Bryce Edwards: Labour’s version of conservatism is no longer popular

Bryce Edwards: Labour’s version of conservatism is no longer popular

New Zealand now essentially has two conservative major parties for the public to choose from. Unfortunately for one of them – the Labour Party – the public increasingly prefers the more authentic conservative option, National. This can be seen in the latest opinion poll showing National continuing to storm ahead of Labour.

According to last night’s Newshub-Reid Research poll, National has nearly a third more support than Labour – 41 per cent compared to just 32 per cent. As a result, Labour is currently projected to lose something like 24 of its MPs at the next election, and be turfed out of power in what could be a landslide reversal of the 2020 victory.

Five years of cautious managerialism

Labour’s five years in power have been incredibly conservative, despite the radical times. Very little in the way of far-reaching reform has been pushed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and few radical policies have actually been delivered.

Ardern and her deputy prime minister, Grant Robertson, have been incredibly cautious and limited in their ambitions while in power. They look like conservatives – happy to rule over the status quo, careful not to scare the horses, and keeping any radicalism at bay, bar co-governance reforms successfully pushed within Labour by the Māori caucus.

Throughout the Covid crisis, the Government’s main aim has rightly been “to conserve” and steady the ship. This approach won them their historic 50 per cent of the vote in 2020. But voters haven’t been won over by any reform programmes, largely because the Government hasn’t changed much, and when they have tried to implement big projects they’ve failed – from Kiwibuild through to Auckland light rail. Traditional issues for the left like inequality, housing, and poverty have been deprioritised.

Now, with a more bona fide conservative party back on the market – also promising very little change – voters looking for caution, stability and managerialism are opting for the original version – National. Why continue to support a cheap copy of conservatism (Labour) when you can have the real thing (National)?

Labour’s conservative conference and policy announcement

The Labour Party’s annual conference in the weekend was on brand for conservatism. Yet again, the theme was all about “how to govern” the status quo rather than about significant social change. “Stability” was offered as the reason to vote for Labour, pitched against the alleged “radicalism” of National. Other terms of moderation that Labour leaders like Robertson embraced at the conference were “responsible” and “balanced”.

The conference was largely devoid of any profound reforms or fresh thinking, suggesting Labour has become tired. There was the expected cheerleading and attempts to enthuse the faithful, and lots of anti-National rhetoric, but nothing to suggest the party had bold new ideas.

Of course, there was the big announcement of increased childcare support and family assistance. This was meant to combat the cost of living crisis, but in the context of just how severe the problem is, the announcement was rather underwhelming. It will cost just $189m over four years – less than $50m per year – and only starting in April next year. One journalist described it as a “tweak” in policy, another as a “morsel” rather than anything that would make a real difference to the cost of living crisis.

Even National said they supported the new spending. After all, much of the funding goes to middle class families rather than directed towards the most disadvantaged.

Does Labour actually have any new progressive or leftwing policies for dealing with the problems New Zealand is facing? Not from what we saw in the weekend. Instead, it’s all knee-jerk managerialism from the leadership.

Were there any real debates, ideological clashes, or activists pushing the party towards bolder goals? It’s hard to know because the leadership took the rather authoritarian decision to close most of the conference to the media and public. Instead, the focus was on motivational speeches aimed at keeping the faith of delegates intact, and pretending that much had been achieved in Labour’s five years in power.

Labour’s conservative campaign message: fear

Labour has indicated that it will fight the next election, not on any new programme of transformation, but just on keeping their opponents out of office. This is the ultimate conservative goal – and in fact, it’s the one that National has historically held as its core ideology. In this sense, it’s as if Labour has willingly morphed into being the “alternative National Party”.

Ardern and Robertson will attempt to stoke fears about National and its leaders being dangerous, risky, and unknown. Better the devil that you know. They have started campaigning on the basis that Labour is more responsible and better in a crisis. Hence suddenly both Ardern and Robertson have done a U-turn – instead of insisting that the economic and inflation crisis isn’t so bad, they now say the opposite. The new line is that it’s going to get worse, and that Labour are the best managers for the rocky times ahead.

It’s also a rather traditionalist campaign pitch to focus on leadership and personality as the reason to vote Labour. The big theme of the weekend was a relentlessly negative focus on Christopher Luxon, and attempts to paint him as inexperienced or lacking leadership skills. This is the ultimate conservative plea to voters. As Newshub political editor Jenna Lynch described yesterday, the Finance Minister’s name-calling campaigning was “embarrassing”, and looked “panicked and petty”.

Will Labour’s conservatism eventually win more votes in 2023? It seems unlikely. In trying to emulate National, Labour will have a difficult time trying to outdo them.

What’s more, although we live in unstable and turbulent times – which Ardern and Robertson obviously believe requires a cautious approach – there are plenty of voters who want to see big changes and a radical response rather than “business as usual”.

Last night’s poll wasn’t the only one indicating that Labour is in trouble. The party would be wise to also heed the results of last week’s Horizon Research survey which indicated that 35 per cent of the public felt “disappointed” with Ardern – another 28 per cent felt “angry” with her. Many of these people also indicated that they voted for Labour at the last election. They had expected the party to deliver change. Instead, all they are getting is “more of the same”. It’s not a winning electoral formula.

Labour is still pitching itself as a party of stability and restraint – or “National-lite”. But for voters who want an authentically conservative party, then they can just go for the real deal – Luxon’s National.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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


Further reading on the Labour Party Conference and Opinion Polls

Toby Manhire (Spinoff): When Norman Kirk met Liz Truss in South Auckland
Claire Trevett (Herald): After the Labour conference, the sucker punch lands in a poll(paywalled)
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Labour’s shrinking conga line
Katie Scotcher (RNZ): Labour pitches vision and ability to lead past mounting challenges
Chris Trotter (Interest): Jacinda Ardern is, indisputably, New Zealand’s foremost impresario of political verbiage
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): National and ACT ahead in new poll, as Labour readies for a fight
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Newshub-Reid Research poll results disastrous for Labour – and it’s on Jacinda Ardern
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Newshub-Reid Research poll: Labour records lowest result since Jacinda Ardern became leader
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Newshub-Reid Research poll: Jacinda Ardern’s personal popularity plummets into 20s
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): New Newshub Poll – Labour Crash! National/ACT Government – Winners, Losers & Predictions
RNZ: Jacinda Ardern taking Labour’s drop in polls ‘with a grain of salt’
Michael Daly (Stuff): Defiant Ardern says Labour polling shows National and Labour ‘neck and neck’
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responds to ‘disastrous’ Newshub-Reid Research poll showing her personal popularity, Labour plummeting
Thomas Manch (Stuff): More people ‘disappointed’ and ‘angry’ with Jacinda Ardern, poll shows
Audrey Young (Herald): Rating the Cabinet – which ministers are up and which are down?(paywalled)
Emile Donovan (RNZ): Labour’s to-do list and the question of lasting reform
Richard Harman: Labour’s Pacific way (paywalled)
Marty Sharpe (Stuff): Childcare subsidies to be made available to families earning higher incomes
1News: Govt’s childcare package will see fees go up – expert
Newshub: Cost of living: How Government’s childcare subsidy announcement will affect families
Glen McConnell (Stuff): Half of children to get subsidised childcare under Jacinda Ardern’s big Labour conference promise
Katie Scotcher (RNZ): Sweeping expansion to childcare support announced by PM
William Hewett and Rachel Sadler (Newshub): More families to get childcare support, Working for Families tax credits boosted in cost of living package
1News: Childcare help for most families with new $190m Govt package
William Hewett and Rachel Sadler (Newshub): More families to get childcare support, Working for Families tax credits boosted in cost of living package
Amelia Wade (Newshub): Cost of living: Government’s childcare subsidy package supported by Kiwis but criticised by National
RNZ: National says government’s childcare subsidy extension ‘band-aid economics’
Herald: National’s Christopher Luxon reacts after Government’s childcare subsidy announcement
Brent Ewards (NBR): Government looks to tweak Working for Families (paywalled)
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): ‘We don’t cope’: 55,000 people have Working for Families debt
Molly Swift (Newshub): Jacinda Ardern says cost of living ‘top of our agenda’, political experts believe another payment could be on the cards
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Labour’s lost the Covid card, but does it have something else up its sleeve?
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Labour reassures itself: ‘We’ve got this’
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Grant Robertson takes aim at ‘Liz Luxon’ to rally supporters ahead of 2023 general election
Claire Trevett (Herald): Labour’s Grant Robertson defends sledging of National, Luxon as close election shapes up
Anneke Smith (RNZ): ‘It’s all at stake’ at Election 2023 – Labour’s outgoing president Claire Szabó
Newshub: Jacinda Ardern ‘standing firm’ on Three Waters, hints the reform could have some changes
Claire Trevett (Herald): Jacinda Ardern on Election 2023, a swipe at Christopher Luxon, Three Waters – and when’s the wedding? (paywalled)
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Is the cost-of-living squeeze a crisis Jacinda Ardern can manage?
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Labour’s year ahead: Will it stick with unpopular policy or focus on the election?
Kate Hawkesby (Newstalk ZB): The theme at the Labour Party conference was taking potshots at national


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Jessica Mutch (1News): Opinion: Why the Hamilton West by-election matters
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Isaac Davison (Herald): Rebuilding Better – the Equality Lens: How to grow the economy for all Kiwis (paywalled)
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Claire Trevett (Herald): Rebuilding Better: One big idea – what PM Jacinda Ardern would do if money was not a factor (paywalled)
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Fran O’Sullivan (Herald): Time to put Covid in the past? Not on your life (paywalled)
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Herald Editorial: Rebuilding a better New Zealand (paywalled)
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Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): Paul Goldsmith says National’s tax cut plans wouldn’t necessarily mean cuts to public services
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Yes – an economic recession is coming, rather than alienating social justice how about economic justice solidarity?
Michael Reddell: Making stuff up and misleading Parliament
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Gianina Schwanecke (Stuff): The things we are going without to beat the cost of living crisis
Rebecca Stevenson (Interest): Competition regulators like NZ’s Commerce Commission may help to combat rising prices for consumers
Brent Melville (BusinessDesk): Mind the productivity gap: commission launches ‘helicopter’ review (paywalled)
Mike Treen (Daily Blog): Why Marx was right about capitalism needing to have periodic crises
Guy Trafford (Interest): Inefficient white-collar workers get benefits not available to blue- or grey-collar workers because bosses accept and pay for lazy work habits
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Bob Jones: The grim year ahead
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Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): $6Billion of National’s Tax cuts will go to the richest 5% – how does that fix the cost of living crisis?
Steve Kilgallon (Stuff): He’s a banned director and accused migrant exploiter, but still running a company
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Nic Rawlence (The Conversation): Bones of contention: the West Coast whale fossil and the ethics of private collecting

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Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): How to lift participation in local elections – it’s simple but won’t happen!
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Tania Tapsell (Rotorua Daily Post): There’s a way forward, I intend to lead us there

1News: Up to half of Kiwi kids have rotting teeth – dentist
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Rachel Moore (Stuff): 20,000 people wait for surgery or first look in Waikato
Megan Wilson (Bay of Plenty Times): Tauranga Hospital: Elective surgery backlog nears 2000 as some wait years for hip replacements (paywalled)
Maryana Garcia (Bay of Plenty Times): Health worker shortage: Te Whatu Ora Bay of Plenty needs to fill 382 vacancies
Catherine Hubbard and Skara Bohny (Stuff): Long wait-times, parked ambulances and patients in the corridors in demand-surge at ED
Brittany Keogh (Stuff): Meningococcal cases increasing again after disease ‘almost disappeared’ in 2020
Louisa Steyl (Stuff): Southland radiology department operating without accreditation
Sophie Harris (Stuff): Woman who has to pay $115k for unfunded cancer drug asks: ‘What price is a life?’
Stephen Forbes (Local Democracy Reporting): Kiwi diabetics competing with US consumers using vital drugs for weight loss
Olivia Wannan (Stuff): Kiwis with rare disorders want faster progress on ‘life or death’ health strategy
Stephen Ward (Stuff): Pou unveiled but Hamilton health project $6.5m short, Government urged to put up pūtea
Joanne Naish (Stuff): Mental health unit could close due to ‘significant’ lack of staff
RNZ: New Canterbury mental health facility for children and teens taking shape
RNZ: Covid-19 cases likely much higher than currently reported – lab scientist

Felix Desmarais (Local Democracy Reporting): Rotorua emergency housing motels ads targeted Facebook users out of town
Kelly Makiha (Rotorua Daily Post): Rotorua emergency housing: Nearly $70m spent
Kelly Makiha (Rotorua Daily Post): Rotorua emergency housing: Kirsty Wiringi’s story of living in emergency housing motel
Tom Taylor (RNZ): Rotorua tourism operators say no to emergency housing extension
Carly Gooch (Stuff): ‘More and more I don’t recognise every day’: Christchurch’s rising homelessness problem
Yvonne Tahana (1News): Govt pledges $55 million for Māori land housing in Whāngarei
Gareth Vaughan (Interest): Are bank stress tests bunkum?
Eva Corlett (Guardian): New Zealand the ‘kiwi in the coalmine’ as house prices slump and repayments rise
Miriam Bell (Stuff): Why are cohousing developments failing to take off in New Zealand?

Janet Wilson (Stuff): Hate speech laws will only increase intolerance
Harry Peterson: The Government doesn’t have the political capital needed to pass hate speech laws
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Charlotte Graham-McLay (Guardian): New Zealand revamps deradicalisation program as anti-authority terror threat rises
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Bernard Orsman (Herald): Auckland’s public transports crisis: What’s gone wrong with bus, rail and ferry services (paywalled)
Matthew Scott (Newsroom): For want of a bus driver: tough times for Auckland Transport
RNZ: Another vacancy opens up on the Auckland Transport board
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