party rejects most of the recommendations its working groups forward. From tax to water, structural changes have been ignored in favour of marginal tweaks: making 90% of rivers and lakes swimmable again by cleaning up river pollution, for example, rather than tackling the intensive dairy farming which is the source of the problem. A proposed capital gains tax was not only dropped, but ruled out entirely, whilst flagship projects – building 100,000 homes, a light rail network in Auckland – have stalled. 

In a 2018 address to the Maori community, Ardern said: “When we return in one year…I ask you to ask us what we have done for you. Hold us to account.” On the defining land dispute of this generation, though, she has done little. Ihumātao is an area in South Auckland with great cultural and spiritual value to local Maori as it was among their original settlements in the 1500s. For four years, the land has been occupied by Maori activists demanding the government reopen negotiations with the whole community on its future use. Ardern has refused to visit in person, and the land remains flagged for construction by Fletchers, the current landowner and the country’s biggest property developer.

Polls are uniquely accurate in Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand), and though Labour’s 60.9% came during an extraordinary six-week period during which the opposition National party found itself without a leader not once but twice, they’ve been consistently polling above 50%. Governing alone, without NZ First as a “handbrake”, would give Ardern the freedom to transform the country. Except her programme is becoming ever less transformative.

Ardern’s most substantive policy pledge for the upcoming election is a new top income tax bracket of 39%. Applying to those earning over $180,000 (£92,000), it is forecast to raise just $500m (£257m) a year; the party has ruled out any other tax increases. Other commitments are hopelessly incremental: a $1.10 increase in the minimum hourly wage; a promise that 100% of the country’s electricity production will be renewable by 2030, when 86% of it already is.

Ardern’s strategy is horribly familiar to Labour party members the world over. Political scientist Frances Fox Piven calls it “spitting in the wind”, a form of triangulation irreconcilable with radical change. In January, for example, Ardern announced a $7bn (£3.61bn) investment in new bike and bus networks. Yet to preemptively neutralise conservative attacks, the infrastructure package retained the National party’s environment-trashing road-building projects. Then in July, finance minister Grant Robertson announced a coronavirus stimulus of $20bn (£10.3bn), or 4% of GDP, in part as a way of inducing the opposition to offer their own spending commitments. Several weeks later, Robertson withdrew $14bn (£7.2bn) of the stimulus, leaving the National party looking fiscally imprudent. As political jiu-jitsu, it was a masterstroke. It was also Labour passing up on era-defining investment.

What is so frustrating for those of us on the left is that Ardern has the support and charisma to make good on her promise of “transformational government” – she just won’t. Conservatism is embedding itself in Labour, despite progressive policies enjoying significant popular support.

The reason for this calcification is that Ardern’s theory of change relies on winning over those whose votes swing depending on the candidate’s personality or their own narrowly-conceived self-interest. This theory fails because it abandons the solidarity and movement-building necessary to shift the Overton window leftward, meaning that once an election is won, actual change is impossible, having been ruled out to appease floating voters. This would be fine, had this strategy – championed by Clinton and Blair, and adopted by a new generation of Trudeaus and Arderns – not sent us hurtling towards climate catastrophe. 

Ardern’s inspirational leadership and warm authenticity mask what is really neoliberalism incarnate, one takes personal responsibility for child poverty while charging poverty-stricken families for emergency housing. Absent a theory of change, we’re left with focus-grouped policies that feign progress while leaving the status quo untouched.

If Ardern does win by the 15-20% margin she’s projected to, it will be the crowning glory of the Third Way: a nominally left-wing party with a young, universally beloved woman leader would be governing with a hefty majority. But what will all the triangulation be for, if the landslide it produces isn’t followed by a massive, downward transfer of power?

Huw Morgan is a New Zealand–based socialist and writer. He runs the Instagram account Strategies from Below.

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