Letetr from … New Zealand

New Zealand has a new government under Labour prime minister Jacinda Ardern. But how will it work? Darren Hughes explains

For followers of centre-left politics there has not been a lot of good news of recent times  – in terms of victories, rather than improved performances, at least. This has changed with the swearing in of Jacinda Adern as the 40th prime minister of New Zealand, and judging by the extraordinary international coverage her new government has received, interest goes far beyond just Kiwis.

At 37, Ardern is the country’s youngest prime minister in over a century. Her rise has been meteoric, elected as an Labour member of parliament in 2008 and catapulted into the deputy leader’s slot in February. Then, with the party regularly polling little more than 20 per cent at the end of July, then leader Andrew Little started ruminating on his future. By early August Ardern had been installed as leader of the opposition and was out on the campaign trail for the 23 September election.

She set the pace for the campaign as voters flocked to her – the positive ‘let’s do this’ slogan giving birth to the term ‘Jacindamania’ – and at one point was actually leading the National party in the public polls. National ran an effective counterattack raising concerns about the party’s tax policies and also making wild claims about the costs of Labour’s policies. Although this latter claim was not backed up by a single economist or financial commentator, National doubled down on it to plant doubts in the minds of suburban swing voters.

On election day 50.4 per cent of voters went for parties promising change (Labour, New Zealand First and the Green party) and 44.9 per cent for the status quo (National and the Act party). The results delivered by the mixed-member proportional representation voting system, where seats match votes, led the centrist NZ First to put their support behind Ardern. There will be a formal coalition between Labour and NZ First, with the Greens in a confidence and supply agreement.

The parties cite shared concern about the housing crisis, stagnant wages, fragile jobs and child poverty, and the coalition documents set out policies designed to address these areas.

The minimum wage will reach $20 (£10.50) per hour by 2020, a new KiwiBuild scheme will see an extra 10,000 affordable homes constructed each year for first time buyers; and Ardern herself will be minister for child poverty reduction. Expect more ambitious action on New Zealand’s climate change response too, including having a 100 per cent electricity supply from renewables by 2035.

For Labour to be in the position to lead a government is beyond question due to Ardern. With each passing week she has developed and grown in stature in a way that has given pride to her supporters and brought new voters to her side. If her prime ministership follows in the same style, there is no reason why Labour’s support will not continue to grow in office.

However, the party’s organisational strength deserves special mention. New party secretary Andrew Kirton returned home from a stint in London and has breathed new life into the organisational wing of the party. Labour waged a superior social media campaign but also having a good relationship with the Australian Labor party was able to learn from their successful ‘community action network’ method of field organisation, which delivered strong results where it was deployed.

This is a new government led by an exceptional woman. It has energy and new ideas – and it will be keenly watched by centre-left supporters the world over.

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Darren Hughes is a former New Zealand MP and minister. He is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. He tweets at @darrenhughesnz 

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