• Jacinda For A British Readership

    I was recently asked by the Fabian Society in the UK to write a piece about our Prime Minister for their annual publication. Here is the piece that has now been published.

    Jacinda Ardern is the most popular leader New Zealand has ever had. She established her domestic popularity and her international reputation by virtue of the calmness, decisiveness and empathy she brought to bear in enabling New Zealand to withstand and confront the coronavirus epidemic with more success than any other country.

    This success – remarkable for a young woman with no previous experience of government – came on the back of her similarly sure-footed handling of the murderous attack by an Australian terrorist on Christchurch mosques, and her empathetic reaction to the loss of life when a volcano erupted in the Bay of Plenty.

    She proved herself in each of these scenarios to be a leader who could be trusted, not least because she was a brilliant communicator. Her televised daily press conferences and grilling by the media in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak were master classes in how to build public trust and understanding.

    Her “team of five million” were prepared to follow her to the ends of the earth (which is where most of the rest of the world would place her anyway). As the plaudits began to roll in from around the world, New Zealand enjoyed the experience of becoming – for once – the cynosure of all eyes.

    The reward for her efforts came in the general election in late 2020. An electorate that might have been expected to punish a government that had imposed on them all the economic disruption and uncertainty of successive lockdowns reacted instead with gratitude and affection. Ardern’s Labour government became the first to secure, under New Zealand’s proportional representation system, an outright majority in parliament without any need to seek coalition partners.

    During the campaign, I lost count of those whom I knew to be lifelong supporters of the right-wing opposition National party, who said no more to me than “she’s done a good job” and who then felt it unnecessary to elaborate further on their intention to vote for her.

    Her crushing victory undoubtedly owed much to her ability to unite the country and to render party differences beside the point. But that could prove to be far from an unalloyed benefit.

    Some of her critics on the left – and there are some – fear that her success in attracting support from the centre-right could mean that she has become their prisoner. New Zealand’s short three-year parliamentary term means that there is precious little time to enact a truly transformative programme and to carry the country with it. The critics fear that, rather than risk losing the support she has gained from those who would not normally vote Labour, she might soft-pedal on the need for change.

    It is not that Jacinda – she is one of those politicians who is best identified and widely known by her first name alone – lacks ambition for what her government might achieve. She has been clear in setting her goals – combatting climate change, reducing child poverty, solving the housing crisis by building more houses. Her critics doubt, however, her ability to achieve these goals, given that she has boxed herself in through her pledge, given under pressure from the opposition during the campaign, not to introduce a capital gains tax.

    The critics say, not without reason, that there is no solution to growing inequality without taxing the rich. Her defenders might respond by pointing to the unexpectedly positive performance by the New Zealand economy as it bounces back from lockdown – an outcome much helped by the quantitative easing put in place by the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson. As a result, the prospects for increased government spending are surprisingly bright.

    Time will tell – but it would be a brave person who would bet against an extended term in government for a leader who reads and represents the New Zealand psyche so well. Jacinda Ardern has discovered and demonstrated that politics is not just about “the economy, stupid”, but is also about emotion, empathy and personality; the key word in Ardern’s politics is “kindness”. She has created a new version of left-wing politics which distinguishes itself from its right-wing opponents not only through sheer competence and what it thinks, but through what it feels as well – its sympathy with, and regard and respect for, all of our fellow-citizens.

    Bryan Gould
    25 February 2021