If only Labour, in Government, would be bolder to address the very issues of inequality that attracted some of its leaders into politics, writes columnist Rachel Peters

It is easy to be cynical about politicians, but years ago I decided as a teacher that I would try and maintain positive expectations for my students, and I have since expanded this philosophy to include the most irredeemable of people: politicians.

It is better to be an idealistic fool than a reactive sceptic, who doesn’t believe in anything.

The Labour party is often written off as a party of centrists who won’t actually do anything to address poverty or the housing crisis because they want to keep their centrist swing voters.

But deep inside most politicians must be an idealistic ego that wants to leave a legacy. Why else would you sacrifice having a normal life with your family to spend time being hounded by the media, hated by half the public and getting bogged down in tedious debates around policy.

In 2020, Barbara Edmonds the newly elected Labour MP for Mana quoted Norman Kirk in her maiden speech saying, “people don’t want much, just someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for”. Pedantic readers might get hung up here on the fact that this quote is actually adapted from the original one, but nevertheless, it’s an evocative and egalitarian quote that could pass as a Bruce Springsteen lyric. Its beauty is in its simplicity. It’s not a lot to ask. However, well-turned phrases can effectively mask brutal realities.

New Zealand is a deeply unequal society. There is income inequality, wealth inequality, gender inequality, racial inequality, and those with disabilities and families who care for people with disabilities are particularly overrepresented in poverty statistics.

This was a problem that Labour inherited, and has made some in-roads in reducing the number of children living in households with severe poverty. However, there are still many thousands of children living in poverty, and a whole lot more adults. While progress here could be reason for optimism, the inflation of house-prices due to the Government printing money as a response to the global pandemic has exacerbated inequality even more. It is impossible for people on a medium income to buy a house. Increasingly, there is a division between a propertied class and a working class, with little hope for class mobility, unless you are a millennial who can access some inheritance or bank in on what Jane Austen might have called an “advantageous marriage”.

Partisan commentators write Labour off as completely incompetent, but the public at large is more forgiving. The Government extended the Brightline test, it is reforming the RMA,  changed the housing interest deductibility rules, more houses are being built than ever before. The Labour-voting public is not ignorant and not totally self-interested either. Those people back Labour despite its obvious failings because they suspect the housing crises is not a simple fix. The public does not desire radical change because they are rightly cautious about the economy receding.

However, bolder policies are necessary for Labour to deal with government-backed inflation and to deal with child poverty, the issue Jacinda Ardern has said got her into politics. We need to do away with the idea that a wealth tax or a more progressive income tax system is the politics of envy. There is nothing envious about wanting to tax more, it is simply a necessary step in order to raise benefits so that many families are able to house, clothe and feed their children.

Jacinda Ardern is a self-described perfectionist. The weakness inherent to perfectionism is that perfectionists can become so concerned with getting the details right that they sacrifice getting on with their job. If what people want is so simple, “just someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for”, then they need to deliver it. Ardern has moved from talking about transformational change to building foundational change. Getting the language right would not have been a concern if Labour had done what it initially set out to do.

As I was writing this, my very non-partisan partner looked over my shoulder and said, “Why are you writing that about Labour? Haven’t you seen National?”

With National struggling to swing centrist voters, Labour may well get another term. The Labour MPs are not incentivised to create progressive change when they could instead just go into cruise mode. We must appeal to the better angels of their nature. It is not too late for them to lift families out of severe poverty with their much-awaited 2021 budget. Let’s hope they have not turned their back on the issues that once motivated them to enter politics in the first place.

Rachel Peters is a media and communications researcher and lecturer at Auckland University of Technology.

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