The Labour leader’s ‘relentless positivity’ enabled reach across political divides and inspired people to vote for her party for the first time, argues James Patterson
‘Let’s do this’ was the battle cry of Jacinda Ardern’s election campaign. To me, it had echoes of Barack Obama’s ‘the fierce urgency of now’ in 2008. Adern’s sudden accession to the leadership of the Labour party in August 2017 reignited my interest in New Zealand politics. I felt so inspired by her that I jumped on a plane to Christchurch, the next month, to volunteer on her campaign. Like the rest of the world, I had no idea whether she would succeed.
I have some history with the New Zealand Labour party. During the 2005 general election there, I was living in Christchurch. Helen Clark’s Labour government had been in power for two terms. As prime minister, Clark was hugely respected. Her government had reinvigorated public services while maintaining economic stability. This was consistent with the Third Way politics she espoused. However, she was confronted with a surprisingly tough battle for re-election. The opposition National party gained traction by perpetuating a culture war. Their rhetoric seemed to be designed to appeal to what Hillary Clinton would later call ‘the white nationalist gut’. I was so incensed that I marched into the nearest local Labour party office and was out delivering leaflets the same afternoon. Until then, I had no intention of involving myself in the election. Clark prevailed but only just.
In the intervening years, I returned to the United Kingdom and wrote an MSc dissertation on Clark’s government. I became active in the UK Labour party again and my interest in New Zealand politics gradually waned. However, the phenomenon of ‘Jacindamania’ caught my attention. I had never seen a Kiwi politician, of any political stripe, mobbed by huge crowds before. This was truly extraordinary given that New Zealand Labour had been languishing in the doldrums for years. In the 2014 general election, they had polled a historic low of 25 per cent. Polling numbers for Ardern’s predecessor, Andrew Little offered no hope of improvement. This shifted dramatically when he gave way to Ardern.
In 2017, New Zealand has enjoyed healthy economic growth. Many assumed this would guarantee the National party-led government an historic fourth term. Still, there are similarities to the context in which Clark was elected in 1999. There is a strong sense that public services have been run down. Unaffordable housing and wage stagnation have become huge issues for middle and lower-income New Zealanders. Child poverty is high for a western country. However, these issues had surfaced in the 2014 election and Labour were still unable to gain traction.
When I joined the volunteers at the Christchurch Central Labour campaign office, we were instructed to be ‘relentlessly positive’. This was to be observed on the doorsteps and at phonebanks. New Zealand Labour committed to a platform of cleaner rivers, increased funding for health services and action on affordable housing. Volunteers were encouraged to focus on these pledges rather than demonising opponents. Ardern had the affordability of her programme costed and verified by independent economists. She emphasised the importance of prioritised spending and committed to running a budget surplus. Strong economic growth, she argued, is vital to deliverability.
New Zealand Labour owes a huge debt to its small army of stalwarts. They bring invaluable knowledge and experience to election campaigns. However, I was struck by the number of volunteers I met without previous experience of politics. Many told me of friends and family who were thinking of voting Labour for the first time. It seemed that Ardern’s ‘relentless positivity’ enabled her to reach out across political divides. She did not seek to cast those with whom she disagrees as bogeymen.
The election failed to produce a clear outcome. This was largely due to the vagaries of New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional electoral system. It might be described as a hybrid of first-past-the-post and proportional representation. The centre-left bloc finished with roughly 43 per cent of the vote and the centre-right with about 44 per cent. To form a government, either side required the support of New Zealand First, a socially conservative populist party. Ardern demonstrated tremendous political skill in negotiating a coalition with Winston Peters, their mercurial, longstanding leader. Many have misgivings about the durability of this coalition. Still, Peters brings a swathe of provincial New Zealanders to the table. This might be key to the success of Ardern’s government. Ultimately, she has won power because of her ability to unite rather than divide.
James Patterson is a councillor in the London borough of Haringey and a former New Zealand Labour party activist. He tweets @James_Pattersn
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