The Failure of Compromise: An Analysis of the New Zealand Election

Written by – Kate McIntyre (Socialist Voice New Zealand)

When Jacinda Ardern became leader of the New Zealand Labour Party just months before the General Election, it was expected and overdue. After nine years of the National-led government being under contested by another neoliberal, centrist party led by middle aged white men, Jacinda drew attention within the Labour Party as a charismatic younger woman – the “new blood” that Labour seemed to be lacking.

It’s hard to imagine that former Labour leaders Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little, with their white male privilege on top of high salaries and elevated class position, could convince Labour’s traditionally diverse, poor and young voter base that they offer any substantial change. Jacinda Ardern might be well paid and in an elevated class position but she is also a Gen Xer who hasn’t had the benefits of free university or male privilege. After years of rising austerity, of middle aged white men being in power and proletarianised young people being vilified and condescended to, Jacinda might look like a viable alternative. She appears more relatable, more approachable and more sympathetic to the struggles of New Zealand’s young people.

If Labour wanted to make its neoliberal centrism attractive to young people and all those worn down by National’s devastating attacks on labour rights, welfare, education and healthcare, then electing Jacinda as their leader was the logical next step – a step that should have been taken years ago.

And it’s worked… a little bit.

Labour was polling below 25% before Andrew Little’s resignation, that rose to nearly 36% on election night. Given that Labour’s policies have not changed, it has Jacinda’s starpower to thank for its rise in popularity. But most of those votes didn’t come from the centre or from the 31% of eligible New Zealanders who didn’t vote. Labour’s new support was cannibalised from the social-democratic and environmentally focused New Zealand Green Party, the neoliberal Māori Party, who represent a very select Māori elite, and the opportunistic, anti-migrant New Zealand First Party. The Green Party in particular took a big hit, losing half the seats it won in the 2014 General Election.

 

Labour has lost the election and can only form government if it enters an unstable coalition with the Green Party and New Zealand First Party. Jacinda Ardern is a winner anyway but that is only valuable to ordinary people if Labour is worth supporting until 2020 – and it isn’t. In the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn also lost the election but he was a winner because by fighting for the soul of the UK Labour Party against the Blairites, he won the hearts of young people and non-voters and showed that a socialist platform wins support over substanceless charisma. Jacinda Ardern did not inspire non-voters to turn out for her – she inspired people who planned to vote anyway, attracting them away from other neoliberal parties.

Jacinda offers no meaningful alternative to neoliberalism, only tinkers around its edges. She has said that neoliberalism has failed but Labour’s policies don’t diverge from neoliberalism. She would raise student allowances but not by much, and without limiting the power of landlords by supporting a capital gains tax, what is to stop landlords from raising the rents on their properties to match the rise in student income? She has committed to becoming a zero-carbon economy by 2050. She has said that she would not have supported Labour’s controversial law change in 2004 that removed Māori claims to the land along foreshore and seabed, allowing the government to sell permits to fossil fuel exploration companies. But when asked if she would end fossil fuel exploration, she said no.

On face value Jacinda appears to support Māori, the environment and young people but scratch the surface of Labour’s policies and they don’t offer an alternative to neoliberal capitalism, and most importantly, it will not empower extra-parliamentary leftist organisations. It was Helen Clark’s Labour government that was responsible for the police raids and imprisonment of Māori activists and their allies in 2007, naming them “terrorists”.

Jacinda Ardern’s biggest betrayal of poor people during the election campaign was her refusal to stand with former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, after she admitted to committing welfare fraud while launching the Green Party’s (very good) policy to support welfare claimants. The result was a witchhunt against Metiria – a Māori single mother – that ended in her stepping down as co-leader. Meanwhile, past corruption and greed of National MPs, such as the $900 per week of housing welfare payments illegally claimed in the past by National leader Bill English, has had little effect on their political careers. This exposed the deeply racist and classist character of New Zealand’s media and politicians .

News media were not kind to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn either, however Metiria Turei was not prepared for vitriol she faced. Metiria and the Green Party have no interest in seizing power or becoming the new opposition. Its membership is a mess, consisting of eco-friendly market reformists, social democrats, anarchists and socialists hoping to affect change in small ways. Its plan for this election was to compromise and form a coalition with Labour. While the Green Party stood with Metiria, Jacinda chose to console the moralistic welfare bashers, assuring them that she could not condone “law breaking”. It’s very possible that Metiria would not have resigned as co-leader if she had been supported by Labour. It’s also likely that if she had stood her ground, she might have won votes from those who would not have voted otherwise – poor people, Māori, unemployed people, the alienated Left.

The promise of harm reduction and compromise that the Green Party offered did not inspire the non-voting population any more than Labour’s crusty neoliberal centrism. The Parliamentary “Left” is dying but the vacuum created by the 2017 election is huge and the task for New Zealand socialists is clear. We need a party that represents the interests of poor people, Māori, workers and students. That party must have a clear strategy to build power from the grassroots and, to borrow Labour’s earlier campaign message, change the government – not to a government for neoliberalism but for a decolonised socialist Aotearoa.

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