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24 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:15pm

What UK Labour can learn from the rise of Jacinda Ardern

New Zealand's new Labour PM won over voters in an election the party was expected to lose. 

By Kieran O'Halloran

Jacinda Ardern’s greatness is of the “thrust upon her” vintage. Although she has long been tipped for the top, the largest barrier to her accession to the leadership of the New Zealand Labour party appeared to be her own lack of ambition, perhaps grounded in her anxiety, which she is open about. But less than eight weeks before an election the party looked set to lose, Andrew Little stood down from the leadership and Ardern, who had served as his deputy, was unanimously elected to the leadership by her colleagues in the parliamentary party.

The effect was instant. In preferred Prime Minister polling, Ardern had led Little, even as his deputy. As leader, she drew level with and then overtook incumbent Bill English of the National party. Although on polling day Labour ended up eight points behind National, in New Zealand’s proportional system, the Green party’s support for a Labour-led government meant that the decision on who would govern New Zealand was left to Winston Peters, the leader of the populist New Zealand First. On Friday evening Peters went with Ardern.

Ardern’s charisma is undeniable. Working as a Labour campaign organiser, even as deputy leader we found it easier to get a crowd for her than for Little. Her homespun, small town charm can sometimes feel a little overdone – in speeches she often refers to her student job in a fish and chip shop, and not to the presumably more politically formative gig advising Tony Blair’s government. Given her youth, looks and manner, comparisons with Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau are inevitable, but ultimately superficial – Ardern will implement a straightforwardly leftist programme. However, in her genuinely positive campaign, there are echoes of those successful Francophones.

Ardern’s majority, though slight, is stronger than it might first appear. It is true that New Zealand First is socially conservative and the Greens socially liberal, but these questions are not at the forefront of voters’ minds. A referendum on the 2007 law which outlawed parents smacking their children could well be a demand of NZ First, but whilst the Greens would campaign vigorously and probably unsuccessfully against the law’s repeal,they would not bring down the government over the results of a plebiscite. Unlike their European sister parties, such as those in Ireland, Germany and Finland who have served in centre-right led governments, the Greens have no centrist wing, and therefore no plausible alternative partner in government.

Internally, Ardern is stronger still. In a party whose right and left wings split from the rump in the final decades of the twentieth century, she has no rival individual or faction, and no obvious successor. Moreover, at least one in three MPs owe her their jobs.

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Finally, she inherits an economy which has been well managed by the outgoing National party, whose bellicose attacks on Ardern over the short campaign belie their largely technocratic stewardship of one of the very few advanced economies to return surpluses in recent years.

Those surpluses and Ardern’s rejection of tax cuts give her cash to play with. But Ardern will be constrained by Labour’s promise to continue delivering those surpluses and keep spending at around 30 per cent of GDP. What’s more, the demands for improvements to regional infrastructure which NZ First will make could constitute the lion’s share of new spending. It may be that, à la Ardern’s old boss Blair, it is not until a second term that the welfare state is significantly expanded. When the time comes, Ardern’s priorities are clear. Exceptionally for a party which thought it had little hope of a return to government, Labour’s manifesto is realistic and affordable, and given the statist bent of her new partners, much of it is likely to have survived the coalition negotiations.

Firstly, Ardern must do something about the housing shortage in Auckland, where a third of New Zealanders live. But she must correct this problem without further stoking the depopulation of small town New Zealand, the base of NZ First. Her target is to build 50,000 homes in Auckland over the next decade, which will be sold at around half of the current average value. The fact that the housing market has probably already turned in Auckland may make this a little easier.

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Perhaps of even more importance to Ardern’s base of young, educated liberals will be further subsidisation of higher education. Labour has promised three year’s free tuition by 2024 and an additional $50 a week for student allowances. Higher education is hardly home turf for NZ First, whose website lists the party’s policies on horse racing before those on education, but it won’t resist such moves.

Labour policy is to cut net migration (currently about 70,000 a year) by up to 30,000. When the policy was announced by Little, my colleagues and I took a lot of heat from activists. But with the avowedly anti-migration NZ First in government, drastic cuts are inevitable. Paradoxically, Ardern is stronger for having her hand forced. The one question that may be asked is how so many affordable houses will be built without such a large, cheap migrant workforce.

As with Labour in the UK, it may be internal divisions over trade which most threaten Ardern’s position. Whilst all three parties in the new government oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal, in its current form, they differ on what they would like to see done with it. But even if the government does collapse, Ardern will not be compelled to give up the leadership. Peters is seen as a scallywag and an opportunist by his many detractors and will probably cop the blame.

New Zealand Labour has twice found itself in the global vanguard of radical reform. In the 1930s, the Labour government built one of the world’s most comprehensive welfare states. In the 1980s a Labour government implemented policies which came to represent the essence of neoliberalism. Whether Ardern’s government will usher in a third such era remains to be seen. Peters is a tricky partner, the opposition is strong and questions about the long term future of the centre left globally remain unanswered. But Ardern takes office with an enormous amount of political capital, an achievable platform and with youth on her side. Her campaign will serve as a blueprint to the British Labour party. In time, so might her government.

Kieran O’Halloran is the former Auckland campaign organiser for the New Zealand Labour Party.