They won government, but did Labour win the argument? With control of the treasury benches, Labour must prove what they stand for, Joe Pagani writes.

Six months ago, we questioned whether Labour even deserved to exist. Pundits argued the Greens were the true party of the left, or that New Zealand First would snatch the working class away. People of all political stripes agreed on one thing: Labour had to know what it stood for.

As 2017 comes to a close, Labour sits in government and at its fingertips is a chance to transform New Zealand for the better. It is led by a woman who has proven her ability to inspire voters. The opposition National Party ran out of ideas in 2010 and has resorted to running campaigns purely on not being Labour. Its ranks are filled with unimpressive ministers of past governments. Its policies are either mundanely incremental (electric government cars) or dangerously populist (boot camps).

Everything seems to be in Labour’s favour. Yet there is still no answer to the questions that have plagued us for the past decade. Why did we lose in 2008, 2011 and 2014? Why, after John Key left, were Labour still set to get 23 percent? Perhaps most pressing of all, why did the 45 percent of voters who wanted to vote Labour during the campaign fall to 37 percent?

There are a series of excuses for the abysmal performances leading up to July: Labour’s disunity, Key’s popularity, media bias. But by the start of 2017, Key was gone and the media longed for a change of government. Labour had united behind Andrew Little and arguably followed him to a fault. The stars had aligned for a Labour victory but still they sat on 23 percent.

The hard, daunting truth, is that Labour got lucky. The new government needs to understand that despite Ardern’s many qualities, they could not beat National outright. Instead, everything needed to go right.

Party before pride

The luck started with Andrew Little’s resignation. There is a lot to criticise about Little’s performance as leader and his time as party president before 2011. But on August 1, he put the needs of his party before his pride and resigned. It would not have taken a lengthy fight to cement Little as leader going into the election or brand Ardern with the same “knifing deputy” depiction which haunted Julia Gillard. Instead, Little did the right thing.

Beyond this, no one – including Ardern – could have foreseen Labour’s surge in the polls. Overnight, a leader who had been appointed to save the furniture became a candidate for prime minister. Ardern’s charm, and her ability to articulate people’s emotions, should not be understated. Nor should her rise be dismissed, as it is by some critics, as voters being duped by “personality”. Ardern understood the society that people wanted to see and promised to deliver it. Most of all, she made people proud to vote Labour again.

At the heart of all of this was a bubbling mood for change. Discontent had manifested itself in the 2016 local elections where Labour mayors and councillors had swept the country. Even in 2012, David Shearer’s Labour was polling at 35 percent, just short of Labour’s eventual total this year. The polls released after Ardern’s ascent showed as many as 45 percent of New Zealand wanted to vote for Labour. The main barrier holding these voters back was a weak Labour Party.

National’s neglect of the middle class, bit by bit, came back to hurt them. By 2017, opinion polls showed National’s brand of politics was seen as arrogant, even slimy. Every year, poverty, inequality and housing moved further up the list of people’s concerns. The 2017 election was fought along those lines, while the economy took something of a back seat. Again, Labour was lucky, here. Its issues were salient and the message was popular. People wanted to see change again.

Yet for every vote Ardern won – and every mention of child poverty, inequality, and the housing crisis – Labour could not have won except at the whim of Winston Peters.

National apparently made the unfathomable mistake of leaking Peters’ personal pension details in an attempt to damage him. The use of the power of the state to damage the Government’s political opponents is more at home in Moscow than Wellington. It is no wonder, then, that Peters decided to remove National from office.

Had the cards fallen differently, Labour may still be sitting in opposition.

Labour should not depend on National staying a tired party, insisting it knows better than voters. Eventually the centre-right will come back with a renewed ideology and fresh leaders. Labour, meanwhile, should not depend on its charismatic leader. The needs of New Zealand’s working people are ever-present. People needed help to build a better life when Labour sat at 23 percent, and they will still need that help long after Ardern has left parliament. When less popular leaders take the helm, Labour must be able to win on the clarity of its message.

Most importantly, the jobs, wages and houses of New Zealand’s working class must not be decided at the whim of Peters. Had Peters been in a less interventionist mood on October 19, we would have three more years of a National-led coalition.

The success of this Government will be decided in the regions.

Labour needs to win on its own right. The first test will be in 2020, when the record of the sixth Labour government will be put to voters. This election will not be fought on $11 billion holes or questioning of tax plans. Nor will it be fought on vague promises about change. New Zealanders will vote on the change they feel, not the change they want.

Labour’s problems are those faced by its social democratic sisters all over the world. Just ask the US Democrats, French Socialists or UK Labour – the same questions challenge every one of them. What do we stand for? Who do we stand for? Why do we stand for it?

Unlike its sister parties, New Zealand Labour has found itself in the unique position of having to work out its election-winning message from government. The most recent Colmar Brunton poll should be seen as a warning shot. This is not a government with a vast democratic mandate behind it, but it is a government which people are willing to let have a go. Labour must not let this slip. It must earn every vote in 2020.

David Axelrod, a key advisor to former US president Barack Obama, once described another Labour Party campaign as: “Vote Labour and win a microwave!” That is precisely what this Government must not become. It is easy to craft policies which give certain bonuses to certain groups. It is harder to craft an overall message about society, social responsibility and social mobility. But to answer the questions that plague the centre-left across the world, Labour must be up to the challenge.

The new government has shown superb common sense in its early days – hammering out a compromise on the revamped TPP, increasing paid parental leave, improving the living standards of thousands by raising the minimum wage. But there is still so much more to do. The Government must ignore National’s claims of “middle class welfare” and define its achievements by policies that help the squeezed middle.

The success of this Government will be decided in the regions. If the bold initiatives to curb inter-generational unemployment succeed, Labour will succeed. If Labour commits to nothing more than modest incrementalism in the regions, it will fail. These are the people the Labour Party exists to represent. It needs to be a transformative government that fights for them.

Ardern was a good enough leader for people to put aside their misgivings and vote Labour, this once. If she cannot meet high expectations on changes to poverty, incomes and inequality, then they will not vote for her again. History is littered with one-term Labour governments. There are too many people counting on this Government for it to last only three years. Labour has won the 2017 election – in the coming months it needs to win 2020.

Joe Pagani has worked in politics, government, and political advocacy, and is a Labour Party member

Leave a comment