Shortly before the New Zealand election in September, the New Zealand Labour Party replaced its previous leader with the much more popular Jacinda Ardern – now on track to be the next prime minister. This led to an outpouring of support for Labour, dubbed ‘Jacindamania’. This has been compared to the wave of support for UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and US Senator Bernie Sanders.
But while Sanders and Corbyn have proposed a fundamentally different approach to the economy – of taxing the wealth of big business and transferring it to working people – Ardern’s program is not far off from the right-wing austerity already pushed by NZ Labour.
Ardern became Labour leader on the 1st August, less than two months before the September 23rd general election. She became leader in a unanimous vote after the resignation of Andrew Little, the former Labour leader. Little presided over the lowest polls the party had seen since 1995, with 23-24% saying they would vote Labour. Within three weeks of Ardern stepping into the position, Labour’s popularity shot up to 37%. At one stage they outpolled the National Party, which has formed government since 2008.
Ardern attracted hundreds-strong crowds at election rallies. Her policies were more progressive than previous Labour platforms, including three years free tertiary education, a small rise in the minimum wage, and removing abortion from New Zealand’s Crimes Act. She centred her campaign on addressing the housing crisis.
The fact that she is a 37-year old woman was often highlighted. Ardern was asked on The Project whether she planned to become pregnant, sparking a controversy. The next day another pundit on the AM Show defended the question, saying that any employer needs to know this; his comments were slammed by Ardern and he was demolished on social media. The NZ Human Rights Commissioner clarified that it is illegal to ask an employee if they intend to have children.
The September 23rd election
Labour increased its share of the party vote to 36.9%, up from 24.7% in 2014. They went from 32 seats to 46. This is clearly a reflection of both dissatisfaction with the Nationals, whose share of the party vote dropped from 48% to 44.4%, and of the impact of Jacindamania, which drew voters from the Green Party and the Māori Party. But despite the hype, the turnout on polling day – 79.8% – was only slightly higher than previous years.
There are 120 seats in the New Zealand parliament, so a party needs 61 seats to form government. The National Party had 61 seats previously, but this has now dropped to 56. With the backing of the right-wing populist party New Zealand First and the Green Party, Labour will be able to form a coalition government.
Ardern’s popularity forced the Nationals to adopt last minute changes to their platform, increasing spending promises on roads and housing. In the past, the Nationals have usually found it much easier to outflank Labour. It is clear that voters are less and less tolerant of the status quo.
Abandonment of the Māori Party
There are currently seven seats reserved for Māori representatives. Māori voters can choose to be on the general electoral roll or on the Māori roll. In this election, all seven Māori seats went to Labour candidates. This represents a rejection by Māori of the appeal to ‘culture’ of the Māori Party – whose support has been in decline for years. In 2008 the Māori Party won 5 of the 7 Māori seats; declining to 2 in 2014 and losing both this September.
The Māori Party cloaked its right-wing approach with identity politics. By focusing on ‘cultural’ issues, they attempted to paper over the fact that their policies ran against the interests of the vast majority of Māori workers, only promoting a small number of ‘iwi (tribal) elites’.
Poor and working class Māori had been expected to support these people on the basis of a common culture, while they faced stagnant wages, overpriced housing and rising poverty. Māori workers have become increasingly sceptical of the Māori Party’s eagerness to work with the Nationals, and when an alternative came in a somewhat rejuvenated Labour Party, they abandoned the Māori Party for Labour.
In the past similar tensions led to a split from the Māori Party, with former MP Hone Harawira breaking away to form the MANA Movement. Harawira lost his seat in 2014 following a disastrous coalition agreement with entrepreneur Kim DotCom, whose Internet Party existed essentially to support his business interests. At this election the Māori Party had an agreement not to stand against Harawira but he was still unable to win back his seat.
Māori are often on the front lines of the brutal reality of New Zealand capitalism. What is vitally needed is a principled, independent class approach – neither the ‘cultural-nationalism’ of the Māori Party nor opportunistic alliances with capitalist parties will bring real change.
Is Ardern an alternative?
Bryce Edwards of the University of Otago commented, “the Labour party seems to have gone from a grey old party with a lot of doom and gloom about them, to a party of Corbynesque excitement”. But while Corbyn’s popularity is rooted in a working class revolt against austerity, the NZ Labour election campaign found it hard to say what economic policies separated them from the Nationals. While Corbyn ran on a slogan of “For the many, not the few”, NZ Labour ran with insubstantial messages like “Let’s Do This” and “I’m With Jacinda”.
During the campaign, the Wall Street Journal tweeted, “Meet New Zealand’s Justin Trudeau, except she’s more like Trump on immigration.” The comparison to Trudeau is more apt. While Ardern has been very effective in appearing progressive, she does not represent any major policy change. Like their Australian counterparts, NZ Labour helped lead the way in introducing cuts and privatisation in the 1980s.
In the UK, Corbyn was in a minority within the parliamentary Labour Party in consistently opposing Labour’s capitalist “Third Way” politics – spending cuts and privatisation for the working class, tax cuts and deregulation for big business. This right-wing agenda was promoted by former UK prime minister Tony Blair. In contrast to Corbyn, for two years Ardern in fact worked for a group established by Tony Blair in the UK to remove regulations on behalf of big business.
Ardern also worked under former NZ prime minister Helen Clark, even being described as her protégé. While Clark seemed progressive on issues like LGBTIQ rights and opposition to the Iraq war (but not to the Afghanistan war, or intervention in the Solomon Islands), Clark’s legacy is one of overseeing cuts to public services while profits soared. Under her government, the New Zealand equivalent of WorkChoices – the Employment Contracts Act – remained in place. Casualisation rose and wages stagnated.
Ardern has made it clear that she doesn’t intend to break with this legacy. When asked whether she thought tax evasion or welfare fraud was worse, Ardern answered that they were as serious as each other. Instead of increasing taxes on profits, she has only committed to a ‘working group’ on taxes. She has ruled out reversing the decades of privatisation of public assets endured by New Zealanders.
Part of Labour’s platform on the housing crisis includes cutting immigration and banning non-residents from housing speculation, where wealthy investors buy properties and leave them empty, betting on the price going up. This adds to the crisis. Bans on speculation would form part of a socialist approach to housing, but the focus by Ardern on ‘non-residents’ only shifts the blame away from where it really belongs: the capitalist housing market itself.
It is not only foreign investors that engage in speculation, but local capitalist developers, investors and landlords. A real socialist approach would ban speculation and also fight for the building of quality public housing – with resident’s input – and the creation of caps on private rent.
By putting the blame on immigration and foreign investors, Ardern’s Labour plays into the right-wing populist politics of New Zealand First. NZ First has economic policies to the left of Labour, but places opposition to immigration at the centre of its platform. After the election, Ardern immediately raised the possibility of a coalition agreement with NZ First, which has now thrown its support behind Labour.
For the pro-capitalist Labour Party, this approach to populism is a safer bet than emulating the left-wing populism of Corbyn in the UK. The reason is that Corbyn’s policies are a step in the direction of challenging the system itself, which no capitalist politician wants to do.
A way forward
While they try to appear left-wing, Ardern’s Labour, like Australia’s Labor Party, is looking with envy at the success of right-populists such as NZ First. This success exists because a section of working people, alienated from establishment politics, are turning to right-populism in the absence of genuine solutions. But, like the mainstream parties, the right-populists have no intention of challenging the logic of capitalism.
This logic promotes big business profits at the expense of wages, public services, welfare, housing, the environment, healthcare and everything else that working people rely on. A genuine alternative would be a political party both by and for working people, proposing socialist solutions.
We are entering an era of disillusionment with the institutions of capitalism. This is what lies behind the electoral shocks of the last two years across the western world. This disillusionment will not be satisfied with a superficial change to the image of the old labour parties. Only the working class, armed with a socialist program and organisation, can lead a way forward.
By David Elliott