A week is a long time in politics, and Meteria Turei must have thought the last ten days was an eternity. The media baying like hounds focused on her admission of non-disclosure of flatmates’ rent while receiving the DPB, deliberately took attention away from significant new social policy. The ‘benefit fraud’ story was picked at in every possible way, inflicted upon the public like Chinese water torture.
In contrast, the media pressure on and stare-down of Andrew Little, leading to his departure, was politics at the speed of light. Time always goes a bit crazy in an election year, and hyperbole, and character attacks on the left are de rigeur. Let’s not forget the Donghua Liu lies attacking David Cunliffe, that saturated the front page of the Herald during the 2014 election. We shouldn’t be surprised that Andrew Little has been undermined and resigned under pressure.
A steady hand on the tiller is required to navigate tumultuous political waters, full of snapping sharks, but it was apparent that for the time being at least, there wasn’t much public confidence in Andrew Little’s hands on the Labour Party wheel, and even he didn’t have confidence in his own.
Like many Labour leaders before him, most people admit Andrew Little is a ‘decent’ guy. He’s ‘a good unionist, sincere, a man with integrity’. But even as the media quickly zeroed in on Labour’s negative polls, Little scored his ‘own goals’ in admitting he was uncertain of his position as leader and by claiming that ‘you can’t form a government at 24% in the polls’. In fact, despite the decline in support for Labour in the latest polls, the chances of the current opposition parties forming a coalition (pending agreement with New Zealand First), increased while National’s support and chance of governing alone further declined.
After the third poll released last night showed a cluster of negative (disastrous?) results, putting Labour in the low 20% vote share, and ‘left wing’ commentators started saying Andrew Little could and should resign, his departure became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even then Andrew could have stood his ground and refused to buckle. ‘The signs are printed and already erected. The policies are sound. We have to stay the course’. Instead, another Labour leader bit the dust, his ‘lack of charisma’ failed to ignite the electorate, his confidence (never actually overwhelming) was mortally wounded. “In the interests of the party” he handed the reins to his younger, ‘more charismatic’ deputy, Jacinda Ardern. Another Labour Party leader is history.
Critics on the left and the right look at Labour’s dismal poll results, and the emergency change of leader and ask whether the Party is in terminal decline, in a death spiral, no longer relevant. ‘They’re on their fifth leader in nine years’. ‘They’re National-lite, not clearly distinguishable in policy or style – so why not just vote National? And if you want a party that’s strong on immigration, vote NZ First; or for environmental policies, vote Greens or maybe ToP’. Gone apparently, are the days of strong binary politics in New Zealand, and Labour’s a victim of the spread of choice across the broadly left and liberal vote. And after all, National and Labour are quite alike too.
Labour definitely couldn’t afford to poll any lower – without risking key senior MPs. So the departure of Andrew Little probably couldn’t damage the party any more than if he were to stay. Even though it’s extraordinary (but not unprecedented) for a leader to resign so close to an election, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Looking at feedback online in social and mainstream media, you might think that the appointment of Jacinda Ardern and Kelvin Davis as leader and deputy, was an inspired move, that couldn’t have been planned better. Their appointment has given rise to optimism and positivity but concern about the timing. Without irony people are using the Little / Ardern tag line ‘A fresh approach’ to define what Ardern and Davis offer. Ardern is talking about values and hope. I saw a video where the caucus were actually laughing together and seemed unified and excited (maybe that was nervousness!). That all seemed unusual, and encouraging in itself. Jacinda seems to have got over her reservations about being leader and is rising to the challenge. Can you imagine the courage that must take at this time? Some suggest it’s ‘greatness, being thrust upon her’. Others say she’s jumping on a grenade, using her one (?) shot at leadership in a forced, false start that’s doomed this close to an election when the party is so far behind.
The new leadership team say they’ll take stock of the campaign and Party position for 72 hours. That’s prudent given the polls and the opportunity presented by the media attention and space to genuinely take a ‘fresh approach’. As leader, Jacinda will be more able to develop style and substance that’s more authentic to her, instead of the sidekick, trailing Andrew Little that she has been so far in this campaign. James Shaw, co-leader of the Green Party said Jacinda’s election drastically improves the chances of a rise in Labour’s fortunes and a change in government. Though the invisible wildcard in that picture is still Winston Peters not Jacinda Ardern.
The commentariat seem to love comparisons, and there are questions about whether Jacinda’s our Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, with potential to offer radical alternative policy options, or maybe just our Trudeau (a young, handsome, moderate left / conservatively progressive leader). There’s definitely an opportunity for Labour to step away from its current conservative incrementalism that still seeks to ameliorate the worst travesties of capitalism rather than remove them. There’s room for a seriously alternative, radical vision, that deals with the causes of entrenched poverty, inequality and environmental destruction that are intrinsic to the neoliberal, capitalist programme, at both national and international level.
Such a radical policy framework for the left could revisit business and capital gains taxes and operational settings, international trade and security arrangements, peace and disarmament, even changes in the definitions and ownership of property, fundamental improvements in the rights of nature and the environment, consideration of intergenerational equity. That’s what real change could look like. There could be an alternative agenda, but it’s highly unlikely. At more local pragmatic level, Kelvin Davis’ concerns about prisoners and prisons could be addressed by the decriminalisation of (natural) cannabis, but we’ll see whether they’re up even for that as part of a ‘fresher’ approach.
It would take some leader to carry such a different vision in New Zealand, and an increase of about 200,000 votes to get Labour to a strong enough position to implement such a plan. That’s a lot of change from the current Labour Party position and a lot of votes.