Bryce Edwards: Labour shifts focus from Grey Lynn to West Auckland

Bryce Edwards: Labour shifts focus from Grey Lynn to West Auckland

The days of the Labour Government being associated with middle class social liberalism look to be numbered. Soon-to-be Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni are heralding a major shift in emphasis away from the constituencies and ideologies of liberal Grey Lynn and Wellington Central towards the working class politics of West Auckland and the Hutt Valley, where the two new leaders are based.

Hipkins and Sepuloni were elected yesterday and immediately started repositioning their Government away from what might be called the affluent “woking class” towards the “working class”. Gone is an emphasis on cultural politics, and in its place is a laser-like focus on the economy and delivery of better public services to ordinary citizens.

In his first speech, Hipkins said: “My focus will be on the here and now and the bread and butter issues that people care about.” He explained his big priority is dealing with the cost of living crisis, followed by jobs, crime, education, and health.

Herald political editor Claire Trevett described his speech as “the chalk to the cheese of Ardern’s style and language. We have gone from transformational to bread and butter.”

She approves of his new direction: “His job is trying to convince voters that Labour is focused on the various troubles plaguing them now – from potholes to hip ops to the price of bread – rather than some big highfaluting vision for the future, or expensive and cumbersome reforms that might look like luxury items in the current climate. It was precisely what he needed to do.”

Smart for Hipkins to focus on the economy

Matthew Hooton writes in The Australian today that Hipkins is smart to focus Labour on the economy – it’s the overwhelming voting issue for 2023. A Curia Research poll out on Friday showed that when asked what the number one issue in the country is, the biggest response is the cost of living (22 per cent), followed by the economy in general (19 per cent), with no other issue coming close.

And when the poll asked the public who they thought could best tackle inflation, 49 per cent chose National, with only 23 per cent favouring Labour. On the economy in general, National is favoured by 50 per cent, to Labour’s 27 per cent.

Labour desperately needs to turn around the perception that the party isn’t focused on economic issues during a recession. This is especially because Labour’s own traditional constituency of working people is hurting the most at the moment. As Hooton points out, “Measured as labour costs over consumer prices, real wages began falling from mid-2020. By September 2021, they were lower than when Ms Ardern became Prime Minister and have kept falling since. By September 2022, they were down nearly 6 per cent compared with mid-2020.”

Does this mean that Labour will focus on economics at the expense of “woke” politics?

The term “woke” has been increasingly used to describe this Labour Government, and commentators agree that Hipkins wants to change that perception.

Yesterday’s Sunday Star Times editorial explained that Hipkins’ leadership focus is on “working New Zealanders”, and “Hipkins is making clear that he’s going to be less ‘woke’ and more attuned to their needs.”

Stuff political editor Luke Malpass also says Hipkins “doesn’t share some of the more ‘woke’ culture affectations that some of his colleagues do.” Malpass suggests Hipkins is less about “some sort of social engineering agenda” and “more in the old-Labour mould of delivering ‘improvement’ in peoples’ lives, rather than adhering to a ‘progressive’ march of history view of the world”.

In the same newspaper, Andrea Vance refers to Labour ditching “distracting, unpopular initiatives and issues that we neatly package up as ‘identity politics’.”

Others see this shift is about taking Labour back towards traditional class-based progressive politics. For example, this week leftwing commentator Josie Pagani suggested that the new Labour leadership should, “Re-focus and sort out the underperforming public sector, jettison the identity politics, and deliver a greater share of the economy to wage earners.”

Political journalist Richard Harman says much of what Hipkins is doing “is going back to its past as the party of workers” and believes it’s a smart move. Harman points out that, although Hipkins might be “unashamedly from Labour’s middle-class base”, he is channelling his Remutaka constituency which “consists almost entirely of wage earners”, and “is a far cry from the increasingly affluent inner-city Mt Albert electorate of Jacinda Ardern.”

Harman also argues that various statements from Hipkins yesterday seemed like “veiled criticism of the Ardern Government’s focus on the kind of issues that excite young inner city voters”. In contrast to satisfying the affluent voters of Grey Lynn, Mt Albert and Wellington Central, Hipkins deliberately focused on working families: “I think that some of them might feel they feel that they are not hearing enough from us about the issues that are that really matter to them at the moment. And that’s absolutely where our focus will be.”

Certainly, both Hipkins and Sepuloni are stressing all things socio-economic. Yesterday Hipkins said he wanted to focus on the housing crisis, saying “You shouldn’t have to be on a six-figure salary to buy a new house.” Of course, he also was at pains to say he didn’t want property prices to actually drop.

And Hipkins said his government would strengthen public services, especially in education and health: “Access to those basics needs to be extended to all those who are striving for better.”

Hipkins emphasised his own “relatively humble” beginnings, and suggested that his new deputy fitted with those as well: “As a proud westie, I can’t think of a better sidekick for a boy from the Hutt.”

Sepuloni also stressed her humble background alongside her ethnicity, saying “It is very hard to fathom that a working-class girl from Waitara who turned ‘Westie’ that that person could become the Deputy-Prime Minister of New Zealand.” And profiles of her also advertise that her Samoan-Tongan father was a freezing worker and unionist, while her Pākehā Mum was from a farming background and worked in a Swanndri factory.

It was noteworthy that in his first speech, Hipkins failed to use the moniker of “Aotearoa”, referring instead only to “New Zealand” about a dozen times. It seemed deliberate, especially because Sepuloni followed suit. It was strikingly different to the convention of Government ministers over the last year or so.

It’s likely that Labour’s market research is telling them that the Government is being negatively associated with social engineering and “woke politics” relating to gender and ethnicity agendas. Working class voters in particular are probably less enamoured with such middle class liberalism. And the term “Aotearoa” has possibly become something of a signifier for what the public sees as Labour’s “woke excesses”.

There’s plenty of survey evidence to back this up. Whenever the public is asked about the use of “Aotearoa” or changing the country’s name, the vast majority are opposed. There’s probably a suspicion that liberal elites are pushing through such language changes without any public debate.

What happens to Co-governance and Three Waters?

Hipkins has emphasised his desire to reset the Labour Government this year by paring back its agenda and dropping unpopular policies. Could this include what surveys are showing as the most unpopular issues: Co-governance and Three Waters? The latest polling shows that 60 per cent of the public opposes Three Waters, with only 23 per cent in support.

It’s the co-governance element that appears to be of particular public concern. But reporting on Hipkins’ statements, Matthew Hooton says today: “To restore the Labour-Green vote in small towns and rural New Zealand, already down to a third, Mr Hipkins is signalling changes to plans for Maori tribes to hold 50 per cent of the seats on new regional drinking-, waste- and storm-water representative bodies.”

Hipkins spoke thoughtfully about co-governance in his press conference yesterday, saying that “no one understands what that means”, and further clarification is required, especially about the different contexts in which it is utilised by governments. But the clear subtext was that he was very willing and interested in getting such issues right off the agenda.

Some journalists have made much of the fact that Hipkins wasn’t able to recite the three articles of The Treaty of Waitangi yesterday. Reported as being an embarrassment, it’s probably not the damaging episode that some might think – instead, it might just reinforce that Hipkins isn’t as Treaty-oriented as other politicians.

Where does this leave Three Waters, which is getting closer to being implemented this year? According to Stuff’s Tracy Watkins: “Whether the implementation of Three Waters is parked or Hipkins strips it back to its original purpose of fixing degraded rivers and beaches and dodgy town water supplies, it will involve tough conversations with Labour’s powerful Māori caucus about co-governance that Ardern was unwilling to have.”

She argues Three Waters “has ripped open a fault line on race relations that polarises an already divided electorate.”

Claire Trevett says that it’s still not clear how bold Hipkins is prepared to be in his scrapping of unpopular policies. She asks: “Will he be brave? Will he indeed make big captain’s calls or just tinker?”

Analysts appear divided on what Hipkins is likely to do with Three Waters. Herald political journalist Thomas Coughlan writes today that the policy looks safe. In contrast, Stuff’s Andrea Vance says she expects Three Waters to be dumped. Others have argued that the overall reforms might stay in place, but shorn of the contentious co-governance requirements.

Notably, today former Labour leader David Cunliffe has come out to say: “Expect him to clear the decks of electoral liabilities, fast. Three Waters will be off the table. Likely also, speed limit reductions and the TVNZ/RNZ merger.”

Symbolically such U-turns could be a big deal. Chris Trotter writes on this today: “On the vexed questions of co-governance, decolonisation and indigenisation, the new prime minister need not even repudiate the Māori caucus’s revolutionary ambitions, merely state the obvious truth that they have so-far failed to convince their fellow citizens that such radical constitutional changes are either necessary or desirable. In the same breath, he can then reassure the Pakeha electorate that Labour will never connive in the arbitrary imposition of a new, ethnically-bifurcated, constitution from above.”

Is Labour back in the game?

Decisiveness and a fresh political orientation could well work electorally. According to Newshub political editor Jenna Lynch, the new direction and style of Hipkins is a shot in the arm for Labour: “He has a way of connecting with working families in a way Ardern couldn’t – so stardust or not, Prime Minister Hipkins may just be exactly the reset the Labour Government and Labour party needed.”

None of this means Hipkins is anti-woke, in the mould of someone like David Seymour, but simply that he will steer his government away from the culture wars. The electoral environment of 2023 is all about the economy, and so he needs to find ways to protect and lift people’s standards of living. Hipkins will want Labour to focus on “votes not the wokes”.

Does this shift away from Treaty issues or co-governance mean throwing Māori under the bus? Not really. Māori voters are, by and large, concerned with the same issues as non-Māori – and in fact, suffer the most from economic inequities. The last available poll of Māori voters – by Horizon last year for The Hui – asked what issues would drive their voting decisions, and the top was Cost of Living (72 per cent) followed by Housing, Health, Covid, Poverty, Economy, Employment, Education. Notably, Treaty issues was the lowest on the list.

Not everyone on the left will be happy with Hipkins’ new “bread and butter” focus. There will be concerns that Hipkins is cynically shifting in a more conservative or reactionary direction. There might also be questions about the authenticity of the repositioning. It’s a fair question as to whether this is just opportunism on Hipkins’ part.

Nonetheless, this shift towards a total focus on the economy and more working class concerns is what will determine Labour’s re-election chances more than anything else. And in this regard, Hooton has his own conclusion today about Labour’s chances of winning re-election: “If any recession is modest or avoided, unemployment stays low, inflation falls back towards the mandated 1-3 per cent band and the All Blacks thrash France at the World Cup opener in Paris on September 8, then Labour should scrape home for a third term. If any of those go wrong, Mr Hipkins is toast.”


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.  


Other items of interest and importance today

Chris Trotter (Interest): Does Chris Hipkins have the spinal steel to force a change in Labour’s course?
David Cunliffe (Herald): Chris Hipkins as Prime Minister: Expect him to ditch Three Waters, TVNZ/RNZ merger (paywalled)
Thomas Coughlan: (Herald): Chris Hipkins embarks on policy bonfire – what’s safe and what’s not (paywalled)
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Who’s who in incoming Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ inner circle?
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Labour’s new leader: A game changer, or the party’s death knell?
Thomas Cranmer: Chris Hipkins on co-governance: ‘No-one understands what it means’
Claire Trevett (Herald): Labour leader Chris Hipkins’ first pitch to voters dishes out bread and butter to replace transformation
Luke Malpass (Stuff): The Chris Hipkins ascension: Out with the earnestness, in with some saltiness
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): Incoming Prime Minister Chris Hipkins hints at tax changes, says some New Zealanders aren’t paying their way
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): ‘We’re doing too much’: Chris Hipkins prepares to cut Government policies
RNZ: Incoming Prime Minister Chris Hipkins singles out ‘global inflation pandemic’ as priority
Matthew Hooton (The Australian): Fate of new PM hinges on NZ economy (paywalled)
Matthew Hooton (Patreon): Don’t rule out National leadership change before election(paywalled)
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Hipkins is a political terrier, and National should beware the underdog
Richard Harman (Politik): Hipkins “reset” was all in the plans anyway (paywalled)
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): Chris Hipkins wants to make politics boring again
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Chris Hipkins thinks he can lead Labour to victory in the election – and friends say he can do it
Adam Pearse (Herald): New Prime Minister Chris Hipkins to rein in Govt projects and focus on ‘bread and butter’ issues
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): The biggest challenges facing PM Hipkins
Damien Venuto (Herald): How will the battle between Christopher Luxon and Chris Hipkins play out?
Herald Editorial: Can change at the top boost Labour’s political fortunes? (paywalled)
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Chris Hipkins reorients Labour towards fighting ‘pandemic of inflation’
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): New Labour leader Chris Hipkins on co-governance: ‘No-one understands what that means’
Bernard Hickey (Interest): Chris Hipkins wants to ditch unnecessary spending and doesn’t want to do anything to lower house prices
RNZ: Labour leadership: Hipkins and Sepuloni to rein in projects that ‘aren’t essential right now’
Liam Hehir (The Blue Review): Congratulations to Mr Congeniality
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): Chris Hipkins and the focus project
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Incoming Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says economy main focus but can’t say what inflation rate is
1News: Chris Hipkins announces priorities as new prime minister
Kevin Norquay (Stuff): As Hipkins arrives and Ardern goes, business bleakness is bedded in
Paul McBeth (BusinessDesk): Hipkins wants business in the tent (paywalled)
Jane Patterson (RNZ): Speedy transfer of power a show of caucus unity
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): Labour’s swift, clean move to pick new PM
Rachel Thomas (Stuff): Welly hard! Local mayors celebrate Chippie – our prime minister from the Hutt
Newshub: Chris Hipkins’ iconic cap and sunnies from Newshub interview for auction on Trade Me
Gray Gibson (Newshub): Twitter reacts to Chris Hipkins’ tracksuit and sunnies look in Newshub interview
RNZ: Chris Hipkins appeals for his family’s privacy to be respected
Troels Sommerville (Stuff): National’s Luxon says Hipkins as new PM will be ‘more of the same’
RNZ: Luxon on new Labour leadership: ‘Nothing has changed’

Stuff: Who is new Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni?
Felix Desmarais (1News): The ‘girl from Waitara’ – Carmel Sepuloni makes history
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Carmel the Dreadful – our new Deputy Prime Minister
Claudette Hauiti (Herald): Māori definitely snubbed by the Labour Party leadership reshuffle
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): ‘Historic moment’: Carmel Sepuloni is NZ’s first Pasifika deputy prime minister
Kelvin McDonald (Whakaata Māori): ‘Still no Māori Prime Minister’: Te Pāti Māori express disappointment
Zane Small (Newshub): Carmel Sepuloni’s constituents reveal key issue for Labour after selection as Deputy Prime Minister
Madeleine Chapman (Spinoff): A beginner’s guide to Carmel Sepuloni, our new deputy prime minister

Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): Chris Hipkins knew Jacinda Ardern was considering resigning late last year
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): Claims Jacinda Ardern driven from top job by online hate ‘ridiculous’, ‘melodramatic’ – AM host Ryan Bridge
Gerarden Cann (Stuff): Jacinda Ardern will need ‘more ongoing protection than any PM in NZ’s history’ – expert
Suze Wilson (Herald): Jacinda Ardern’s resignation: gender and the toll of strong, compassionate leadership
Alison Mau (Stuff): Shame on our misogyny: It’s no wonder Jacinda Ardern was driven from office
Neal Curtis (Newsroom): When are we going to address misogynistic abuse?
Cherie Howie (Herald): ‘She’ll be more fondly remembered than she is now’ – How will history judge Jacinda Ardern’s legacy? (paywalled)
Steve Maharey (Stuff): Without Covid, Labour would have made more progress
RNZ: Jacinda Ardern had working people’s welfare at heart, union says
Newshub: Jacinda Ardern showed people ‘how to be kind and strong’, Anthony Albanese says
Donna Miles (Stuff): Jacinda Ardern’s biggest strength was her Kiwiness
Arwa Mahdawi (Guardian): Jacinda Ardern proved a true leader knows when to step back. If only US politicians did the same
Bonnie Harrison (Newsroom): What will become of Mt Albert without an MP?
Erin Gourley (Stuff): Stephen Colbert wants to be flower girl at Jacinda Ardern’s wedding

Rob Stock (Stuff): Here’s how we can have a sustainable NZ Super without lifting the retirement age from 65
Murat Ungor (Newsroom): Economy will be a rough ride no matter what
Tom Pullar Strecker (Stuff): Whatever happens with inflation, the Reserve Bank will have got it ‘right’
Jenée Tibshraeny (Herald): Inflation expected to have become more domestically driven(paywalled)
David Hargreaves (Interest): Here’s hoping the RBNZ has got it wrong on the inflation figures
David Skilling (Interest): From transitory to wartime inflation
Cameron Smith (Herald): Pay rise? Salary increases amid soaring inflation, tight labour market, unlikely (paywalled)
Nona Pelletier (RNZ): Employment confidence fell in December quarter, index shows
Andrew Bevin (Newsroom): Don’t expect cheap freight anytime soon
Ripu Bhatia (Stuff): Sales by Māori authorities down $86m, Stats NZ data shows
Sasha Borissenko (Herald): Are trusts only for the rich? (paywalled)
Esther Taunton (Stuff): Restaurant ordered to pay $218,000 after ‘holding migrant worker to ransom’
Liz McDonald (Stuff): The credit card swipe that’s adding 10c to your $5 flat white

Michael Daly (Stuff): We’re not the only country where housing is far too expensive, but we are among the worst
Miriam Bell (Stuff): Big shock to household incomes could endanger orderly housing market correction
David Hargreaves (Interest): QV warns of ‘bumpy road ahead’ for ‘volatile’ NZ housing market
Ethan Te Ora (Stuff): Williams Corporation converts unsold townhouses into Airbnbs
Jill Herron (Newsroom): Developer eyes turning gravel into gold
Jacob McSweeny (Whanganui Chronicle): Proposed Kāinga Ora homes are “nowhere near” enough to fix Whanganui’s housing problems says one community leader(paywalled)

Jonathan Leask (Local Democracy Reporting): $4.2m ‘better off funding’ not buying Ashburton’s Three Waters support
Fran Wilde (Stuff): In defence of Wellington as a capital city and an all-round good place
James Nokise (Stuff): It is not a privilege to be the capital city, it’s a burden

Brittany Keogh (Stuff): This dad lost his daughter to meningitis at university. Now he’s on a health crusade
Russell Brown (Listener/Herald): Nipped in the bud: Why Kiwis are still turning to illegal medicinal cannabis products (paywalled)

Jessica Tyson (Whakaata Māori ): Pākaraka signs installed in town formerly named after militiaman who killed rangatahi
Kelvin McDonald (Whakaata Māori): Manawatū iwi to meet with ‘Settlers Day’ organisers
Jarrod Gilbert (Herald): How ‘bodgies’ brought crime to NZ streets