It is interesting to reflect on the changing philosophy of Jacinda Ardern. I guess a good place to start is early 2008 when she was elected as the President of the International Union of Socialist Youth. This is the organisation Ardern was addressing when the managed to utter the infamous word “comrade” fifteen times in a little over seven minutes. In their First of May International Workers Day Statement this year the opening paragraph reads in part, “Covid 19 has not only changed our routines, but it also exposed the inequalities of capitalism in times of multidimensional crisis such as those we are experiencing.” The inequalities of capitalism, keep that in mind.
2008 was also the year she entered Parliament as a list MP. Ardern describes herself as a social democrat and a progressive. Social democracy seeks to humanise capitalism and create the conditions for it to lead to greater democratic, egalitarian and solidaristic outcomes. It is characterised by a commitment to policies aimed at curbing inequality, eliminating oppression of underprivileged groups and eradicating poverty. Solidarity is the ties in a society that bind people together as one. In the case of Covid, it’s her “team of five million”.
Today’s progressives take the view that progress has been stifled by a vast economic inequality between the rich and the poor; minimally regulated laissez-faire capitalism with monopolistic corporations; and the often violent conflict between capitalists and workers. Progressives argue that measures are needed to address these problems.
So from her 2008 speech to today, are we seeing a philosophically changed Jacinda Ardern? Some very good points are made in respect of this in an article written by Josiah Banbury of the University of Canterbury. He says Labour has not changed under the leadership of Ardern and Robertson and nor is it likely to. They have been conditioned to ignore economic alternatives to the left and instead seek to build a consensus with centre-right voters. That should have alarm bells ringing in unions and others, such as the Greens, on the far left.
If Margaret Thatcher was[sic] alive today she would be comfortable with Ardern’s leadership and happy to see her legacy continuing to shape a new generation of political leaders. On the other hand, Michael Joseph Savage, whose portrait sits in the Prime Minister’s office, would be less impressed with the current Labour leadership team and frustrated by their incremental approach.
Banbury points out that Labour will view their election win as a vindication of their centrist strategies while ignoring the fact they could also have won with more transformational policies. He says Ardern, Robertson and the Labour Party represent a continuation of the existing order, not an alternative. Their aim is not to fight an ideological war and usher in transformative change; instead, they are content with winning election battles and implementing incremental change. This narrative from Banbury explains Ardern’s reluctance to implement capital gains or wealth taxes.
Banbury says that power, according to politicians like Ardern, can only be held by someone who has the blessing of the economic establishment. It is a top-down understanding of how power operates. He asks if Labour can be transformed? He says the mistake many people make is they think politicians like Ardern can be pushed towards transformative change when in fact the opposite is true; politicians like Ardern are the first line of defence against transformation taking place. Leaders like Ardern are very skilled at drawing support from their left without offering anything in return.
Ardern, Robertson and Labour do have a problem though and Banbury points it out. He says that while they do not present a threat to the power of capital, they do want to deliver economic change. And here’s the punchline – “delivering meaningful economic change without threatening capital is impossible. In my view that largely explains why very little was achieved by Ardern in her first term and very little will be achieved in her second.” Banbury says Ardern has not been transformed by movements wanting change and that is likely to continue.
Banbury concludes that the real tragedy for Labour will be that as their popularity diminishes, their hindsight will be just as ideological as their foresight. They will assume they implemented change too swiftly, even if they achieved nothing substantive. Before long their wide base of support will shrink to dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters. Ardern will have burnt through her political capital, not by implementing radical changes, but through a centrist approach that will dampen the support of her base. The result being that swing voters will be much more likely to consider National.
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