Hipkins and Sepuloni were elected yesterday and immediately started repositioning their Government away from what might be called the affluent “woking class” towards the “working class”. Gone is an emphasis on cultural politics, and in its place is a laser-like focus on the economy and delivery of better public services to ordinary citizens.
Herald political editor Claire Trevett described his speech as “the chalk to the cheese of Ardern’s style and language. We have gone from transformational to bread and butter.”
She approves of his new direction: “His job is trying to convince voters that Labour is focused on the various troubles plaguing them now – from potholes to hip ops to the price of bread – rather than some big highfaluting vision for the future, or expensive and cumbersome reforms that might look like luxury items in the current climate. It was precisely what he needed to do.”
Smart for Hipkins to focus on the economy
Matthew Hooton writes in The Australian today that Hipkins is smart to focus Labour on the economy – it’s the overwhelming voting issue for 2023. A Curia Research poll out on Friday showed that when asked what the number one issue in the country is, the biggest response is the cost of living (22 per cent), followed by the economy in general (19 per cent), with no other issue coming close.
And when the poll asked the public who they thought could best tackle inflation, 49 per cent chose National, with only 23 per cent favouring Labour. On the economy in general, National is favoured by 50 per cent, to Labour’s 27 per cent.
Labour desperately needs to turn around the perception that the party isn’t focused on economic issues during a recession. This is especially because Labour’s own traditional constituency of working people is hurting the most at the moment. As Hooton points out, “Measured as labour costs over consumer prices, real wages began falling from mid-2020. By September 2021, they were lower than when Ms Ardern became Prime Minister and have kept falling since. By September 2022, they were down nearly 6 per cent compared with mid-2020.”
Does this mean that Labour will focus on economics at the expense of “woke” politics?
The term “woke” has been increasingly used to describe this Labour Government, and commentators agree that Hipkins wants to change that perception.
Yesterday’s Sunday Star Times editorial explained that Hipkins’ leadership focus is on “working New Zealanders”, and “Hipkins is making clear that he’s going to be less ‘woke’ and more attuned to their needs.”
Stuff political editor Luke Malpass also says Hipkins “doesn’t share some of the more ‘woke’ culture affectations that some of his colleagues do.” Malpass suggests Hipkins is less about “some sort of social engineering agenda” and “more in the old-Labour mould of delivering ‘improvement’ in peoples’ lives, rather than adhering to a ‘progressive’ march of history view of the world”.
In the same newspaper, Andrea Vance refers to Labour ditching “distracting, unpopular initiatives and issues that we neatly package up as ‘identity politics’.”
Others see this shift is about taking Labour back towards traditional class-based progressive politics. For example, this week leftwing commentator Josie Pagani suggested that the new Labour leadership should, “Re-focus and sort out the underperforming public sector, jettison the identity politics, and deliver a greater share of the economy to wage earners.”
Political journalist Richard Harman says much of what Hipkins is doing “is going back to its past as the party of workers” and believes it’s a smart move. Harman points out that, although Hipkins might be “unashamedly from Labour’s middle-class base”, he is channelling his Remutaka constituency which “consists almost entirely of wage earners”, and “is a far cry from the increasingly affluent inner-city Mt Albert electorate of Jacinda Ardern.”
Harman also argues that various statements from Hipkins yesterday seemed like “veiled criticism of the Ardern Government’s focus on the kind of issues that excite young inner city voters”. In contrast to satisfying the affluent voters of Grey Lynn, Mt Albert and Wellington Central, Hipkins deliberately focused on working families: “I think that some of them might feel they feel that they are not hearing enough from us about the issues that are that really matter to them at the moment. And that’s absolutely where our focus will be.”
Certainly, both Hipkins and Sepuloni are stressing all things socio-economic. Yesterday Hipkins said he wanted to focus on the housing crisis, saying “You shouldn’t have to be on a six-figure salary to buy a new house.” Of course, he also was at pains to say he didn’t want property prices to actually drop.
And Hipkins said his government would strengthen public services, especially in education and health: “Access to those basics needs to be extended to all those who are striving for better.”
Hipkins emphasised his own “relatively humble” beginnings, and suggested that his new deputy fitted with those as well: “As a proud westie, I can’t think of a better sidekick for a boy from the Hutt.”
Sepuloni also stressed her humble background alongside her ethnicity, saying “It is very hard to fathom that a working-class girl from Waitara who turned ‘Westie’ that that person could become the Deputy-Prime Minister of New Zealand.” And profiles of her also advertise that her Samoan-Tongan father was a freezing worker and unionist, while her Pākehā Mum was from a farming background and worked in a Swanndri factory.
It was noteworthy that in his first speech, Hipkins failed to use the moniker of “Aotearoa”, referring instead only to “New Zealand” about a dozen times. It seemed deliberate, especially because Sepuloni followed suit. It was strikingly different to the convention of Government ministers over the last year or so.
It’s likely that Labour’s market research is telling them that the Government is being negatively associated with social engineering and “woke politics” relating to gender and ethnicity agendas. Working class voters in particular are probably less enamoured with such middle class liberalism. And the term “Aotearoa” has possibly become something of a signifier for what the public sees as Labour’s “woke excesses”.
There’s plenty of survey evidence to back this up. Whenever the public is asked about the use of “Aotearoa” or changing the country’s name, the vast majority are opposed. There’s probably a suspicion that liberal elites are pushing through such language changes without any public debate.
What happens to Co-governance and Three Waters?
Hipkins has emphasised his desire to reset the Labour Government this year by paring back its agenda and dropping unpopular policies. Could this include what surveys are showing as the most unpopular issues: Co-governance and Three Waters? The latest polling shows that 60 per cent of the public opposes Three Waters, with only 23 per cent in support.
It’s the co-governance element that appears to be of particular public concern. But reporting on Hipkins’ statements, Matthew Hooton says today: “To restore the Labour-Green vote in small towns and rural New Zealand, already down to a third, Mr Hipkins is signalling changes to plans for Maori tribes to hold 50 per cent of the seats on new regional drinking-, waste- and storm-water representative bodies.”
Hipkins spoke thoughtfully about co-governance in his press conference yesterday, saying that “no one understands what that means”, and further clarification is required, especially about the different contexts in which it is utilised by governments. But the clear subtext was that he was very willing and interested in getting such issues right off the agenda.
Some journalists have made much of the fact that Hipkins wasn’t able to recite the three articles of The Treaty of Waitangi yesterday. Reported as being an embarrassment, it’s probably not the damaging episode that some might think – instead, it might just reinforce that Hipkins isn’t as Treaty-oriented as other politicians.
Where does this leave Three Waters, which is getting closer to being implemented this year? According to Stuff’s Tracy Watkins: “Whether the implementation of Three Waters is parked or Hipkins strips it back to its original purpose of fixing degraded rivers and beaches and dodgy town water supplies, it will involve tough conversations with Labour’s powerful Māori caucus about co-governance that Ardern was unwilling to have.”
She argues Three Waters “has ripped open a fault line on race relations that polarises an already divided electorate.”
Claire Trevett says that it’s still not clear how bold Hipkins is prepared to be in his scrapping of unpopular policies. She asks: “Will he be brave? Will he indeed make big captain’s calls or just tinker?”
Analysts appear divided on what Hipkins is likely to do with Three Waters. Herald political journalist Thomas Coughlan writes today that the policy looks safe. In contrast, Stuff’s Andrea Vance says she expects Three Waters to be dumped. Others have argued that the overall reforms might stay in place, but shorn of the contentious co-governance requirements.
Notably, today former Labour leader David Cunliffe has come out to say: “Expect him to clear the decks of electoral liabilities, fast. Three Waters will be off the table. Likely also, speed limit reductions and the TVNZ/RNZ merger.”
Symbolically such U-turns could be a big deal. Chris Trotter writes on this today: “On the vexed questions of co-governance, decolonisation and indigenisation, the new prime minister need not even repudiate the Māori caucus’s revolutionary ambitions, merely state the obvious truth that they have so-far failed to convince their fellow citizens that such radical constitutional changes are either necessary or desirable. In the same breath, he can then reassure the Pakeha electorate that Labour will never connive in the arbitrary imposition of a new, ethnically-bifurcated, constitution from above.”
Is Labour back in the game?
Decisiveness and a fresh political orientation could well work electorally. According to Newshub political editor Jenna Lynch, the new direction and style of Hipkins is a shot in the arm for Labour: “He has a way of connecting with working families in a way Ardern couldn’t – so stardust or not, Prime Minister Hipkins may just be exactly the reset the Labour Government and Labour party needed.”
None of this means Hipkins is anti-woke, in the mould of someone like David Seymour, but simply that he will steer his government away from the culture wars. The electoral environment of 2023 is all about the economy, and so he needs to find ways to protect and lift people’s standards of living. Hipkins will want Labour to focus on “votes not the wokes”.
Does this shift away from Treaty issues or co-governance mean throwing Māori under the bus? Not really. Māori voters are, by and large, concerned with the same issues as non-Māori – and in fact, suffer the most from economic inequities. The last available poll of Māori voters – by Horizon last year for The Hui – asked what issues would drive their voting decisions, and the top was Cost of Living (72 per cent) followed by Housing, Health, Covid, Poverty, Economy, Employment, Education. Notably, Treaty issues was the lowest on the list.
Not everyone on the left will be happy with Hipkins’ new “bread and butter” focus. There will be concerns that Hipkins is cynically shifting in a more conservative or reactionary direction. There might also be questions about the authenticity of the repositioning. It’s a fair question as to whether this is just opportunism on Hipkins’ part.
Nonetheless, this shift towards a total focus on the economy and more working class concerns is what will determine Labour’s re-election chances more than anything else. And in this regard, Hooton has his own conclusion today about Labour’s chances of winning re-election: “If any recession is modest or avoided, unemployment stays low, inflation falls back towards the mandated 1-3 per cent band and the All Blacks thrash France at the World Cup opener in Paris on September 8, then Labour should scrape home for a third term. If any of those go wrong, Mr Hipkins is toast.”
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE