Peter Skilling: Jacindamania 2017, hope & fear on the campaign trail

In late-July 2017, two months prior to New Zealand’s general election, its Labour Party recorded an historically awful poll result: its 23% popularity was roughly half that of its National Party rival.

By August 1, Jacinda Ardern had replaced Andrew Little as Party leader. Her campaign – based around a promise to address major challenges in the areas of housing, child poverty, water quality and climate change – had a dramatic impact on the Party’s fortunes, and Labour’s final election result was 37%. (Note, though, that support for the centre-left Labour-Green bloc increased by a more modest amount: from 38% in late July to 43%. And National’s election result (44%) was an improvement on its late-July number.)

With the support of New Zealand First, Ardern is now Prime Minister: an outcome that seemed highly unlikely at the end of July.

Survey and focus group research shows that many people who express a preference for greater equality are easily persuaded that this preference is simply not achievable given the posited ‘reality of the market.’ I have argued in a previous post that such people are often persuaded that their desires are not realistic partly because they lack a language to express them: the free-market and its outcomes are accepted as immutable reality by all major players within political debates.

We might still suspect, however, that there is a latent desire for a political leader able to give voice to a widely-shared desire for a fairer, more equal future. To a certain extent, this is what Ardern offered, and it is what underpinned much of her appeal.

“People are often persuaded that their desires are not realistic partly because they lack a language to express them.”

In her press conference on assuming the Party leadership, Ardern announced that her “plan for a better and fairer New Zealand” included an explicit focus on inequality. The issue, she said, was a key driver for her life in politics. In her speech to the Party Conference a few weeks later, Ardern spoke to the necessity of “being bold and being brave” to address “the hard issues”. On the question of the market, Ardern stated that while “a strong economy” was vital, the economy would not be left to its own devices: “New Zealand”, she said in a mid-September interview, “has been served well by interventionist governments.”

The market, Ardern continued, is “a poor master but a good servant.” And in the Conference speech, she said that “a successful economy is one that serves its people. Not the other way round. And that means judging success differently.” The Public Finance Act, Ardern said, would be altered to require that beyond reporting “surpluses and deficits”, it also takes account of – for example – “how many kids we have lifted out of poverty”. There was, further, some acceptance that addressing social problems would cost money: Labour would take two years longer than National to reduce public debt to 20% of GDP.

These statements – even if read cynically as election-time political rhetoric – are significant. Wendy Brown argues that, under neoliberalism, social and environmental objectives are legitimated only on their capacity to enhance economic competitiveness. Ardern’s statements, however, insist that social objectives are fundamentally important. Addressing child poverty is important not merely as a means to the end of economic performance. It is, rather, inherently important: an end in itself.

In sum, Ardern held out a hope – a relentlessly positive promise – that her government would (and could) intervene in markets to deliver fairer and more equal outcomes. This vision of hope was, of course, challenged on the campaign trail. The major attacks on Labour’s new leader held, firstly, that her appeal was based solely on style and image. She was, in an infamous line, merely “lipstick on a pig“, and her absence of substance meant that the hope she promised was illusory.

“Ardern [holds] out a hope that her government would (and could) intervene in markets to deliver fairer and more equal outcomes.”

The second (related) line of attack was that her social and environmental promises were nothing more than traditional Labour tax-and-spend policies. The tax question became a – and maybe the – defining question of the election.

National’s ‘Let’s tax this’ attack ad was hardly nuanced, or especially accurate – though it was accurate enough for the Broadcasting Standards Authority; and besides, political persuasion relies on emotional more than rational resonance. But it did its job because the electorate was primed to be nervous about tax. The debate was taking place on discursive terrain shaped by a long-term effort from the right to frame taxes as a self-evident bad. Conversely, tax cuts were “our” right: well-deserved “relief” allowing “hard-working New Zealanders” to “keep more of their own money.

This framing, in turn, was effective because it drew on a deep well of felt insecurity and fear. Living in a market order of endless competition and individual responsibility generates a debilitating sense of isolation, precarity and anxiety. And this anxiety works not just on those who fear that they can’t or won’t win, but for all participants, competing in a situation that offers no guarantees. This insecurity, Didier Bigo (2002) notes, is not just individual-psychological. Rather, it is structural in nature, as decreasing expectations of social support and social security lead to what Mark Fisher (2009) calls the “vast privatization of stress.”

Again, this sense of insecurity is not limited to those at the bottom of the social-economic distribution, or to precarious workers. A survey that I commissioned in 2014 showed that New Zealanders overwhelmingly see themselves as being in the middle of the income distribution. Crucially, they also see “ordinary people in the middle” as having the toughest time out of any income group in New Zealand. A populace that self-identifies as the “hard-working but struggling” middle is primed to read the spectre of extra taxation as an existential threat.

“Living in a market order of endless competition and individual responsibility generates a debilitating sense of isolation, precarity and anxiety.”

Fear was thus set against Ardern’s promise of hope. And the effectiveness of fear is unsurprising. Research consistently shows that “losses loom larger than gains“: people are more moved by the fear of loss than by the prospect of gain.

A deep-seated aversion to tax – and an underlying acceptance of market-as-truth – set the context and the constraints for Ardern’s campaign. While she was happy to reverse some decisions made by Andrew Little, Ardern endorsed the Budget Responsibility Rules that committed Labour (and the Greens) to deliver a “sustainable operating surplus” and to “keep core Crown spending to around 30% of GDP.” Further, she ruled out major avenues by which the government might have raised more revenue to address the “hard issues”. Asked whether Labour’s tax changes would “be fiscally neutral or [whether they] would they be revenue gathering”, Ardern said that “we have not focussed on revenue gathering at all.”

This desire to have it both ways – to accept fiscal rectitude as an important goal even when serious (and specified) social problems persist – left Labour open to criticism. When it was pointed out that Labour’s plan was to run significant surpluses for six years while children still live in poverty, Ardern rejected the charge, but it was unclear on what grounds. Her essential argument was that Labour would be spending more than National.

Labour’s insistence that it did not need to raise additional revenue was understandable, but it also seemed opportunistic. It amounted to a promise to address serious social and environmental problems without spending significantly more money. This left a credibility gap and a cynicism, parallel to the cynicism that those on the left feel when conservative parties promise to reduce tax without reducing public services.

None of this is necessarily a criticism of Ardern, or of Labour’s choices during the campaign. Certainly there were things that could have been done better; the trajectory of the campaign didn’t always align with a commitment to being bold, brave and courageous, for example. On the question of taxation and social spending it was frustratingly ambivalent.

But much of this relates to the political-cultural context of 2017. History teaches us that the Labour Party will be cautious and moderate: it will not take huge electoral risks for the sake of ideological purity. It is, I would argue, the long-term task of a Labour Party to make an argument for equality, for fairness, and for democratic control over markets. This task, however, is not the Labour Party’s alone – or even primarily. It is properly the subject of political struggle across civil society: those able to imagine a fairer future assume the responsibility to make the necessary steps appear possible, safe, realistic; even necessary and inevitable.

In recent times there have been an encouraging number of attempts to re-shape the discursive terrain on which capital-P politics happens in New Zealand. Evoking Max Harris and Philip McKibbin’s call for a politics based on love, Shamubeel Eaqub has argued that “tax is love”, since tax, fundamentally, “is about pooling our resources and redistributing, so that society is better off.” In a similar vein, Simon Louisson argues that “taxes are the mechanism for creating a fairer, caring and better working society.”

Organisations across civil society – such as ActionStation, Living Wage Aotearoa, and the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services – recognise that when it comes to progressive social change, the nature of the governing party is important but not sufficient. As Morgan Godfery notes in The Interregnum, “It is up to us to ensure that history travels towards justice – and love.” It is up to us to turn the widespread desire for a fairer, more equal society into an achievable reality.

Peter Skilling is a Senior Lecturer in Management at the Auckland University of Technology and a member of the New Zealand Work Research Institute.