Labour danger: The challenges for Jacinda Ardern

By Associate Professor Jennifer Lees-Marshment
Expert in political marketing at the University of Auckland

Political landslides are dramatic occasions which attract international attention as they suggest profound shifts in party positions and public views.

There is no doubt that the political marketplace in New Zealand is turbulent, with many National voters switching their vote to Labour in the 2020 election.

But landslides are also disruptive, and the re-elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern faces a number of challenges ahead.

A health crisis hiding a delivery crisis

We all know that Ardern was a very effective crisis manager in her first term and her victory is at least partly based on that. But this masked a failure to deliver on core 2017 promises.

In political management terms Ardern was good at dancing to suit the different coalition partners and adapted to the circumstances she faced. However her weakness was in not discharging plans effectively and thus being perceived to fail to deliver, abandoning key promises such as to introduce a Capital Gains Tax and overseeing a problematic implementation of Labour’s flagship house building programme KiwiBuild.

The dissatisfaction of supporters was not seen in the election results but they will be seen in the pressure to be more transformation and get things done in the second term.

A victory built on the opposition’s mudslide

The high Labour vote in 2020 at least partly reflects extremely poor political marketing by the opposition rather than Labour itself.

The National Party which failed to accept the loss of 2017 or develop an alternative, political product, instead focusing on criticising one of the most popular prime ministers New Zealand has ever seen.

This doesn’t equate to whole-hearted support for Labour’s new government. As one Labour-linked practitioner noted, ‘Labour’s slogan may as well have been 'would you just look at the state of that other lot?'

Voters bought an undefined product

Basic political marketing principles argue that major parties need to create a product that responds to voters’ wants and needs and then deliver it once in power. But what voters wanted was confusing, and what Labour offered was never made clear.

Data from the online engagement tool Vote Compass 2020 run by TVNZ in New Zealand (just like the one run with ABC in Australia) suggested challenging trends in what the public wants from government going forward.

Views on a range of policy issues suggested voters want the government needs to find a way to support people through welfare, but stimulate business at the same time, and in a way that doesn’t damage the environment – not an easy combination at any time let alone during an economic crisis.

For example, there is support for increasing tax on wealthier people (59% agree) and free dental care for those on low incomes (70% support action in this area). Yet there was a strong divide on other areas of social welfare such as increasing the minimum wage, providing free lunches to students in state schools. Voters saw the economy as the top issue, but also wanted the environment protected with 60% wanting the government to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Another quirk in the Vote Compass data is more nationalistic or protectionist elements. There is also a strong desire for protection of New Zealand’s assets and independence – 90% of respondents think we should impose a royalty on exporters of NZ water, 70% that we should prevent foreign ownership of houses and 67% that; New Zealand should be less reliant on other countries for its goods and services.

In other areas the views of New Zealanders are not year clear. These areas include reform of the Resource Management Act, the ability of businesses to dismiss new employees, immigration, funding for charter schools, the Treaty of Waitangi and amends for injustices against Māori where a third were for, neutral and against. For example while 34% support easing restrictions on on property developers and 39% are against, 24%  are neutral.

Perhaps it is not surprising therefore that Labour failed to define what they were offering. Their policy promises for 2020 were just a list, and lacked clear priorities they could deliver quickly. Post-election, Ardern said “our message was that the strength of that mandate was that we would be able to crack on with our recovery with greater pace and greater urgency and that’s our intention.” But as that message was never made clear before the election, the result does not equal public support for specific action because they never said clearly what that action would be.

Public demands on the new government will be excessive

Despite Ardern’s successful handling of the health aspect of the Covid-19 crisis, voters will now ask “what’s next”? and want the government to come up with quick solutions to the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Vote Compass data also found that only 40% trusted Ardern to manage the economy best. This was only 12% more than National leader Judith Collins. And now she is the leader of a majority government, she has no coalition partners to blame for not getting things done.

Going forward she has to use political management and marketing very carefully. In political management terms, this means time must be spent designing a plan with specific policy priorities, and discharging plans once decisions are made which will involve managing conflicting demands from a diverse voter base which includes long-time Labour supporters to floating right wingers.

In political marketing terms, market-research will need to be used to create communication that persuades people to support potentially difficult decisions. Ultimately, New Zealanders want a Prime Minister that shows care and concern but can also take actions that will help the country emerge from the global crisis in both good health and financially secure.

Banner image: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks on the phone. Source: NZ Labour Party


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