Time for Jacinda Ardern to make some enemies

Absence of policy is not the problem: the clarity of policy is holding Labour back, writes Joe Pagani

A month ago, I claimed Labour wouldn’t win this year's election, but would be a shoe in to win the next one. Until Tuesday night's poll showing a 10 percent National Party lead over Labour, I was convinced I was going to be proved wrong. 

It would be jumping to conclusions to say that National are actually 10 points ahead of Labour after only one poll. When taken in aggregate, the polls show an election too close to call — albeit with National slightly ahead. They show a volatile election where tens of thousands of voters are changing their mind every day. Yet it is fair to assume the 'Jacinda effect' is cooling.

It is fair to expect any new politician to fall back after a surge. Ardern hasn’t had any media victories for a couple of weeks. But there are underlying problems: Labour’s policy platform is still essentially that of her predecessor, and as voters latch on to Labour from its new leader, some may do a double-take. It’s these underlying policy problems that Ardern needs to solve, to dispel people’s doubts and win government.

National, who may well win this election, don’t deserve to. They haven’t articulated any reason why centre-right governance is better than centre-left governance. They complain about personality, and brand Jacinda as a tax-and-spend socialist who would bankrupt the country. Both are perfectly reminiscent of a desperate Labour attempting — and failing — to define John Key as a “privatising neoliberal”.

As their poll numbers dropped, National turned more desperate. Calling for the denial of human rights for criminals, promising to send naughty kids to boot camps, and repeating a Trumpian lie about an $11.7 billion hole. Worst of all, recent rhetoric has turned to blaming the voter: “They’re so ungrateful, we fixed the economy!”

Yet for all the criticisms aimed at Jacinda’s absence of policy, I would challenge readers to name a single significant National Party policy that is not bureaucratic tinkering. At best, the Family Incomes Package held some significance, but dabbling with tax brackets and the accommodation supplement is hardly visionary. Instead, National have echoed the sentiments of Hillary Clinton and Theresa May, campaigning on their stability rather than vision or policy. Hardly what New Zealand needs. 

Labour are paranoid that their values and policies are unpopular, and so have watered down much of what they stand for.

Jacinda has delivered the vision, yet she lags on the policy. This is not for lack of policy — her supporters regularly point out that she has promised dozens of policies since taking the leadership. But how many of Labour’s policies are brave? How many articulate both a principle, and a commitment to enacting it?

Tony Blair in his tips for opposition Labour parties wrote: 

“In the 1980s we went through unimaginable contortions trying to shift from a position of unilateral nuclear disarmament without explicitly saying so. To say so was felt to be too unpalatable to the party; so we hedged. As a result, we just seemed incoherent; and therefore unsure; and therefore, on defence, not to be trusted.”

Regardless of your opinion of the former UK Prime Minister, he has a knack for winning elections. What he describes is the one thing that may keep Labour out of government this election. They are paranoid that their values and policies are unpopular, and so have watered down much of what they stand for.

Jacinda Ardern may make bold statements; saying she would march in the streets to end child poverty. But would anyone march in the streets in favour of child poverty? 

Everyone knows Labour wants a capital gains tax, and most likely further tax reform around assets. This is good, both of these are essential to tackle many of the problems with New Zealand society. Yet, they hedged with the tax working group, and as a result, found themselves having to defend dozens of taxes they will never implement. Instead, they could have campaigned on a capital gains tax — something 58 percent of New Zealanders support — while promising all other tax working group decisions would be put to the 2020 election. This would have let Labour define their tax plan, so they could defend it from criticism, rather than letting the right list potential taxes.

Labour says that immigration improves our society, that multiculturalism is vital, and migrants make us all wealthier. Then promise to cut 30,000 immigrants. Yet if voters really wanted a party that would cut immigration, they would vote for the mono-culturalist New Zealand First. Instead, Labour have to defend immigration while promising to cut it.

Politics is the opposite of diplomacy. You have to make enemies to stand for something. 

Labour will say they are pro-trade, and internationalist, yet oppose the TPP and want to renegotiate our South Korean free trade agreement. Jacinda opposes them, not on an ideological opposition to trade, but a technicality around selling houses to foreigners. This again puts Ardern in the awkward position of defending the TPP while saying she'll scrap it. 

Some of Jacinda’s most successful decisions as leader were taking bold stances. Especially early on, where Ardern distanced Labour from the quickly-sinking Green Party, and condemned Metiria Turei. This earned distaste from many of the Green Party faithful, yet helped her win votes from the Greens, and moderate sections of National.

When challenged by Mark Richardson on whether she would have children, again, Arden drove a stake into the ground, and stood up for what she believed in. It earned her the respect of the country, and even garnered international attention. 

It was these decisions that helped her spike in the polls, and it will take more brave decisions to keep her there. These calls have to be on policy. Labour are internationalists and multiculturalists. They should support trade, and support immigration on principle, which would give them a licence to suggest ways to improve both. They should define what taxes they support and be clear about which they oppose, and why they oppose them. They shouldn’t fear voters' reactions to their values.

Ardern has benefitted from everyone on the left imprinting their own vision onto her. From Victoria University socialists, to working class centrists in the regions, everyone sees what they want to see when Jacinda speaks. She has achieved this by not taking hard stances, not offending people, and not wanting people to march in the streets against what she stands for. But politics is the opposite of diplomacy. You have to make enemies to stand for something. 

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