Labour’s win in New Zealand – could it happen here?

By Mike Phipps

The New Zealand Labour Party’s landslide general election win last weekend is a stunning victory for the Party and a personal triumph for its leader Jacinda Ardern. With 64 MPs elected, out of 120, this is the first time that a single party majority government has been elected since a proportional voting system was adopted in 1996.

One analyst commented: “With a record 1.9 million people casting an early vote, this was always going to be an election with a difference. Younger voters also enrolled in historic numbers, with a significant increase in those aged 18 to 29 enrolling across the country.”

Another said: “This election is tectonic…. [Labour] has won in the towns and in the country. It won the party vote in virtually every single electorate. Labour candidates, many of them women (look for a large influx of new women MPs), have won seats long held by [the] National [Party].”

On one level, the landslide win was a vindication of how Ardern’s government has dealt with coronavirus.  New Zealand has avoided a lot of the outsourcing that has characterised more incompetent responses – as in the UK – and its strict measures and clear messaging have meant fatalities have been minimised. Only 25 people have died of the virus so far.

Ardern also benefited from the international praise she received in response to the shootings last year at Christchurch mosque. Within a month of the attack in which a single gunman killed 51 people, her government pushed a law through the New Zealand parliament that banned most semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles.

Labour’s stunning result might also have been helped by the fact that New Zealand has no Murdoch-owned newspapers. In fact, Ardern ran a centrist campaign, based on a limited manifesto. It committed to just 480 million NZ dollars of spending commitments, in sharp contrast with the £83 bn projected in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto.

Ardern became prime minister three years ago, committed to halving child poverty in New Zealand within a decade. In July 2018, she announced the start of her government’s flagship Families Package, which gradually increased paid parental leave to 26 weeks and paid $60-a-week to low income families with young children. Other progressive measures included steady increases to the country’s minimum wage, more investment in health and education and increased welfare.

Ardern has described capitalism as “a blatant failure”. Some of her ideas on civil liberties and criminal justice reform are genuinely progressive. And the Green Party’s involvement in government has also made environmentalism a central feature of policy.

Ardern’s government’s commitment to reforming workplace relations, called Fair Pay Agreements (FPAs), is also positive. These allow workers and unions to negotiate minimum standards across whole industries and are likely to boost union membership.

But critics highlight significant weaknesses in Ardern’s approach. “The introduction of FPAs was first delayed and subsequently referred back to the Business Ministry for further consultation. On welfare, the government convened a working group including veteran anti-poverty campaigners. This was long overdue: in recent years, poverty rates have skyrocketed… Yet the working group’s report was mothballed and almost all of its recommendations ignored.”

Benefits have risen, but by a tiny percentage. Affordable housing is being built – at a snail’s pace. But while the government may be cautious with its reforms, there have been significant mobilisations by trade unions, environmentalists and the Māori sovereignty movement, which have achieved important victories.

Jacobin reports: “Little progress was made on health funding until nurses took strike action in 2018, for the first time in decades. They achieved immediate concessions… In 2019, both primary and secondary schoolteachers took action, winning better wages and reduced workloads. Bus drivers went on strike in Wellington, Hamilton, Dunedin, and Auckland. Their combined pressure compelled Labour to introduce a national living wage for all bus drivers. The strike wave has since grown…  In fact, since Ardern’s 2017 election, more than a quarter of union members have been involved in some form of industrial action.”

It’s noteworthy that Labour was re-elected by a bigger margin in these conditions. In other words, the strike wave did not act as an obstacle to Labour’s win – it may even have fuelled it.

What lessons emerge from this shining victory for UK Labour? I see three. Firstly, progressive ideas are important and if accompanied by popular mobilisation and assured governance, they can win over people who may not be natural supporters. Second, competence matters – but there is a world of difference between some of the Labour front bench’s attempts to look like a “government-in-waiting”, as shadow security minister Conor McGinn claimed to be doing when the Party recently abstained on the spy cops bill, and real competence, where a government risks major unpopularity, as Ardern’s did, by taking a tough lockdown approach to COVID-19, but does so, knowing that it is the right thing to do.

And thirdly, to be successful, Labour here must dominate every area of policy with its core values of inclusivity and social solidarity. This is what came through in Ardern’s response to the Christchurch massacre – real empathy with the victims, backed up with firm action that took on vested interests.

Labour here could be scoring in all these areas – it has done it before. But for that, it needs to stop playing catch-up with the Tories, set its own agenda and pursue it with real self-belief.

Image: Jacinda Ardern. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ulyssebellier/36148498753/in/photostream/. Author: Ulysse Bellier,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.