Labour’s shift in focus is working. Under Jacinda Ardern they were a party and government focused on the voters and ideologies of liberal Grey Lynn and Wellington Central. Now under Prime Minister Chris Hipkins Labour has a laser-like focus directed at the working class politics of places like West Auckland and the Hutt Valley. That’s the pragmatic thinking behind the bold redirection of their policy priorities towards the cost-of-living crisis.
It’s paying off in the polls. Last night’s 1News-Kantar poll showed Labour in front of National again, and personal support for Hipkins escalating. His preferred prime minister ratings were up four points to 27 per cent, while rival Christopher Luxon’s were down five points to just 17 per cent.
The poll also asked the public what issue would most likely influence their vote, and 48 per cent chose “cost of living”, way ahead of climate change on only 12 per cent. This is in line with the recent Ipsos poll, which showed that a record 65 per cent believed that cost of living is the top issue for the country at the moment.
Bread and butter burn off
The poll boost came after Hipkins announced yet another policy bonfire, in which unpopular and difficult pet policies were jettisoned. This had the Greens complaining and the Act Party giving their endorsement to the burnoff. This will only reinforce to Labour that they’ve made the right decision strategically.
As with Hipkins’ first policy bonfire last month – which included a big increase in the minimum wage, yesterday’s burn off came with an announcement of a $2bn increase in government payments for lower and middle income New Zealanders.
Herald political editor Claire Trevett explained the two-step announcement like this: “So on the bonfire side there was a raft of transport programmes given the heave-ho, along with plans to try to lower the voting age and clamp down on alcohol sponsorship. On the bread and butter side there was the decision to boost benefits and superannuation by the rate of inflation, rather than the usual adjustment of the average wage.”
Some journalists have characterised this shift as being pitched at “middle New Zealand”, and others as reorientating to more working class parts of the country. As political journalist Richard Harman writes today that the “Hipkins Government looking to do the kind of things that resonate in the Hutt”.
It is clearly about differentiating the Hipkins-led Labour Government from Ardern’s, with Labour finally realising that voters expect action rather than rhetoric. Harman says Hipkins is therefore focused on actually delivering: “His approach is all about taking action; no more excuses, or blaming others or rhetoric, Hipkins is becoming a political action man.”
Hipkins himself explained his approach yesterday: “It’s a focus on making sure that the things that we are doing are deliverable within the timeframes that we’re doing them”.
Stuff political editor Luke Malpass explains the value of this new approach today: “after years of disaster management and a previous prime minister who was high on rhetoric but short on delivery in some key areas – including health, climate and housing – Hipkins’ cheerful concentration on getting rid of stuff people don’t care about or find irritating is refreshing.”
Malpass also paints a picture of Hipkins focusing more on traditional Labour social democratic concerns, including the Prime Minister’s stated focus on “social mobility”: “He is in the older Labour tradition of improvement in people’s lives rather than the more amorphous progressivism… This is an important shift from the Ardern administration which talked a lot about fairness but not much about opportunity or aspiration.”
Room for the Greens to grow
The Green Party is probably having to carefully contain their glee that Labour has given them more space to grow their support amongst liberal voters in places like Grey Lynn and Wellington Central. Labour has effectively said that if you want a greater prioritisation of the environment instead of cost of living issues or the concerns of working class voters, then vote for the Greens.
This provides greater differentiation between the two left parties. And potentially allows the Greens to take up more of Labour’s vote, while Labour wins back working class support from National. Therefore Stuff reports today that “Labour drift into the centre has created room for the Greens and party strategists are working out how to best capitalise on it.”
The Greens are therefore likely to be perversely and secretly happy with Labour’s bonfire of environmental policies. Not surprisingly, Hipkins was able to report that when he met with the Green co-leaders to let them know, “We had a really positive conversation”. Asked about this, James Shaw confirmed that the conversation was “really positive”.
Of course, to the public, the Greens need to communicate their displeasure about Labour dropping their Green-friendly policies. Shaw told the Spinoff’s Toby Manhire, “I’ve been pissed off for a while now. It’s just exasperating and disappointing that we keep making short-term decisions at the expense of the future. It drives me nuts.” Likewise, Chlöe Swarbrick said that Labour’s dropping the alcohol sponsorship reform was an “absolute slap in the face”.
Does the Labour Government believe in anything but pragmatism?
The big problem with Labour’s abandonment of so many of its policies created under Jacinda Ardern’s leadership is that it has little to show for its past five years in power. Labour has had a historic majority under MMP, but doesn’t seem to want to make use of it to bring about any type of real transformation.
It now looks as if Labour is so purely driven by electoral pragmatism, that it offers nothing substantial for those wanting to see a progressive agenda implemented. Some voters might wonder if Labour is now just a party of the status quo.
Writing today for Newsroom, political editor Jo Moir is scathing, saying “Labour has overtaken National as the party of doing nothing. Both leaders are now in a race to do as little as possible to rock the voter boat right through until the election in October”. She says yesterday’s policy bonfire “was a depressing reminder of how cynical politics can be”.
Moir challenged Hipkins yesterday to name policies that the Labour Government might be remembered for, and he struggled. And as to what his political ambitions for the year are, he said rather honestly, “well, I’m aiming for us to have at least three more years after this where we can do a range of things as well”. In response, Moir sums this up as “the focus is getting back into power”.
She says therefore, the “next seven months won’t be about policy that will progress New Zealand and New Zealanders’ lives but a strategic game of vote winning”, and it’s simply “a fight for the status quo, a fight to not progress or improve, a fight for the worst kind of politics”.
It looks like Hipkins and Labour are outmanoeuvring Luxon and National in their renewed refocus on working-class concerns and voters, but without any real progressive policy agenda, they might have trouble mobilising that voter base.
Labour will therefore increasingly face the accusation that it hates the most: you have “sold out”. If Labour is re-elected, having ditched so much of its substantial and distinctive policies, some in the party might find themselves reflecting on Mark 8:36 in the Bible: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”