Liam Schwarz explores how centre-left parties around the world have dropped their transformational rhetoric and have instead started drawing on more conservative language and values.

Strong and stable. It’s a phrase that has long been, at least in spirit, the motto of moderate conservatives the world over.

Especially (though not exclusively) in times of crisis — when the status quo is put at risk — centre-right politicians talk of decisive, rational and forthright leadership as well as providing a steadfast and well-ironed government and economy. Such language is often then contextualised with the “alternative”: instead of strength, weakness; legitimacy, illegitimacy; sapience, stupidity; and certainty, uncertainty.

It was thus perhaps unsurprising when, as the virus began to spread and the most uncertain and daunting era since wartime gripped New Zealand, politicians swiftly picked up this age-old conservative rhetoric once again.

The upheaval of the pandemic was front and centre in the public’s psyche. With polling showing health, economic recovery and the Covid-19 response as the primary issues for voters, politicians presumed (largely correctly) that New Zealanders desired prudency, resolute leadership and firm economic management in such times of crisis.

Yet, it was Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party, and not the centre-right, that managed to capitalise on this presumption at the polls.

For a public that desired a safe pair of hands, Labour fit the bill.

A Labour ad from September reads: “Giving your party Vote to Labour will keep up the momentum with a strong, stable Government focussed on our recovery.

Variations of “strong, stable” were repeated in other ads and debate speeches throughout the campaign.

Labour’s use of this language worked for two reasons. First, the National Party, plagued by infighting, leaks, gaffes, scandals and resignations left, right and centre, was constituted as a weak option at best and thoroughly unfit to govern at worst. And second, and perhaps more importantly, Labour had a track record of competent governance, especially in its implementation of a highly successful Covid-19 response which ensured New Zealand’s place as one of the most stable and secure democracies of the pandemic era.

For a public that desired a safe pair of hands, Labour fit the bill. And so, with the support of some of the country’s truest blue electorates, the party was swept back to power on a vote share not seen for nearly 70 years.

Only a few weeks later in the United States, Joe Biden of the centre-left Democratic Party quashed Donald Trump’s bid at a second presidential term. Biden correctly identified that the US — which under Trump had spiralled into a state of economic, political and public health collapse — desired “leadership, stability, and trusted experience”.

Biden side-stepped the big ideas and transformational politics often pushed by the left wing of the Democrats and instead, much like Ardern, modelled himself as a steady-handed unifier and consensus-builder. Though Biden lacked experience in successfully weathering a global pandemic, which Ardern had by election time, there was enough of the American electorate in desperate need of normalcy to give him the benefit of the doubt.

This ‘conservatised’ approach among the centre-left in New Zealand and the US has also been picked up in the United Kingdom. On replacing the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer has determinately redirected his party to less leftist horizons. In a speech to Labour’s annual conference in September, Starmer spoke of the need for government to provide “security for our nation, our families and for all of our communities” and heralded the importance of Britain’s national institutions, family values and patriotism.

Starmer’s speech, though chock-a-block with centre-left pledges — such as addressing racial inequality and ameliorating the livelihoods of workers — was nonetheless “cast in strikingly conservative terms”, as the Economist puts it. Starmer has also, much like Ardern and Biden, positioned himself as a steward of stability and time and again characterised his rivals as incompetent and unfit to govern.

It remains to be seen if Starmer will be able to follow in the footsteps of Ardern and Biden come the next UK poll. Starmer’s task is perhaps the most titanic of the three as he would need to win back previously Labour-held seats (and then some) so as to overcome Boris Johnson’s 80-seat-strong majority.

If Ardern and Biden choose to stick with their conservatised approaches — presumably so as to maintain their grip on the centre — the primary difficulty for them will lie in keeping the left on side, especially when (or if) the pandemic eases and minds begin to turn back to issues and causes other than the virus.

Liam Schwarz is a Master of Politics student at the University of Otago.

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