On August 1st, 2017, the Labour Party leader, Andrew Little, resigned in favour of Jacinda Ardern. The leadership change came as a surprise to media commentators and political pundits alike coming as it did within 60 days of the 2017 General Election.
Andrew Little decision to resign was primarily the result of the inability of the Labour Party to make any inroads in the polls with the party averaging around the mid-20s in the latest Colmar-Brunton polls. While Little's leadership was, at best, lacklustre, his biggest problem was the failure of the Labour Party leadership as a whole to come up with policies that were likely to encourage voters to vote Labour.
Little made many gaffes during his time as Labour's leader which did much to alienate many voters of which one of the more infamous episodes was claiming that most of the people buying houses in Auckland's over-heated property market had Chinese-sounding surnames. Such racist comments are unacceptable and were incredibly stupid considering around a third of Auckland's population is Asian and the second largest ethnic group in New Zealand (after Māori) are Asian. To make matters worse Labour began to embrace some of the nationalistic xenophobia normally associated with New Zealand First by advocating a ban on foreign home buyers and imposing restrictions on immigration.
While the Labour Party did abandon its plan to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67, announce an intention to build 100,000 more houses in Auckland and make undergraduate tertiary education free during Little's leadership these policies fell well short of the sort of policies that Labour needed to encourage workers and youth to vote for them.
The sudden leadership change has seen Labour choose a leader who is from a staunchly Mormon family. Ardern is a textbook example of a careerist politician. After graduating from Waikato University she ended up working for former Labour Member of Parliament Phil Goff and Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark. In 2008 she became the President of the International Union of Socialist Youth and got into the New Zealand Parliament as a Labour List Member of Parliament.
For those people who are unfamiliar with the electoral process New Zealand has a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system similar to that used in Germany. Seventy Members of Parliament are elected directly by voters in electorates and the remainder of the 120 seats are filled by List Members of Parliament chosen by their respective political parties based on the percentage of party votes the political parties gain. While this set-up has made the New Zealand Parliament more representative of how people vote in elections it has created a breed of Member of Parliament who is not held accountable to anyone other than political party bureaucrats. It has also given rise to careerist politicians who are rewarded with a high ranking on a political party list for their loyalty and service to a political party.
Ardern was elected in the Mt Albert By-Election in February 2017. It is telling of how little impact Arden has made in Parliament thus far that even the ruling National-led government Members of Parliament described her as “presentable and competent”. According to Radio New Zealand (August 2nd) the Senior National Party Minister Gerry Brownlee was asked to detail Ms Ardern's strengths and weaknesses after sitting across the floor from her for nine years. His verdict: "They'll emerge." And that seemed to be the general concensus. About the only comment that came even close to criticism came from Nick Smith who said she has failed to make "any significant mark on any issues".
A politican who is in Parliament for nine years who fails to make any impression whatsoever on her opponents does not bode well for Labour in the upcoming election on September 23rd. On the other hand it was noted that “the last thing National will want to do is give her more publicity, or engender any public sympathy for her from misguided political attacks”.
Ardern's shock election as the leader of Labour so close to the election has highlighted a major problem within Labour's leadership. It just doesn't seem to have any real idea what it stands for. Many voters see them as “National with a pinkish tinge”. In other words, they perceive Labour as being little different from the National government except for a few minor reformist policies.
Labour has not been helped by the Green Party being seen as a more progressive party on social issues. As a result more progressive and radical elements have largely abandoned Labour in favour of the Greens. This trend is reflected in the polls with the Greens polling at 15% as opposed to Labour which polled at a pathetic 24% in the latest Colmar-Brunton poll (July 22-27, 2017). Obviously Labour will benefit in the polls from the recent meltdown in the Greens' leadership. But with National on 45% plus despite their austerity driven economic policies that have created record levels of post war homelessness, underemployment it doesn't bode well for Labour.
For all of Little's faults when he was the leader of the Labour Party he was seen by workers as a union man who had the interests of working people at heart, even if he was reluctant to undertake even the most modest social democratic reforms. His successor Ardern doesn't appear to have any interest in the well being of the working class, coming as she did from the ivory tower of academia straight into the world of careerist politics as a loyal Parliamentary party hack.
So far, Ardern has only announced a minor reshuffle of the Labour Party's front benches (as of August 3rd) but she is expected to make some policy announcements within the few days or so. No one is expecting any major shifts in the policies being pushed by Labour in the up-coming election despite the hope she will generate a “youthquake” among younger voters.
Despite the hopes that New Zealand would produce a Jeremy Corbyn who will inspire the workers and youth to support Labour the presence of a charismatic leader doesn't count for much in the greater scheme of things. While charisma certainly helps it is the policies that make or break political parties. No matter how much of a positive spin the Labour Party puts on the appointment of Ardern as their leader it will not change the fundamental problem that the Labour Party has no coherant socialist policies that are likely to encourage the 20% plus or so of voters who now routinely don't vote in New Zealand elections to vote or enthuse labour voters as a whole.
Workers in New Zealand are now unable to avoid the harsh reality that despite decades of low wages, declining working conditions and austerity measures that the promised rewards of New Zealand anaemic economic growth to workers by the bosses have naturally not been realised or ever will be. The reality is such sacrifices by workers is aimed at keeping the bosses profits up. This reality has seen house prices rise to an average of over $1,000,000 in Auckland alone and weekly rents now exceeding the weekly average wage in many parts of New Zealand. The cost of living, especially food and electricity, have pushed many families into poverty. To change this narrative Labour must introduce socialist policies that will make a real and lasting change to the lives of workers.
Heck, right now, workers have seen so many years of lacklustre Labour policies that even the reformist UK Labour manifesto of Jeremy Corbyn would be seen as radical, if not the very spectre of Communism proverbially knocking at the door.
Wellington 4 August 2017