What is Chris Hipkins up to? Most of the pundits dismiss Chippy’s recent re-acquaintance with his inner mongrel as nothing more than an attempt to save Labour’s furniture. They argue that he (and Labour’s campaign team) have given up all hope of victory and are now battling to prevent what’s left of their electoral-base from deserting to the Greens and driving down Labour’s Party Vote to a point dangerously approximating that of James and Marama’s. Labour on 21 per cent, and the Greens on 18 per cent would point the way to Labour’s ‘Pasokification’.
Pasokification? Pasok used to be the pre-eminent Greek political party of the Left. The name derives from its formal title: Panellínio Sosialistikó Kínima – the Panhellenic Socialist Movement. Enmeshed in the crippling debt crisis that saw Greece surrender its economic sovereignty to the European banks, Pasok’s electoral support fell from the 43.92 per cent it had received in the elections of 2009, to a risible 4.68 per cent of the popular vote in June of 2015. Pasok’s is merely the most dramatic of the falls from grace experienced by social-democratic parties across Europe. The New Zealand Labour Party has no wish to be the first to replicate the phenomenon south of the Equator!
There can be little doubt that many in Labour will now be happy to receive a Party Vote no worse than David Cunliffe’s 25.13 per cent back in 2014. There is considerable irony in discovering this level of pessimism among Hipkins’s campaigners. It was, after all, Hipkins who, more than any other member of the “ABC” (Anyone But Cunliffe) caucus faction, undermined the darling of the Labour Party rank-and-file, and the only Labour leader of the past 40 years to so much as suggest that neoliberalism might have done the party – and New Zealand – more harm than good. Seeing Chippy struggling to match even Cunliffe’s numbers must bring a grim smile of satisfaction to the faces of all those Labour MPs driven out of the party by the ruthless enforcers of the ABC faction – of whom Hipkins was the chief.
But has Hipkins himself given up all chance of winning? Or, after the pummelling he dished out to Christopher Luxon in the second leaders’ debate on Wednesday 27 September, has he discerned the merest hint and rumour of a pathway leading upwards, out of Labour’s current pit of despair, towards the light of victory? And if he has, what on earth might it be?
Let’s take a look at what he has done since Wednesday – most particularly at the “race-baiting” speech he delivered at Kawakawa in Northland.
Before we do, however, it is worth noting that throwing the “R” word into New Zealand general election campaigns is something the two major parties generally try to avoid. Certainly, it is rare to hear the charge delivered so nakedly. Usually, accusations of racism are hidden beneath layers and layers of circumlocution and euphemism.
It’s what made the 2005 election so different – and so fraught. Don Brash’s in/famous “Nationhood” speech to the Orewa Rotary Club, and John Ansell’s inflammatory “Iwi/Kiwi” billboards, had put the question of race front-and-centre. Few New Zealanders realise what a bloody great artillery shell they dodged when the South Auckland polling booths came through for Labour late in the evening of Saturday, 17 September 2005.
It’s those South Auckland polling booths that hold the key. Back in 2005, the Labour president, Mike Williams, contrived to have a letter sent to every state-house tenant in the poorest Auckland electorates. In it he warned them that a victory for National could see them thrown out of their homes. It was meant to scare the Bejeezuz out of them – and it did. Citizens who, in the ordinary course of events, might have not bothered to cast a vote, suddenly found themselves with a very good reason to participate. Pouring into the polling booths in huge numbers, they made it possible for Labour to eke out a narrow victory.
Nearly 20 years on from 2005, much has changed. A whole generation has grown up to reject “Pakeha racism” in the most strident terms. This intolerance is strongest among educated Maori and Pasifika youth, but it is also a key component in the political make up of educated Pakeha and immigrant youth. Indeed, it is difficult to think of an issue more likely to mobilise young educated voters than Labour turning this election into a referendum on whether the “racist” attitudes of the older generations of New Zealanders should be permitted to undo the gains of 30 years of both National and Labour governments at least attempting to take Te Tiriti o Waitangi seriously.
This is how Chris Hipkins put it at Kawakawa:
“Advances have been made. Not without opposition or push back. But the arch of our progress has been forward. But in this election – our unfinished journey towards better; the sense of nationhood we’ve worked so hard to define – is at risk. That’s not to say we haven’t been in this position before and prevailed. Political parties have used race-baiting and anti-Treaty politics to divide us in elections. But even when the polls were down, we as a country stood our ground and held them back. And in this election we need to do it again. The National, ACT, New Zealand First coalition of chaos and cuts puts all we have worked for at risk. And those with the most to lose are Maori and the place of Te Tiriti.”
Apart from his mangled reference to Martin Luther King’s famous line: “The arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, this is a clear appeal from Hipkins to Generation Woke to use their votes as a shield against ACT, NZ First and National – just as the Pasifika voters of South Auckland used their votes as a shield against Don Brash’s (non-existent) plans to evict them.
Will it work? Does Hipkins have the time and, most crucially, does he have the money, to turn the last fortnight of the 2023 campaign into a crusade of the young and progressive against the old and reactionary? More importantly, should he?
Certainly, there is time. In fact, if you want to mobilise the young, then short timelines are better than long ones. On the money side of things, however, matters are more difficult. Helen Clark’s interesting solution to the problem of Labour’s empty coffers in 2005 simply isn’t open to her successor in 2023. Which is not to say that from somewhere, out of the woke corporate blue, the money may yet arrive to pay for a first-rate, social-media delivered, call-to-arms.
And therein lies the problem. Such an overt appeal to the emotions-laced-with-ideology that grip New Zealanders on both sides of the political divide in this election year is fraught with danger. After all, both sides can play the game of mobilising their electoral base to do more than deliver pamphlets and erect billboards. In the end, democratic politics is not about dying for your principles, it’s about living to fight for them another day.
Save the furniture, Chippy, don’t spread the fire.