Labour came crashing down and every other party went up. Voters from all points on the political spectrum said, “Enough.” What’s Labour going to learn from this?
First up, the big one: it’s not enough to be fit for war, you also have to be fit for the peace. It’s the same thing they said about Winston Churchill, all those years ago.
Churchill was loved by the British public for leading them through World War II, but then he was discarded – in a landslide – in the general election that followed after.
Why? Because Churchill’s rival, Labour leader Clement Atlee, promised a welfare state, and that looked like the kind of peace voters believed they deserved.
Dame Jacinda Ardern was our Churchill, give or take the cigars. She was loved for her leadership in the first year of the pandemic – our war – and rewarded for it with extraordinary support in the 2020 election. That meant the New Zealand Labour Party, unlike Churchill’s Tories, got the chance to show they were fit for the peace as well as the war. And they messed it up.
It doesn’t matter that they weren’t entirely to blame. And it isn’t Labour’s fault that the fallout from the pandemic years has been difficult to understand - people isolated from loved ones in hardship and grief, children traumatised, businesses collapsed and still collapsing, anger and intolerance on the rise, the health system almost broken.
The social trauma has been far deeper and more widespread than expected, and it will roll on for a long time to come.
And it has meant that one thing trumped everything in this election. We want to forget. Move on and forget. Don’t tell me about the pandemic, I have to find the money to feed my family.
Voters just wanted change and National knew it. Hipkins knew it too, at least to start with. His “policy bonfire” at the start of his time in charge was supposed to tell us things would be different. But then? He seemed not to know what to do next.
He failed to grasp that voters who want change actually do want change and won’t settle for trivialities. GST off the veges, but no structural tax reform? Was it a joke?
Nope. It was a betrayal, and you didn’t need to be on the left to feel appalled. Everyone learned the lesson: Labour was scared of change.
One of the great fallacies in politics is that there is a big middle ground of voters who like quiet moderation. Actually, voters want things to be better. Those who swing from one party to another are not looking to reinforce the status quo. They have become disillusioned and want a shake-up.
This wasn’t a vote against the left. The Greens and Te Pāti Māori both had their best election results ever, increasing their numbers and, between them, on election night, turfing the Labour candidates out of five electorates. That might sink to four but it could, incredibly, rise to seven.
It wasn’t a vote against the right, either. It was a vote against the timidity of Labour, a party that has no right to be timid, because it is supposed to stand for change.
As it happens, while Labour shied away from tax and benefit reform, it did attempt several other changes that were long overdue. But in most cases, it did not know how to do this.
It’s traditional to blame the “messaging”, but that’s a euphemism for alienating the public. Co-governance, the most obvious example, was always going to be opposed by racists, but Labour allowed a lot of other good-hearted people to feel estranged by it too.
There are organisations all over the country practising co-governance, and every single one of them says the most important thing is support from the community. But when it came to desperately-needed water reform, Labour did not seem to know what this means.
It was the same with public transport, curriculum reform, road safety, health restructuring and environmental reforms. In all of this, to varying degrees, Labour failed to embed its programme of change in support from the communities most affected.
Part of the reason everything became “such a hard sell” is that Labour also forgot the importance of short-term solutions. Long-term planning and big projects are important, but getting things done now is too.
Build light rail, okay, but first make the existing bus networks highly functional on existing roads. Restructure water services, sure, but get those safety filters in place for the water we’re drinking now.
Reform education, of course, but get kids back into classrooms and do not wreck the universities or the technical institutes. And, yes, reform the health system. But the priority has to be on the front line.
Hipkins and his party now face the existential question: what is the point of Labour in the 2020s?
In Britain in 1945, Clement Atlee’s government didn’t win because people had turned against Churchill.
It won because it worked hard, right through the war years, to promote its policies of change. A manifesto, called Let Us Face the Future, sold 1.5 million copies. Voters learned about the National Health System, full employment and decent benefits and could see how such things would make their lives better.
“Winning the peace” was one of Labour’s slogans.
Atlee’s plans were proudly radical and quickly became mainstream. For New Zealand Labour now, the same opportunity arises. An equitable tax system and guaranteed minimum income will both become mainstream over the next decade or so. A higher-skilled and higher-waged workforce and comprehensive climate action could do the same. Does Labour want to be part of making them so?
On Saturday night, incoming PM Christopher Luxon said, “You have reached for hope and you have voted for change.”
Labour is supposed to be the party that says things like that.
Simon Wilson is an award-winning senior writer covering politics, the climate crisis, transport, housing, urban design and social issues, with a focus on Auckland. He joined the Herald in 2018.