At a time when social democratic parties around the world are struggling in elections, the New Zealand Labour Party was recently returned to government with its highest level of support in over 50 years. The second-term Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has made the land of the long white cloud the envy of progressive voters around the world. Why has she been so successful, and what can Europe learn?
Ardern says that the secret of her success is kindness. She shuns the type of negative attacks on political opponents that are typical of traditional, strong-man politics, and instead focuses on what brings people together, empathising with the struggles of ordinary citizens and especially the younger generations. It is on their behalf that decisions about the future are made. To unite citizens around kinder, progressive politics, European politicians need to cultivate a common European identity that echoes the concerns of ordinary people, not just experts.
Jacinda Ardern is popular because she doesn’t remind voters of a typical career politician. Cast into the position of party leader just seven weeks out from the 2017 election, Ardern seemed like a reluctant prime minister, but she is no Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Just as the president of the United States, Donald Trump, is not in fact an everyman, Ardern’s career history is not at all unlike that of a career politician. Fresh out of studying politics at university, Ardern started out as a researcher for Aotearoa New Zealand’s then Prime Minister, Helen Clark, before working for Labour governments in the United Kingdom, and returning home to run for office herself. Unlike the independents, including AOC, who have been propelled to the US House of Representatives, and those threatening the position of established politicians in other countries today, Ardern is very much a creature of institutional politics. So how does she make voters feel as though she isn’t?
Rather than sewing division to score political points, Ardern focuses on what brings the population together. In her leadership of the coronavirus response, she has referred to New Zealanders as a ‘team of five million’. When 51 people were killed in attacks at two mosques in the South Island city of Ōtautahi/Christchurch in March 2019, Ardern visited their families wearing a headscarf, and said of the victims to the nation, ‘they are us’. With a focus on evidence-based policy, Ardern has managed to unite voters around quite substantial interventions to address these crises. Aotearoa’s coronavirus response, involving a month-long hard lockdown which shuttered all non-essential services, was lauded by the World Health Organisation. After the 2019 mosque attacks, gun reform was passed within four weeks.
Ardern’s method of communicating with citizens contributed to the success of these evidence-based but controversial initiatives. In challenging times, the Prime Minister’s seemingly unscripted video updates to Instagram and Facebook have helped Kiwi voters feel that the leader understands their anxiety, fear, and pain. Ardern explained simply and directly to citizens the evidence behind policies that would protect their common wellbeing. It is not social media per se, but its ability to connect the leader with a much broader and younger audience than traditional means of political communication, that has been as good for politics as it is for policy. At election time, there was a substantial growth in the youth vote, especially among 18 to 24 year olds.
National-level politicians in Europe are struggling to hear the concerns of ordinary people and bring electorates together around progressive politics. While social democratic parties seek relevance in postindustrial societies by courting upper-middle class voters with progressive values, they neglect the everyday struggles of the working people who actually benefit from progressive policies. Uncoordinated national responses to the migrant crisis and coronavirus pandemic have served to intensify national competition and feelings of difference.
The truth is that there are cultural and institutional differences among European countries that stand in the way of common progressive politics. Vastly different welfare and taxation systems are based on enduring compromises made among competing interests within nations. Overcoming these national differences, and the very different sets of vested interests that they engender, is necessary to address the common challenges of climate change, inequality, and a changing global economy. We need to cultivate a European identity that makes our differences seem arbitrary in the face of our shared obstacles.
European-level politicians are better positioned than national politicians to bring us together around the challenges that affect working people in all European nations. But is a ‘team of five hundred million’ harder to achieve? It might be easier for a politician in Aotearoa to seem down-to-earth and in touch with people than it is for European politicians. After all, it is not unusual for locals who work in the Kiwi capital, Pōneke/Wellington, to run into Ministers ducking out of the Beehive to grab a flat white and a cheese scone. On the other hand, Brussels is 2,000 kilometres from Athens and Abisko. But the European Union also has a wealth of resources at its disposal, currently spending as much on administration as Aotearoa spends on its entire education system. This kind of budget is by no means lavish, but more of it should be used to reach out to citizens and hear their everyday concerns.
European institutions are actually pretty good at consultation, but they don’t do a very good job of echoing the concerns of ordinary citizens. A focus on evidence-based policy and participation sees Brussels regularly engage with experts and associations representing groups of citizens to contribute to policy processes and its many publications. But ordinary citizens are not the audience of EU reports. The young Europeans who will benefit most from progressive policies are not well-organised into associations ready for consultation, and probably don’t feel like European politicians understand their anxieties and pain.
Jacinda Ardern’s politics of kindness has demonstrated that speaking to ordinary people, and especially to young people, is a recipe for both electoral success and effective evidence-based policy that unites people around a common cause. The first, essential step to making progressive politics successful in Europe is cultivating a European identity that echoes the concerns of ordinary people. European politicians are well-positioned to do this.