Despite a popular and unifying leader of the governing party, divisions both in policy and culture will test the progressive movement, writes Peter McKenzie.
‘I think we’re confused.” Marlon Drake is an organiser for the Living Wage Movement. His job takes him all over Wellington, trying to convince businesses to increase their minimum wages to $22.10. He works with churches, unions, political parties and charities; every facet of the progressive movement.
And right now, according to Drake, “The progressive movement is very confused about what it is, what its purpose it is, what it looks like, how it operates, who leads it – which person or what people.”
That may come as a surprise after an election in which an avowedly progressive party – Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party – won an unprecedented majority. But the progressive movement, of course, extends beyond parliamentary politics, with links across sectors and across borders. A glance at two of the countries we most often compare ourselves to, the United States and the United Kingdom, reveals profound strain and division.
In the United States, frustration with the failures of Barack Obama and angst over the election of Donald Trump radicalised many on the centre-left. Enormous protests broke out, like the Women’s March in 2017 and those over George Floyd’s death in 2020. Younger, more diverse, more revolutionary voices became more popular. The 2020 Democratic presidential primary was divided between supporters of progressive candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and those of long-time centrists like former Vice President Joe Biden. Progressives dragged Biden left; according to one commentator, “Biden won the primary handily by convincingly slapping a moderate label on a policy agenda that is nonetheless far bolder than the one pursued by Barack Obama or proposed by Hillary Clinton in 2016.” But after a closer than expected election and destabilising transition, those on the American left have plunged back into a vicious fight over their future.
In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party’s surprise victory in the 2015 election prompted recriminations in the Labour Party. A surge in left-wing grassroots enthusiasm pushed Jeremy Corbyn, a hard-line democratic socialist, into the Labour leadership. But Labour and the wider progressive movement was deeply divided by the issues of Brexit, anti-Semitism and whether to pursue radical or incremental change. After two unsuccessful elections and ongoing internal rebellion, Corbyn was replaced by Keir Starmer, a less radical figure.
In Aotearoa, Ardern’s impact is massive. But a popular and respected leader alone cannot dissolve all divisions. According to Tamatha Paul, a left-leaning independent councillor in Wellington, having a leader like Ardern “makes a huge portion of the population complacent about things that just aren’t good enough”.
In the United States and United Kingdom the internal strife wracking the progressive movement centres in large part around two areas of clash: policy and culture. The activists and thinkers I spoke to agreed on the likely terrain for policy clashes in New Zealand: the progressive movement will be driven by concerns over housing and land ownership, with a secondary focus on climate change.
The focus on housing is born of the remarkable and prolonged growth in house prices; in New Zealand’s largest urban centres, year-on-year growth between 2019 and 2020 ranged between 9.1% in Auckland to 15.4% in Wellington. Top economists at the Treasury have forecast that house prices will continue to grow for the next five years at least, possibly by as much as double the rate of wage growth. According to Kathy Errington, director of the Helen Clark Foundation, “Housing is becoming an existential risk for many New Zealand families… We’re going to have to try something new, because at the moment it feels like a bubble to me. Because of Covid, incomes are flat and falling but prices have shot up. So all of that increased value is debt. New Zealanders aren’t getting richer, we’re just paying each other more and more to buy houses off of eachother. So in that five-year framing, what happens with housing? I know so many people my age struggling. I rent, I don’t own, and I have a good job. The ramifications of that are really big.”
Isabella Lenihan-Ikin, former president of the New Zealand Union of Students Associations, agreed. “The biggest issue Ardern will face in the next five years, and which will really shape the progressive movement, is housing. Although I would love to say it would be climate change, I think we’re getting to a position post-Covid where housing is just the defining issue of the early part of this century. [That’s] because middle-class Pākehā people, for the first time, are being forced out of home-ownership… it’s becoming an issue of the middle class and therefore is something that is really shaping the political dealings.” The housing crisis will also have a particularly severe impact on young people, low-wage earners, Māori and Pasifika: key demographics for the progressive movement.
What are the likely progressive responses? First, there will be increasing pressure to aggressively reform New Zealand’s tax settings. Lenihan-Ikin observed that, “Ardern has ruled out a policy which would define her as a progressive leader – a capital gains tax – and is therefore very committed to dealing with the supply side of the issue, which is important. But we also have to deal with the fact that people are buying up houses at crazy rates because it’s such an insane way to make money in New Zealand. It’s hard to see how the issue can be fixed when one of the really important puzzle pieces has been ruled out.” Second, the land ownership model that progressives prioritise may shift away from the traditional ownership of a quarter-acre block. “What I think will happen is that the next generation of the progressive movement, and in particular young people, are not looking at [housing] in the same way,” said Lenihan-Ikin. “We want security in terms of not paying off someone else’s mortgage. We want to be able to live in a house which we could potentially call our own. But we don’t necessarily see land as the way to do that. Owning apartments and living in high-density housing is something I think our generation is much more willing to consider.”
Climate change will also be an important part of the progressive agenda. The consequences of climate change have already begun to bite and will become increasingly severe in coming years. Partway through last year the government released its first National Climate Change Risk Assessment. It makes clear that New Zealand will face a number of urgent climate-related risks over the short-term, including scarcer and worse drinking water supplies, increasingly common natural disasters causing injury and property damage and lost productivity and financial instability from climate disruption. These tangible consequences will likely energise progressives’ existing concerns about the climate crisis. The climate crisis will also be an essential part of the wider political landscape as political parties begin to grapple with the implications of a series of progressively more ambitious “carbon budgets” recommended by the newly-created Climate Change Commission, the first of which is set to be released in early 2021.
More controversial than progressives’ policy focuses, however, will be the second area of clash: culture. Drake observed that, “One of my favourite sayings is culture eats policy for breakfast. Culture is generated within communities on the ground, and it drives what policy is created.”
The largest element of this cultural tussle may be a choice between pursuing a more collective approach to politics, or a doubling down on the focus on “heroic” individuals like Jacinda Ardern that has characterised the progressive movement over the past three years. According to Errington, of the Helen Clark Foundation, “The first thing is that I don’t know if Jacinda Ardern will ever become unpopular. She may remain popular throughout her term… we live in this really uncertain world where people aren’t sure what’s true any more, where strong leaders and people you feel can guide you through gain a lot of power.”
Errington attributes this to the modern media landscape, “where you have this cacophony of voices on social media, you have so-called mainstream media which a lot of people don’t trust… since you have so much noise, with so much information on social media, people don’t know who to trust, so developing trust in an individual is a really good strategy for political parties.”
Drake believes that the progressive movement’s focus on Ardern is symptomatic of a larger culture of individualism within white progressive spaces. “Currently there’s a real sense of competition. That comes from a lot of individualism. This is in the Pākehā spaces – I can’t speak for what’s happening in different Māori activism spaces. But there’s certainly an adversarial element to it all. That comes from a sense of individualism, which is stuck from our neoliberal culture. That’s a big problem.”
Alternatives to this individualized progressive culture do exist – most notably in the approach of the Save Our Unique Landcape movement (and Māori progressivism more broadly). Although Pania Newton emerged as a key spokesperson for SOUL’s effort to preserve Ihumātao, its success depended on a collective effort, both online and on the ground. As Qiane Matata-Sipu explained to The Spinoff in 2020, “This campaign would not have got to where it did without the unwavering support of both whānau and non-whānau who dedicated years to this kaupapa. It was never just standing with signs on the side of the road, rather our approach was: how many groups can we speak to? How many politicians can we connect with? How many events can we hold to get people to connect to the whenua?”
The presence of these alternative collective models could allow the wider progressive movement to shift away from its current focus on individuals, however it remains unclear whether there is enough energy within the movement for it to do so.
Another cultural dilemma progressivism may grapple with in coming years is whether to pursue incremental or radical change. According to Drake, “In the progressive movement, there’s two views. One is ‘do this right now or you’re the worst’. The other is ‘do this over a period of time, we forgive you’.” Ardern has positioned herself on the incremental side of that debate: she has said that “for me, transformation is change that sticks… that means you might move at a pace that might be slightly slower, you might spend a bit more time trying to get more people on board and in agreement, but if that means it lasts, it’s more likely to be transformational.
It’s an approach other progressives are wrestling with. As Paul observed, “Sometimes I question whether going in really radical, doing what needs to be done, is more vulnerable to being taken away shortly after, and whether [Ardern’s incremental] approach will shift the Overton Window and lead to long-lasting change. But I also think it’s really dangerous. It’s like that analogy of the frog in slowly boiling water, which stays until it’s cooked – I dunno if it’s the best thing. It’s definitely not going to work on the right time-frames in relation to climate change, but also in relation to people taking their lives and experiencing these deep-rooted social issues.”
The result of this dilemma will largely depend on how much Ardern achieves over her time in office. If she addresses enough progressive concerns while still maintaining her incremental approach, it may establish hers as the dominant model of progressive change. If not, demands for radical urgency will grow.
Perhaps the most significant cultural divide the wider progressive movement faces, however, is its willingness to distribute political power directly to Māori. Failures to support and be accountable to Māori (for example, the scandal over Oranga Tamariki’s child uplifts) have strengthened arguments in favour of “for Māori, by Māori” solutions, which require the loosening of control by the Crown.
According to Paul, progressives’ support for such decentralisation is largely driven by their own ethnicity. “There’s factions within the New Zealand progressive movement. There’s the older and whiter parts of progressivism, who are more focused on climate change and biodiversity. That goes for the younger and whiter parts as well. Then there’s the indigenous activists who are doing their own kind of stuff.”
Dr David Hall, an academic at Auckland University of Technology, agreed that it’s a particularly difficult challenge for white progressives. “Co-governance is still a deeply challenging reality for Pākehā … because it means relinquishing the power to implement one’s own projects in one’s own way. This is hard for progressives, maybe even uniquely hard, because progressive projects feel like they have a special moral force which ought to take precedence over everything else. But given that inequality in Aotearoa can only ever be solved by acknowledging and addressing the special disadvantages faced by Māori, and also creating space and capacity for distinctively Māori remedies, there is no way to achieve progressive goals that doesn’t involve some surrender of power.” Whether or not the progressive movement’s willingness to distribute power to Māori grows likely depends on whether the Crown continues to fail to address the significant, and increasing, disparities between Pākehā and Māori.
Setting out these cultural dilemmas helps explain why the progressive movement, in all its diversity, is currently so confused. The way they are resolved will have enormous impacts on the shape of our political landscape and the nature of our political debate in the years to come. But ultimately, determining the likely resolution of those tussles is a matter of educated guesswork. It will depend on the performance of Ardern and the parliamentary progressive parties, on the behaviour of conservatives in and out of power, on the success of progressive activists and grassroots organisations and on who joins the progressive movement in years to come. As Errington noted, “What happens next… when Ardern eventually goes will be a huge question and an unwritten book at this point. Will it be in an orderly fashion? What will happen? Who knows.”