Politics

The left was fucked. And then it wasn’t.

Jacinda Ardern’s elevation to Labour leader has created a wave of unfamiliar enthusiasm on the political left. Now, writes Morgan Godfery, it’s time for policies that are just as game-changing.

John Key, remember him?

The bloke people reckoned they’d like to have a beer with, even though he minced down catwalks and might tug your daughter’s ponytail; the great communicator who struggled with rhetoric and oratory, even if he could pull off banter; and the apparently conservative prime minister who presided over eight years of enormous deficit and infrastructure spending.

That last fact is something political commentators tend to accuse leftist governments of doing. “Borrow and spend,” they cry. “Tax and spend,” they moan. But under this three term National government public debt went from 5% of GDP when Labour left office to almost 25% of GDP today. Over the last nine years finance minister Steven Joyce and transport minister Simon Bridges have approved billions of dollars of investment in the communist-sounding “Roads of National Significance”.

In one way, this is the secret to the National government’s success in the polls. They’re a right wing government acting a little something like the last Labour government. The flagship welfare policies remain – Working For Families, interest-free student loans, Key even lifted benefit levels for the first time in two decades – and social policy remains liberal, if not necessarily Left. It’s an uncomfortable admission, especially if you think the government’s primary mode is “evil”, but we’re 18 years into Third Way governance.

This presents some problems for the opposition, or at the very least for their counter-narrative. After all, the Third Way – or centrism, the compromise the left made with neoliberalism – is Labour’s invention. Condemning the government often means condemning their own approach. Even as Labour attacks the government for underfunding health and education, the Budget Responsibility Rules – the policy committing both Labour and the Greens to low government spending – constrains what they can do.

In other words, we’ll do things more or less the same as National, but (somehow) with different results.

Enter Jacinda Ardern, a paradox all of her own. Few politicians have arrived with so much goodwill towards them, and few have arrived with politics as indistinct. She’s a “democratic socialist” and a former president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, but she’s also – John Key-like – a “pragmatic idealist” and “relentlessly positive,” whatever that means. Isaiah Berlin said Winston Churchill, for all his excesses and madness, was carried by his “genuine vision of life”. What’s Jacinda Ardern’s vision of life?

All right, that’s a ridiculous comparison, but one thing Ardern shares with big figures like Norman Kirk, David Lange and, yes, John Key, is she’s a natural. In politics The Natural is always understood to represent “the future of the party”, a charismatic pragmatist who the base sometimes distrusts and the elites insist is a necessary compromise with the future. The Natural’s origins are humble and her best asset is emotional intelligence, the thing making political choices seem like the mechanism for meeting human need rather than the outcome of competing social forces.

This is where Jacinda Ardern is unusual: she connects with people in a way no other Labour leader in the past 30 years has. To prove her Kiwi-ness she isn’t riding around on a motorcycle, she isn’t showing off her catch of the day, and she isn’t impersonating a pirate. She is, in other words, better placed than any previous recent Labour leader to articulate that elusive counter-narrative. So much of what passes for politics today seems to settle on cracking the right incentives or cracking the right interventions, as Andrew Dean has put it (just think of the social investment approach), but can Ardern do better?

I think so. But this is the wrong question. Yes, Ardern is left, and her first official meeting took place with the Pike River families, a powerful signal that she intends to lead very much as a “labour” leader. But the same was true of Andrew Little, a former union lawyer who spent his entire working life fighting for his class, and even David Cunliffe, the former Labour leader most comfortable denouncing “neoliberalism”. Great men and women don’t shape politics – social forces do. Ardern can only occupy the left if social movements create space for her to do so.

And here’s the disturbing thing for people on the left: the National government understands this, even if they would frame it differently. In the last nine years this government has managed and exhausted many of the forces to its left: while Michael Woodhouse outlawed zero hour contracts, he also made trade union organising harder than ever, passing laws handing employers the right to walk away from collective bargaining or deny tea breaks; while English lifted benefits levels Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley made it harder than ever to claim those benefits.

I guess we might admire how the right took the parliamentary left’s best tactic – triangulating – and perfected it. Yet instead of changing tactics and strategy the parliamentary left spent its time and energy trying to catch up, still viewing politics as a series of compromises with power. Under Little Labour released its employment policy promising “Fair Pay Agreements”, perhaps the most significant redistributive mechanism since the universal family benefit, yet his strategists and policy writers couldn’t resist signalling Labour is “safe for business” and promising to retain hated employment trial periods.

We’re entering a period in world politics when champions for neoliberalism or the third way are few and far between. Tory leader and UK prime minister Theresa May launched her election manifesto attacking “the privileged few”, denouncing “rip-off energy prices” and arguing “it’s time to remember the good that government can do”. She’s like a throwback to the comfortable social democratic conformity of the 1950s, while Corbyn – the UK Labour leader – is like a throwback to the militant activism of the 1970s, promising higher taxes and significant redistribution.

This is where your columnist is going to encourage Ardern to do a Corbyn. But not in the sense she should simply copy his policies. Instead she should channel the likes of Corbyn and reject the technocratic politics of Little’s Labour in favour of a politics that gives an account of and a solution to why, for example, young people are working longer hours, why they earn less than what baby boomers did at the same stage in their lives, and why they face a future more uncertain than at any other time in the last half century.

But she’s going to need social movements to her left to do this. I, for one, am in.

Read more: The Spinoff’s full coverage of Jacinda Ardern’s elevation to Labour leader and her first few days in the job.


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