The idealistic vision Jacinda Ardern espoused of a kind, empathetic and fair society is possible – but not with a less-inspiring new leader. Elliot Crossan argues the final part of his series on Labour’s leadership transition.
Opinion: The year is 2024. It’s May — Budget Day. Finance Minister Nicola Willas and Treasurer David Seymour, who is now Deputy Prime Minister after ACT’s best ever election result seven months earlier, are about to introduce their first budget. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon gives the opening speech, announcing that the new Government, elected on a narrow majority in 2023, are bringing an end to the Labour Party’s “reckless spending.”
Welfare is the first target. Despite National removing the Reserve Bank’s mandate to target full employment, resulting in rising interest rates and higher unemployment, beneficiaries are blamed for the Government’s choices. Not only are Labour’s benefit increases scrapped, but new, tougher sanctions are brought in, meaning thousands of Kiwis will go hungry.
* Part 1: How Labour fell into crisis so soon after historic election win
* Part 2: Every chance at transformational change squandered
* Election 2023 – it’ll be the economy again, stupid!
* Labour’s electoral mountain remains as high as ever
Tax cuts are the big ticket item. Luxon, Willas and Seymour triumphantly declare how relief has finally arrived for Labour’s cost of living crisis. Yet the only people to see real gains are the already wealthy. Ordinary workers lose more from the public holidays and sick days scrapped as part of ACT’s coalition agreement. Fair Pay Agreements never had a chance to lift wages — they were abolished in the first 100 days of the new administration.
The most right-wing, anti-worker government since the early 1990s is off to a brutal start. “Be kind” is out, austerity is in. Is this future now inevitable? Or can the left fight back?
Labour at a crossroads
Jacindamania ended in 2022, and as 2023 begins the Ardern era is over too. But is it all over for Labour now that Chris Hipkins is our new prime minister? Are we going to end up with Christopher Luxon and the austerity promised by a National Government in coalition with a strong ACT Party?
Hipkins has been on the job for less than a week, so it is of course too soon to make concrete predictions. But “Chippy” faces a battle.
The new Prime Minister has none of the star power of his predecessor and is instead going for a low-key “just a boy from the Hutt” vibe. He is still more politically sharp than Luxon, probably more charismatic too, and he is widely seen as competent and trustworthy after his time in charge of the Covid-19 response, but I struggle to remember a time when both major parties had such uninspiring leaders at the same time. They are both managerial figures. More importantly for Hipkins’ chances, the economy is still in trouble, inflation is still high, and the disillusionment from Labour’s failure to deliver for working people lingers in the air.
Ardern faced a tough task to win the 2023 election. Hipkins will have to climb a much steeper hill. Voters who were disappointed by Ardern’s inaction are not going to choose Labour with a new, less-inspiring figurehead without being given a serious reason to do so. Therefore, our new Prime Minister needs to make bold moves to win. He needs to make some major moves to signal to voters that he intends to deliver the transformative change that Ardern did not.
A policy that could create this broad signal to working class people to give Labour another chance would be to abolish GST and replace it with a wealth tax. GST is a regressive tax which affects everyone proportionally to how much of their income they spend each week – meaning workers pay GST on most of their purchases, and the poorer you are, the less you are able to save each week, and the more you are forced to give away to this tax. Replacing it with a wealth tax on the richest 5 percent of New Zealanders would be an instant huge redistribution of wealth from the rich to ordinary workers, helping the poorest the most. It would bring down inequality, reducing the cost of living dramatically for the vast majority of people by reducing prices back down to where they were in early 2021.
Taxing wealth instead of goods and services would also be a direct swing at National and ACT’s platform of tax cuts. Hipkins could point to how the right-wing parties’ claim to want to reduce more progressive taxes such as income tax and say yes, we do need tax cuts. We need tax cuts that help ordinary New Zealanders, not your ultra-rich mates. We need to tax the people at the top more. It is an argument that Labour would struggle to lose.
But would Hipkins pursue such a bold policy? Sadly, it’s unlikely. Would he take other less dramatic steps in the same direction, such as making the minimum wage a living wage this year, or bringing in a capital gains tax? Also unlikely.
Hipkins is widely seen as being on the right of the Labour Party, more so than Ardern or Robertson, and appears to be even more committed to Third Way politics than his predecessor.
Only Labour MPs could look at Jacinda Ardern’s time as Prime Minister and say the problem was that Jacinda was too radical: what we really need is a more boring, more centrist leader who will bring back the National voters we won in 2020! A lack of transformational change without even an inspiring leader to front it! Spoiler alert: if those borrowed National voters want a more conservative government in 2023, they’ll simply vote National.
What should the left do?
Ultimately, the left in Aotearoa cannot trust the Labour Party to bring about the change we need. Labour has been committed to the Third Way since they ditched their full-scale neoliberal policies in 1993. They are not going to change. Every defeat is interpreted by the Labour hierarchy as a reason why they need to “move back to the centre ground” – and every victory is read as a victory for their milquetoast, uninspiring policies. Hipkins is a symptom of this problem, not the solution.
None of the existing parties will ever truly represent the left. But that doesn’t mean we should give up
The Green Party cannot be trusted either. The disastrous Budget Responsibility Rules which have crippled this Government were originally proposed by James Shaw. Last year’s embarrassing attempt to remove Shaw as co-leader in which not a single contender from the left stood up to challenge him shows that, despite having some good left-wing MPs in caucus, there is no courage or serious plan to move the Greens to the left.
Te Pāti Māori are currently more progressive than they ever have been, but they are still not a home for the left. While they have ruled out working with ACT, the Māori leadership have refused to rule out working with a Luxon-led National Government – and it is therefore possible, though unlikely, that if Labour and the Greens collapse further in the polls, National could forms a coalition with Te Pāti Māori without needing ACT.
None of the existing parties will ever truly represent the left. But that doesn’t mean we should give up. The idealistic vision that Ardern espoused of a kind, empathetic and fair society in Aotearoa is possible. It is long past time that the left – socialists, trade unionists, radical environmentalists, or those campaigning for Tino Rangatiratanga – organised to fight for it.
We need a new left-wing party in Parliament. A party which stands unabashedly on the side of unions, social movements and the working class as a whole. A party that would fight for affordable housing and a living wage for all, for the right to strike, for expanded and publicly controlled public services funded by higher taxes on the rich. A party that ultimately knows that the capitalist system is the cause of extreme inequality, catastrophic climate change and colonisation, and needs to be replaced with a system based on justice and democracy.
One lesson the left should learn from Jacinda Ardern’s leadership of the Labour Party is that you need to seize your moment. It went completely against political common sense for Andrew Little to resign as Leader of the Opposition on August 1 2017, with the election just seven weeks away. But it worked. Ardern turned her party around and was prime minister by October 26. Had Labour waited, we would most likely have had a National government leading the country during the pandemic. Thousands more lives could have been lost.
The left needs to seize the moment. Don’t wait around for the “right time”, because that time may come and go. We need a left-wing party now, so that we are ready as soon as possible to fight for the fair society we need. Let’s stop waiting around and do this.
A National Government is not inevitable. Neither is Chris Hipkins continuing Ardern’s legacy of minimal change. A better world is possible if we stand together and fight for it.