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Bryce Edwards
Bryce Edwardshttps://democracyproject.nz/
Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

Bryce Edwards: Labour’s version of conservatism is no longer popular

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New Zealand now essentially has two conservative major parties for the public to choose from.

Unfortunately for one of them – the Labour Party – the public increasingly prefers the more authentic conservative option, National. This can be seen in the latest opinion poll showing National continuing to storm ahead of Labour.

According to last night’s Newshub-Reid Research poll, National has nearly a third more support than Labour – 41 per cent compared to just 32 per cent. As a result, Labour is currently projected to lose something like 24 of its MPs at the next election, and be turfed out of power in what could be a landslide reversal of the 2020 victory.

Five years of cautious managerialism

Labour’s five years in power have been incredibly conservative, despite the radical times. Very little in the way of far-reaching reform has been pushed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and few radical policies have actually been delivered.

Ardern and her deputy prime minister, Grant Robertson, have been incredibly cautious and limited in their ambitions while in power. They look like conservatives – happy to rule over the status quo, careful not to scare the horses, and keeping any radicalism at bay, bar co-governance reforms successfully pushed within Labour by the Māori caucus.

Throughout the Covid crisis, the Government’s main aim has rightly been “to conserve” and steady the ship. This approach won them their historic 50 per cent of the vote in 2020. But voters haven’t been won over by any reform programmes, largely because the Government hasn’t changed much, and when they have tried to implement big projects they’ve failed – from Kiwibuild through to Auckland light rail. Traditional issues for the left like inequality, housing, and poverty have been deprioritised.

Now, with a more bona fide conservative party back on the market – also promising very little change – voters looking for caution, stability and managerialism are opting for the original version – National. Why continue to support a cheap copy of conservatism (Labour) when you can have the real thing (National)?

Labour’s conservative conference and policy announcement

The Labour Party’s annual conference in the weekend was on brand for conservatism. Yet again, the theme was all about “how to govern” the status quo rather than about significant social change. “Stability” was offered as the reason to vote for Labour, pitched against the alleged “radicalism” of National. Other terms of moderation that Labour leaders like Robertson embraced at the conference were “responsible” and “balanced”.

The conference was largely devoid of any profound reforms or fresh thinking, suggesting Labour has become tired. There was the expected cheerleading and attempts to enthuse the faithful, and lots of anti-National rhetoric, but nothing to suggest the party had bold new ideas.

Of course, there was the big announcement of increased childcare support and family assistance. This was meant to combat the cost of living crisis, but in the context of just how severe the problem is, the announcement was rather underwhelming. It will cost just $189m over four years – less than $50m per year – and only starting in April next year. One journalist described it as a “tweak” in policy, another as a “morsel” rather than anything that would make a real difference to the cost of living crisis.

Even National said they supported the new spending. After all, much of the funding goes to middle class families rather than directed towards the most disadvantaged.

Does Labour actually have any new progressive or leftwing policies for dealing with the problems New Zealand is facing? Not from what we saw in the weekend. Instead, it’s all knee-jerk managerialism from the leadership.

Were there any real debates, ideological clashes, or activists pushing the party towards bolder goals? It’s hard to know because the leadership took the rather authoritarian decision to close most of the conference to the media and public. Instead, the focus was on motivational speeches aimed at keeping the faith of delegates intact, and pretending that much had been achieved in Labour’s five years in power.

Labour’s conservative campaign message: fear

Labour has indicated that it will fight the next election, not on any new programme of transformation, but just on keeping their opponents out of office. This is the ultimate conservative goal – and in fact, it’s the one that National has historically held as its core ideology. In this sense, it’s as if Labour has willingly morphed into being the “alternative National Party”.

Ardern and Robertson will attempt to stoke fears about National and its leaders being dangerous, risky, and unknown. Better the devil that you know. They have started campaigning on the basis that Labour is more responsible and better in a crisis. Hence suddenly both Ardern and Robertson have done a U-turn – instead of insisting that the economic and inflation crisis isn’t so bad, they now say the opposite. The new line is that it’s going to get worse, and that Labour are the best managers for the rocky times ahead.

It’s also a rather traditionalist campaign pitch to focus on leadership and personality as the reason to vote Labour. The big theme of the weekend was a relentlessly negative focus on Christopher Luxon, and attempts to paint him as inexperienced or lacking leadership skills. This is the ultimate conservative plea to voters. As Newshub political editor Jenna Lynch described yesterday, the Finance Minister’s name-calling campaigning was “embarrassing”, and looked “panicked and petty”.

Will Labour’s conservatism eventually win more votes in 2023? It seems unlikely. In trying to emulate National, Labour will have a difficult time trying to outdo them.

What’s more, although we live in unstable and turbulent times – which Ardern and Robertson obviously believe requires a cautious approach – there are plenty of voters who want to see big changes and a radical response rather than “business as usual”.

Last night’s poll wasn’t the only one indicating that Labour is in trouble. The party would be wise to also heed the results of last week’s Horizon Research survey which indicated that 35 per cent of the public felt “disappointed” with Ardern – another 28 per cent felt “angry” with her. Many of these people also indicated that they voted for Labour at the last election. They had expected the party to deliver change. Instead, all they are getting is “more of the same”. It’s not a winning electoral formula.

Labour is still pitching itself as a party of stability and restraint – or “National-lite”. But for voters who want an authentically conservative party, then they can just go for the real deal – Luxon’s National.

Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. My take: A great leader is an advocate for the people, doing what’s best for their constituents (A defense lawyer).
    A poor leader is cunning/deceitful, advocating for an outcome detrimental to the people (A prosecutor).

  2. What is he on about. Conservative. Radical more like it. Abandoning all sense to ideology is not conservative.
    Are there any decent political journalists in this country?

  3. New Zealanders are more interested in rugby than who squanders billions of dollars in over taxation. Over the decades it’s been Labour red and Labour blue. They hand the baton to each other and keep running to the center to get the votes. Nothing gets better. Look at health, education and housing… all fall under the social contract and we’re consistently falling in what’s delivered. Red and blue are no longer suitable to take this country forward. Both are offering so little and costing us too much. Those who have worked that out are voting ACT. Seymour has been really good in his space.

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