Harry Robson: Hipkins’ opportunity to bring Labour back to its roots

Harry Robson: Hipkins’ opportunity to bring Labour back to its roots

Chris Hipkins has become New Zealand’s 41st prime minister following Ardern’s unexpected resignation—perhaps the bold and unpredictable move Labour needed to improve its election chances. Just six days into his premiership and Labour had its first lead over National in thirteen weeks. National has had a largely uninterrupted run of favourable polls since March last year. But with a new prime minister and a fresh approach, National’s walk-in election victory could now be in the rear-view mirror. What could be of more concern to Luxon is that Hipkins already leads him in the preferred PM rating. If Hipkins can build on that lead by managing the response to the North Island floods well, then it may be the opposition playing catch-up; it could hand Labour the momentum to shape the tempo and narrative of the election.

In a less extreme way, it parallels Ardern’s sudden change of fortunes in early 2020 — when National was polling above forty percent and it appeared the odds were on Bridges’ side — the pandemic gave Ardern the opportunity to win the trust of voters with a display of effective crisis management, and National never regained the momentum that it had heading into election year. Conversely, if Hipkins fails to turn the corner on key concerns like the cost of living and public safety, then for all the rhetoric about focussing on “bread and butter issues,” he could very well end up in the same position as Ardern before her resignation: brand rot from a loss of credibility.

Right now, the Prime Minister’s approach seems to be: heed prevailing public sentiment and adopt a “Blue Labour” strategy similar to that of UK Labour Party leader Keir Starmer. The Government will shift to a more small-c conservative approach on social and cultural issues while giving voters a tangible reason to keep Labour in office by developing a clear message based on delivering economically progressive policies.

During Hipkins’ predecessor’s time in office, meaningful changes to the lives of working people were largely non-existent. When transient economic numbers started to go south, Labour didn’t have much to point to as a reason to keep them in office. The “hiding” dealt to progressives in last year’s local elections revealed two fault lines in the electorate: a disillusioned base of economically left voters happy to stay at home and let a populist centre-right surge go unchallenged, for their lives were no different or even worse than five years ago; and unpopular policies acting as a lighting-rod to mobilise other voters disgruntled with perceived government incompetence, growing divisiveness, and rising crime.

Hipkins will bring a different emphasis and tone to Labour’s messaging. Ardern’s brand of relentless positivity seemed almost malapropos to the grim and frustrated mood of the electorate. The prime minister’s decision to continue half-price public transport fares and fuel price cuts reflect the pragmatic disposition he hopes will improve Labour’s popularity. That pragmatism may have to include the jettisoning of some of the neoliberal orthodoxies that have kept Labour bereft of ideas.

Ardern had been progressive on many cultural and social issues but, economically speaking, relatively conservative, avoiding any significant changes on material issues that could rankle the upper income homeowners that gave her a majority in 2020. In doing so, Ardern capitulated on promises made in 2017 to address those left behind in the economy.

Hipkins could construct a centrism of his own, an inversion of the progressive-conservative combination Ardern practised: focus less on social engineering and pivot to populist, progressive economic change.


The Pivot: a mere rebrand or an opportunity for a change in political thinking?


Labour’s previous focus to underline steady-as-she-goes responsible economic management was a centre-right approach to political messaging that didn’t appease its critics nor motivate its supporters. The mantle of social progress is Labour’s natural terrain, and it is what voters traditionally associate with the party. At times it seemed like Ardern and Robertson wanted to position their party as the natural party of government, yet that is fundamentally at odds with the spirit and expectations of a social democratic party.

Much has been made of Hipkins’ intimations that Labour has changed under his leadership. The crucial question is whether this is a compelling marketing strategy or a programmatic agenda. Under Ardern, Labour continued its ossified embrace of neoliberalism. Policies like free dental care, free public transport, a tax-free threshold, free GP visits, a capital gains tax, and bringing back the Ministry of Works — all have solid support amongst the public. Seemingly out of sheer dogmatic adherence to the Rogernomics legacy, popular universalist policies were disregarded.

Failure to carry through these economically left positions undermined the Government’s credibility with progressives. It is not merely about the Government’s failure to prove that it can achieve its goals, it is also the story of voters electing a leader marketed as the remedy to the socio-economic wounds of neoliberalism who once in office performed a hugely dispiriting about-face. That is, Ardern decided that her government would be a continuity government; more of the same, more managed decline. As a result, it damaged the trust voters had in Labour.

Moreover, the failure to provide an alternative to neoliberalism led Labour to foreground its agenda in more divisive or less-comprehensible policies. As an example of what could be done in place of unpopular policy, rather than Three Waters, Labour should be aiming to repeal and replace the Public Finance Act (“PFA”). To circumvent the limits of the PFA (a piece of legislation from the progenitors of ACT), the Government legislated a staggering asset grab from democratically elected local authorities, enabling it to use those newly acquired assets as a basis for more public spending. It would have been less incendiary to simply remove/reform the PFA’s conservative rules on fiscal spending. Ardern’s refusal to go beyond the parameters of neoliberalism was her own undoing. Somewhat tragic considering her comments in 2017 about neoliberalism having failed.

Now Hipkins will have to deal with the omnicrisis after five more years of do-nothingism under Ardern-Robertson: the escalating housing crisis; at least 1 in 50 New Zealanders homeless; record gun violence; a spate of stabbings and random physical attacks; the ram-raids; potential for further industrial conflict; a health system on the brink of collapse; waiting times at emergency centres of between six to nine hours; staffing crisis in prisons, to name but a few.

With all of the socio-economic crises impacting the daily realities of working people, including the crushing cost of living, it would be a misread to go for more small-target, piecemeal changes. Ardern snuffed out the enthusiasm her premiership once commanded by refusing to actualise the sentiment for positive economic change that propelled her into office.

It seems clearer every day that the political economy of economic liberalism is failing. As long as Labour is in power, they will be on the hook for every negative headline coming from a status quo that is producing worse and worse outcomes at an accelerating pace. Reform must be an imperative for this Government.


Lessons from the Clark era and the overlooked benefits of Old Labour politics


Helen Clark’s long leadership of the Labour Party provides some important lessons on the strategies and policies that may help the centre-left in seeking and holding office: the electoral benefits of returning Labour to its social democratic roots and embracing a firm political positioning on the side of unionism and working people.

Clark’s forthrightness is an example to any social democratic politician. In 2001 she stated:

Now let’s call a spade a spade here. I am a friendly Labour prime minister. I’ve been pro-trade union all my life. I’ve worked very closely with the trade union movement in New Zealand.

By returning her party’s policies ‘back to fundamental Labour attitudes,’ her leadership carved a different political road from the Rogernomics era she described as ‘ghastly,’ repairing Labour’s image by recognising it had lost its way with working people.

Clark, as a Labour left leader in opposition, gained credibility with the party’s traditional base, producing a groundswell of support for Labour. This can be seen in membership numbers: the party was a ‘shadow of its former self’ by the early 1990s, recovering to 14,000 members in 2002.

Similarly, a working class-coded Hipkins-Sepuloni has brought about a renewal of support for Labour in the polls, though that is reasonably typical for new opposition leaders. The current enthusiasm for the new leadership evinces that Labour draws its political strength, not from solid GDP numbers or social engineering but rather its appearance of siding with working people and representing their perspectives. This raises the question of how far could Labour expand its support if it truly embraced rhetorical workerism and a more wide-reaching social democratic reformist agenda.

To date, one of the few things the Government has done which has had positive cut-through to the public is Fair Pay Agreements (“FPAs”). During the second reading of the Fair Pay Agreements Bill, Michael Wood gave these stinging remarks:

The reality is that much of the opposition to FPAs comes from some of the people and organisations in this country who are paid the very most telling those who are paid the very least that they should be grateful for what they’ve got and not dream or not hope for anything a little bit better than what they’ve had for 30 years.

The verve and clear-eyed class analysis shown here is fit for the times. These are the right instincts and messaging to restore the image of Labour as a party that fights for the little man. But Wood couldn’t launch those attacks if he didn’t have a substantive, bold policy to use as a springboard. Labour naturally performs strongest with universalist—left materialist policies, and the stronger the policy, the greater the motivation voters will have to vote for Labour.

The absence of more “classic Labour” policies is self-defeating, it weakens the Government’s ability to argue that is different and better than the centrist National party.
The Government lost control of the narrative last year; this year, it needs to narrativise its plans for the country. One way to do this would be through framing the popular economically progressive policies mentioned above into a message of social progress that only Labour can deliver.

The Labour Party’s 1944 booklet Social Progress in New Zealand is a striking reminder of how a laser-like focus on “bread and butter” issues does not preclude meaningful, lasting reform. A clear message summed up in three precepts, actionable and deliverable:

The Labour Party in New Zealand is made up of men and women from all walks of life and from all occupations. They have a basic political philosophy in common. It is this:

The first charge on a nation’s wealth should be the care of the old, the young and the ailing. After this has been done, those who render useful service should receive the full fruits of their labour.

The nation’s resources must be so organised as to ensure the maximum production of useful goods and services and their availability to all.

Collective planning is essential both to make the best use of our resources and to satisfy our needs to the fullest extent.

During its nine years in office the New Zealand Labour Government has consistently directed its efforts to achieve these simple but fundamental objectives. It will go on doing so.

The Old Labour rhetoric of “somewhere to live, food to eat, clothing to wear, and something to hope for” is the kind of working-class politics that can transcend the false dichotomy of small-target centrism versus technocratic “revolution from above.” It is a transformational goal in itself, as it requires real change in the political economy to achieve, yet it also has the benefit that it is indeed the basics.

Labour must choose a side. Policies that improve the lot of working people will invite the chagrin of the most conservative and gilded elements of society — Cullen and Clark were confronted by the business community via the manufactured ‘Winter of Discontent’ as a means to chastise their government’s progressive coalition — but it will also yield other dividends.

If Hipkins wants to emphasise that Labour has turned a page, and remove the association with unpopular and divisive policies, then what better way to do this than the tried-and-proven path of returning Labour to its social democratic traditions.


A path forward for Labour: back to its roots


The honeymoon period for Hipkins and Sepuloni will eventually come to an end. The present sanguine feeling towards the new leadership could peter out — as it did with Ardern — into disillusionment, frustration and division. But only if Hipkins fails to act swiftly to scrap the deadweight and introduce bold policies to break the current malaise climate in New Zealand. The devil is in the detail, Labour cannot coast on vibes alone. It needs a programme that has the interests of working people at its core.

Thus far, adherence to neoliberal ideology has put a straight-jacket on Labour carrying out the kind of tangible changes that could sway voters to their side.

The prime minister’s best bet would be to undertake a clean break from the relative economic conservatism of his predecessor and push through a more traditional social democratic programme.

We need only look to living memory for inspiration on what a different and better New Zealand looks like: full employment, supported by a strong productive base to the economy; public ownership; universalism; default unionism and centralised industrial relations; indicative planning; more government instruments to deal with the profit-price spiral; and a taxation system that eases the burden on the middle by making those at the top pay their fair share.

There’s a saying that “England is a conservative country occasionally occupied by a Labour government.” New Zealand is much the same. Including the current regime, Labour has formed government six times since first coming to power in 1935, only two of those six governments lasted more than two terms. When Helen Clark won a third term for Labour in 2005, it was the first in 62 years. Hipkins needs to find the goldilocks zone of good management, expanding state capacity, real change that delivers economic and social security, and heeding public opinion on divisive agendas.

Labour needs a new way. Maybe the old way. We need a coherent social democratic alternative to neoliberalism that has roots in the principles of Old Labour and ‘the long-held aspirations of most New Zealanders and in the reality of the political economy of New Zealand … New Zealand ideas, New Zealand evidence.’

Only a national economic agenda, universalism, and better material outcomes can inoculate the left against the torrent of rightist banshee complaining that is invariably levelled at any government that wants to be more than a crude instrument of the owning class.