Branko Marcetic: If Labour rests on its Covid-defeating laurels then it’s headed for a big fall

Branko Marcetic: If Labour rests on its Covid-defeating laurels then it’s headed for a big fall

Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party has received a historic landslide victory based on its competent handling of Covid, but the new government already shows worrying signs of complacency. Branko Marcetic argues that Labour can’t expect Covid issues to keep its popularity up and if it is to survive in power it needs to deliver on the transformative agenda it originally promised.


Labour’s cautious, conservative election campaign light on policy is already transforming into cautious, conservative governance light on policy, it seems.

Fresh off the back of a historic landslide win that saw the Prime Minister pre-emptively rule out a wealth tax and refuse to lend her popularity to the common-sense measure of legalizing marijuana, the new government is continuing to play it safe. Right off the bat, former Health Minister Chris Hipkins ruled out doing “something big and bold and dramatic” on dental care, while the new government has continued to resist increasing benefits despite years of calls from activist groups and its own expert advisory group, and is now rejecting a Green-led push to follow through on its election promise to double sick leave before Christmas.

All of this suggests the Labour government, keen to hang on to the broad, cross-ideological coalition it’s won for the next election, is going to stick to what just worked: following a centrist, penny-pinching approach that continues to nibble around the edges of this country’s growing crises of inequality, and instead leaning hard on its strong handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

There’s just one problem: there’s no guarantee this last issue will work for the party in 2023 the same way it did this year.

There are several possibilities with the pandemic. One is that a vaccine will soon prove successful and be approved for use around the world, returning life back to something approaching a pre-Covid normal, and neutralising the one issue above all others that Labour rode this year to power. In this case, the National voters and others who rewarded the party this for year for its pandemic response will feel no obligation to give it another three years, while the party will be left grappling with the fallout from a prolonged global recession, if not a depression.

Another, probably more realistic, scenario is that a successful vaccine takes a year or longer to be fully rolled out, and that even after it does, the coronavirus remains, like the flu, a permanent part of our world, continuing to periodically disrupt daily life and the working of the economy. There are other, concerning wildcards in this scenario: if an initially promising vaccine proves unsuccessful, if the virus mutates, or if another pandemic suddenly emerges, for instance. But while a prolonged pandemic might at first thought seem to politically benefit of Labour, this is no guarantee.

While Labour has deservedly won praise the world over for its swift and competent public health response, it’s also true the government has benefited from several factors out of its control. One is an incompetent and disordered opposition, which has not only been dragged down by infighting and behind-the-scenes backstabbing, but one that, even at the best of times, has been perennially on the wrong side on response measures. But it’s naïve to assume National won’t get its act together in the next three years, while the longer pandemic conditions drag on, and the worse economic conditions become, the more persuasive calls to keep the economy open and “learn to live with” the virus (or, horrifyingly, viruses) will become.

The other is the extraordinary leeway given to any government in a time of crisis. Kiwis have rightly been willing to forgive the government for slip-ups that have happened under its watch, given the overall strength of its response. But there have been slip-ups. There was David Clark’s infamous mountain bike ride, the repeated early failures to ensure testing in isolation and PPE for health workers, the failure to test workers at the border contrary to government assurances it was being done, to name a few. These mistakes were often paired with muddled and, seemingly, less-than-forthright explanations from government officials.

Most recently, there was the snafu with an Auckland CBD apartment block, whose residents reportedly mingled with guests at a neighbouring managed isolation facility after both were evacuated in response to a fire alarm, and who had not been informed about a new case discovered at the building until the rest of the country found out at a press conference. The incident has finally pushed the government to institute a mask mandate for public transport, a measure public health experts have been calling for for months in the face of mystifying government resistance, and something already par for the course — not far enough, in fact — in countries like Vietnam and Taiwan. As time goes, critics will increasingly question other parts of its response policy, such as, for instance, the decision to quarantine the potentially infected in the most densely populated part of the country’s biggest city.

The government still holds a monopoly on the public’s trust. But it’s unrealistic to believe mistakes won’t keep happening, and a steady drip-drip of errors, obfuscation, and excuse-making will steadily erode this trust over time, particularly if the idea of living with the virus becomes more and more normal over time.

In other words, while Labour’s all-in bet on its pandemic response might’ve made sense in the short term, believing it’ll be as sure a thing in another three years time is optimistic, particularly if and when the opposition sorts itself out. And when the Kiwis who gave their vote to Labour in 2020 for no other reason than its handling of the pandemic either no longer view the issue as an all-consuming priority, or simply have less faith Labour are the only ones who can competently steer them through this crisis, what will the party have to pitch to voters next time it asks them for another chance to govern? How will it motivate its base and swing voters to turn out?

That’s why the government needs to use its mandate to deliver on the transformative agenda it promised people the first time it won three years ago, but has largely shied away from when actually in power. The long-stagnating problems that bedevilled New Zealand before the pandemic — shocking poverty, a housing crisis, environmental degradation, climate change, and more — haven’t gone away, and still require the kind of bold government action the prime minister once promised, before she was prime minister.

The “rally ‘round the flag” effect lasts only so long, and we’re already seeing cracks beginning to show. If Labour are interested in political survival, they have to look beyond simply their pandemic response, and make real the vision of fairness and shared prosperity that has been at the core of the party’s appeal from its earliest history.


Branko Marcetic is co-host of the podcast 1 of 200 and a staff writer for Jacobin magazine

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.