LABOUR CAN NOW WIN the 2017 General Election. Thanks to Andrew Little’s noble self-sacrifice and Jacinda Ardern’s spectacular political talent, the fortunes of the centre-left have undergone a sudden and dramatic transformation. Victory is not, however, certain. As always in electoral politics, there are a number of important “ifs” that must be factored into any winning equation.
Let us examine some of these “ifs”.
Labour can win if … Jacinda resists any and all attempts to make her the promoter of policies which clash with her self-definition as a “pragmatic idealist”. If Labour’s so-called “strategists” dismiss the “idealist” half of her descriptive pairing and load Jacinda up with the same highly pragmatic (but utterly uninspiring) policy baggage that drove its poll ratings below 25 percent, then the candle of hope which she has ignited will be snuffed out – along with any chance of changing the government.
Labour can win if … Jacinda’s colleagues – especially the party’s finance spokesperson, Grant Robertson, accept that the word “pragmatic” is an adjective – not a noun. It describes what sort of “idealist” Jacinda is – and is not. Clearly, she does not want to be thought of as a “naïve”, “airy-fairy” or “unrealistic” idealist. But, equally, she does not want people to see her as someone lacking an inviolate core of political principles. If she had wanted New Zealanders to see her as someone interested only in what “works”, then she would have called herself a pragmatist. She didn’t – and that’s important.
Labour can win if … its promise of free tertiary education and training for all New Zealanders is brought forward from its current (distant!) start date and stripped of all its “pragmatic” qualifiers and caveats. Jacinda needs to announce an absolutely unequivocal policy: that the restoration of free education will take effect from 1 January in time for the commencement of the 2018 academic year.
Labour can win if … Jacinda announces the above policy on a big university campus in front of thousands of energised students. In 2016, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both demonstrated the powerful impact which images of large and enthusiastic crowds can have on voter perceptions. The spectacle of cheering masses not only makes the observer want to join in, but it also suggests that what they are cheering about is important.
Labour can win if … hard on the heels of her “Free Education” announcement, Jacinda reaffirms the full restoration of state-assisted education and training programmes for beneficiaries. Reassuring them that Labour’s historical mission has always been to lift New Zealanders out of poverty – not trap them in it – and pledging that any government she leads will never allow its citizens to be punished for being poor.
Labour can win if … Jacinda treats the Budget Responsibility Rules as a guide – not a straightjacket. There is too much urgent repair work to be done to New Zealand’s damaged health and education systems; too many state houses to be built; too much infrastructure to be refurbished for a Labour Government to deny itself the funds needed to make these things happen. Jacinda needs to tell New Zealanders that she will not preside over an austerity government. To reinforce this message, she might find it helpful to quote Mark Blyth, author of Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, who argues that mainstream economic theories “enshrine different distributions of wealth and power and are power resources for actors whose claims to authority and income depend upon their credibility”. She might also suggest to her friend Grant that he bone up on Professor Bill Mitchell’s “Modern Monetary Theory”. Doing these things wouldn’t quite amount to Labour repudiating its 30-year enslavement to neoliberal dogma – but it would come close!
Labour can win if … Jacinda is able to meld her pragmatic idealism with a pared-down Labour policy agenda in such a way that her authentic political voice rings out clearly and unequivocally between now and 23 September. If the events of the past two years have taught us anything, it is that electorates reward authentic politicians and punish fake ones mercilessly. Jacinda’s political persona blends intelligence and compassion in equal measure. If New Zealanders see these qualities informing and permeating all of the changes she is committing a Labour government, led by herself, to make – then she will be New Zealand’s next prime minister.