What Labour can learn from Jacinda Ardern

Daniel Harrison

For the UK Labour Party Jacinda Ardern’s success is instructive. Beneath the ease and empathy, a hard-nosed political strategist lurks. Ardern may be younger and less serious than Starmer, but the challenges she overcame bear a striking resemblance to the obstacles facing Keir Starmer. Ardern did not lead her party to their best result since 1946 just because of her charm or even her highly effective leadership during the pandemic. Both were critical, but look harder. In 2017 Ardern inherited a party that wasn’t trusted on the economy; that was viewed as compassionate but incompetent and faced the age-old problem – how can the left win socially liberal, metropolitan voters along with the traditional working-class. This could be an apt description of the challenges Keir Starmer faces. 

When Jacinda Ardern became leader of her party, she immediately injected a sense of optimism into politics. At her first press conference she repeatedly talked about the ‘future’ and how she wanted to build one “to look forward to.” Her slogan epitomised her can-do attitude: “Let’s do this.” Here lies the first lesson for the British Labour Party. The party must seize and own the future: now more than ever. Voters are exhausted by the pandemic and want a future to dream of, to believe in. The Labour Party has often been too preoccupied by its past to tell a story about the future. Jacinda Ardern did not make that mistake. In the 2017 general election she articulated a galvanising vision of a more just New Zealand. She pledged to lift 100,000 children out of poverty by 2020 and to implement the gradual rollout of three years of free tertiary education. Her policy agenda was radical and rooted in the core values of fairness and equality. These values belong to the Labour Party too. The party should not just express policy in technical terms, but in terms of the irreducible principles that underpin those policies. It is not only about how we wish to build a better society, but why we seek to do it. 

The New Zealand Labour Party had a radical policy agenda, but in some ways, it was a reassuring one. Remember, this party was not trusted on the economy. In the UK, a ruthless narrative has been construed that when last in office, Labour bankrupted the country. Post 2010, the party did not have a compelling response and still today the narrative of Labour overspending festers behind every raised eyebrow whenever the party announces its spending commitments. Ardern dealt with her problem pragmatically. In 2017 she didn’t abandon her commitment to reducing poverty, but she accepted the need for prudence. Therefore, she promised to maintain government spending at around 30% of GDP. Keir Starmer must present a bold vision to tackle soaring unemployment and deprivation, because the cost of inaction is too great. 

But the answer is not an unceasing, unending shopping list. That was tried in 2019. Those policies, when viewed individually, were often credible – a £10 minimum wage, but they did not make a coherent whole. At the 2024 general election the party must build a programme for the next five years, not the next fifty. Hence, Labour must concentrate additional expenditure on certain key areas, because otherwise its policies, however noble, will be scoffed at. Jacinda Ardern also confronted her party’s other weakness – immigration. Many voters did not trust the party to sensibly control it. Ardern recognised the additional pressures on infrastructure a high level of immigration can bring, so she pledged to reduce immigration alongside a commitment to increase the nation’s intake of refugees. Her focus in 2017 was to reassure and remind voters that her party could be trusted on the economy and immigration. These issues matter a lot to Red Wall voters. Starmer must not abandon the party’s social liberalism, but he should, as part of his ‘new leadership,’ focus, as Ardern did, on rebuilding trust in the party to manage these issues.  

 Ardern sought to regain voters’ trust on the economy and immigration, but she has also constructed an agenda for the twenty-first century. In May 2019 her government delivered the world’s first ever Wellbeing budget. New Zealand is ending its fixation on the much-flawed measure of GDP and Ardern has recognised that many people have not been benefitting from a growing economy. On climate change, New Zealand has committed to achieving 100% renewable electricity generation by 2030. Keir Starmer, although restricted by the pandemic, must offer a vision based on tomorrow’s challenges. That means a manifesto with a relentless focus on the green economy; social care; AI and automation. Ardern claimed the future and so must Starmer. Labour will only ever win when it represents the future.  

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