Jacinda Ardern: no friend of the working class

Image Credit: pinknews.co.uk

This article first appeared in The Anvil Vol 12 No 1, published 28 February, 2023.

Since her resignation in January, a lot has been said about the record of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party and the impact of her leadership. Many in the media have given her high praise. ‘Progressive’ media have been particularly laudatory. The Guardian, for instance, declared that she had won the public’s admiration through her “empathy” and “decisiveness”. Similarly, current Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took to Twitter to comment that she had “showed the world how to lead with intellect and strength”. 

While it is true that Ardern’s popularity has dwindled (and that her reputation as a bold leader of a progressive government is wholly unearned), the right wing press has predictably failed to offer a convincing critique of her legacy. Instead, as usual, they have opted to spew standard reactionary talking points. 

The reality is that Ardern’s Labour Party managed capitalism in Aotearoa (NZ) in the interests of the ruling class. When the progressive myth-making about her government is put aside, we find that her record in office is one which demonstrates the bankruptcy of parliamentary politics as a vehicle for change (let alone overthrowing capitalism!)

An Economy That Works and Delivers (For Capitalists)

Upon becoming Prime Minister, Ardern stated that the Labour Party must pursue “An economy that works and delivers for all New Zealanders”. In one session of parliament she sparked both praise and outrage by declaring herself to be a “democratic socialist” (although she prefers “progressive”). Identifying as a ‘democratic socialist’ seems to mean less and less with each passing day. When considered in the context of Ardern’s Labour government the emptiness of the label takes on new levels of absurdity.

Take, for instance, the New Zealand Labour Party’s promise under Ardern to reverse the austerity measures introduced in the National Party’s 1991 budget. Pushed through by leader Ruth Richardson in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility’, this budget drastically cut the unemployment wage, sick leave benefits, family income support measures, and increased fees for supposedly ‘free’ schools and hospitals. On top of this, the old public housing system was placed under new corporate management. These unpopular measures would only serve to increase inequality and generally diminish the standard of living for a generation. 

Ardern’s Labour government failed to reverse this assault on the working class in Aotearoa. Her actual record would even ultimately disappoint many advocacy groups which had initially been enthused by her election. Far from pushing the programme of radical reform they had hoped for, Ardern’s government showed great consistency with its predecessors. Her final budget followed the usual pattern, consisting of a measly one off payment of $350 for those earning under $70,000, a temporary reduction in fuel duties and public transport costs, and vague support for the creation of ‘employment opportunities’. 

Education saw an increase in funding in the form of continued building projects, but absent from Ardern’s budget was any  plan to reduce of student fees (or, more importantly, their abolition). Ardern also did little to reverse the effects of a corporatised public housing scheme, with the Labour Party pledging to increase public funding, without fundamentally altering the structure of Aotearoa’s housing policy. According to Labour’s own ‘budget at a glance’, the major achievement of the budget, and Labour’s management of the economy, was the implementation of ‘fiscal discipline’.

Ihumatao struggle Credit: newshub.co.nz

Tino rangatiratanga? Same old same old

Jacinda Ardern made a speciality of combining symbolic progressive gestures with the continuation of Right wing policies in practice and nowhere was this more blatant than in the treatment of Maori people. She got high marks from Maori leaders for spending five days with them during and after the Waitangi Day ceremonies in 2018, but working class Maori people never saw any benefit from it. When push came to shove in the struggle over Ihumatao in Tamaki Makaurau/Aukland, it was Ardern’s police that showed up to act as thugs for the capitalist property developer. The struggle for tino rangatiratanga (Maori sovereignty, which has never been ceded) continues, with no discernible difference from the days of National governments.

The Hypocrisy of the “Be Kind” Government

Just as the idea of Ardern as an ‘economic populist’ is in stark contrast to her actual record, the image of her government as being defined by ‘kindness’ is hardly appropriate. Amidst the worst of the  Covid crisis, her government dedicated 5 billion dollars worth of taxpayer money to business bailouts. Meanwhile, the average worker, having lost up to 70% of their pay, could expect only a 25 dollar per week increase to core social security payments. When adjusted for inflation this ‘increase’ isn’t even enough to make up for  the cuts made in the 1991 Richardson budget. A 6 month rent holiday was also initially declared, but after this all that the government could muster was a pitiful plea that individual landlords should give ‘security to tenants’ during the crisis. 

Lowest of all is the Ardern government’s treatment of nurses. The Labour Party government allowed migrant nurses to enter the country at the height of the Covid pandemic as essential workers under temporary residency, with the idea being that after fighting off and saving the country from one of the worst pandemics in history they were going to be deported. It was only due to the campaigning of the National Nurses Union and other solidarity campaigners that the rights of these ‘essential workers’ were defended from the immigration policy of Ardern’s Labour Party.

Anti-Nuclear, Pro-War

At the beginning of her tenure as Prime Minister, Ardern stated that fighting climate change was her generation’s ‘nuclear free moment’. But as the climate activist Greta Thunberg has pointed out, in 2019 Aotearoa’s carbon emissions increased by 2%, and increased again in 2022 by 1.7%.

In fact, Ardern seems to have also missed the point of the Aotearoa ‘Nuclear free movement’. In 1984, Aotearoa declared itself to be nuclear free following large anti-war demonstrations. Ardern, however, clearly does not align herself with the anti-war and anti-imperialist nature of that movement. While previous governments had indirectly supported NATO by supplying funds, as in the lead up to the invasion of Afghanistan, Ardern was the first Aotearoa Prime Minister to formally meet with the organisation.

Ardern used her address to this imperialist alliance (largely run by the United States) to claim Aotearoa’s support for ‘standing firm’ against China. In other words, Ardern has nothing in common with the anti-war movement she claims to be inspired by. Her record has been one of aligning Aotearoa with American imperialism in a catastrophically dangerous rivalry with China. Neither alignment is in the interest of the working class, which must always be united across borders against our sabre rattling governments.

No Parliamentary Path to Social Change

The failure of Ardern’s Labour government to live up to her ‘democratic socialist’ (or even ‘progressive’) pretensions can’t be reduced to a simple matter of ‘betrayal’ or ‘neoliberal ideology’. The reforms implemented by Labour and Socialist parties all over the world have been under sustained attack for decades now, and the inability of their sincere adherents to reverse that trend is due to their fundamental misunderstanding of how social change occurs under capitalism. 

Workers’ rights, the welfare state, and other victories were never the result of electing ‘good politicians’ with ‘the right ideas’. They came as a result of an organised working class being able to hit bosses and governments where it hurts – the pocket. Through constant strike action, and the threat of socialist revolution, it became in the interests of capitalism as a system to allow left-wing governments to be elected, to concede reforms, and to divert working class anger into manageable channels. Many workers came to see parliament and arbitration processes for industrial disputes as a viable way to change the world. Ultimately, this integration of the workers’ movement into the State ended up sacrificing our real source of power: the ability of the rank and file to disrupt profit and defend its use of militant action.

In the late 1970s, left wing political parties were then faced with the same problem as right wing ones ― addressing the mounting crisis of profitability. If workers can win higher wages for less work; if there is a safety net which makes the threat of unemployment less of a cause for obedience among workers; the entire capitalism system becomes destabilised and is thrown into crisis. There is no solution to this within capitalism. The choice became social revolution or what we now call ‘neoliberalism’. Around the world, parties of every ideological position chose the latter.

Ardern’s Labour stood no chance to repeat the achievements of past Labour governments, because the real source of left wing reforms ― a large, militant workers’ movement outside of parliament ― does not exist. The working class of every country must rebuild this kind of movement if we want to change the world. And when the next crisis of profitability comes we will be faced by the same choice: undo all of our gains, or commit to overthrowing capitalism for good. We at the Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group know which side we are on.