Killing with Kindness

The rise and fall of Jacinda Ardern

22 March 2023

A curious contrast of perception grew up around Jacinda Ardern during the five years she spent as prime minister of New Zealand before her resignation in late January. Internationally she had been feted as a celebrity politician and liberal darling, the supposed “world’s anti-Trump” who capably steered New Zealand through turbulent times. At home, where the sheen of her “pragmatic idealism” had largely worn off, Ardern’s popularity within ruling circles had already declined. Although retaining devoted loyalists among the reformist left and labour bureaucracy, she is hated by vast swathes of the right and increasingly frowned on even by the centre left. Support for Labour and Ardern among working-class people collapsed from its record-breaking high in early 2021 to a point where a third straight Labour electoral victory looks uncertain. No doubt this concern informed “pragmatist” Ardern’s resignation.

Undeniably, Ardern faced an unusual degree of vitriol and threats from the right. Her carefully crafted public image as a young, progressive woman espousing “kindness” while holding the prime minister’s office sent the conservative and populist right into paroxysms of misogyny, expressed in disgusting right-wing media attacks and threats on her life. Meanwhile, feminist-tinged sections of the left seemed to support her mainly for her sex, age and family choices, untroubled by such trifling concerns as her openly class-collaborationist politics and role as chief political administrator of New Zealand capitalism. Ardern’s framing of her resignation as burnout is likely to satisfy both wings of the mainstream, albeit for opposite reasons.

For revolutionary Marxists, however, Ardern will be reviled as a pro-capitalist politician who loyally administered the bourgeois state on behalf of New Zealand’s corporate oligarchy.

Ardernism at Home…

Ardern’s tenure in office has inevitably been one of disappointment and unfulfilled expectations for Labour’s working-class base. In 2017, as leader of the largest party but without a majority, she led the NZ Labour Party into a popular-frontist governing coalition with the bourgeois liberal Greens and the right-wing populist New Zealand First party. Three years later, Labour won an outright majority of seats in parliament (unprecedented under New Zealand’s proportional MMP electoral system). In both elections, the IBT called for a spoilt ballot, arguing that “even if Labour were to gain enough seats to govern alone, it would not deserve a worker’s vote. Although they provide some cover, Ardern does not need the Greens or New Zealand First to push her into class compromise—these are her instincts to the bone” (“Jacinda Ardern—no Friend to Workers and Oppressed”, 1917 No.43).

Stopping short of a formal coalition government, Ardern still opted for a “co-operation agreement” with the Greens, which de facto established (yet again) what Marxists call a popular front, a reformist workers’ party ruling in alliance with unambiguous capitalist political representatives. Now in a less influential position, the Greens had little direct influence on policy but were a crucial backstop for Ardern in case of opposition from the left. Their presence provided a liberal gloss, dampened down expectations of working-class interests being primary and allowed Labour to continue only incremental reforms while grandstanding on environmental issues. In return, the role in government was used to suppress the Greens’ own left wing.

One of Ardern’s skills is adroitly using national crises as opportunities to further the interests of the New Zealand capitalist class. In the wake of the horrific Christchurch mosque massacre in March 2019, for instance, she channelled popular outrage into moves to strengthen the state apparatus. While adopting the nauseatingly empty liberal rhetoric of the “team of five million” pulling together to fight Covid, Labour gave multi-billion dollar handouts to big business and parasitic elites—now, of course, being paid for by the working class through cutbacks.

While some gains have been won in recent years, such as legalised abortion, minor improvements to queer rights and subsidised public transport, the transformational change Ardern promised never materialised. Inequality has risen under Labour, which did almost nothing to address the skyrocketing price of homes and the housing crisis in New Zealand, which now boasts one of the highest levels of homelessness in the OECD. Labour’s promise to build 100,000 affordable homes by 2028 under its “Kiwibuild” scheme has been a failure. Ardern spoke of climate change as “my generation’s nuclear-free moment” but turned tail at the first sign of opposition from New Zealand’s all-powerful farming lobby. Agricultural emissions are to be subject to a “self-management” model designed more to protect dairy industry profits than reduce greenhouse gas emissions—assuming of course that the system is not scrapped altogether by the next government before it even goes live in 2025.

The sops that Ardern’s Labour government appeared to throw at the working class have turned out either to be fake or to be cover for a more profound attack. The “Fair Pay Agreements”, which allow unions to force negotiations for industry-wide minimum employment standards, came at the price of illegalising strike action during these negotiations—an obvious attempt to quell the rising trend in industrial action. The two-tier benefit system of “Income Insurance”, which was to take contributions from bosses and workers to provide those laid off during the pandemic with 80 percent of their previous salary and additional social support for six months (while leaving the less fortunate long-term unemployed in the same straits as before), is now “indefinitely suspended”. It is not surprising that working-class support for the government has plummeted in the face of the cost-of-living crisis.

…and Abroad

On the world stage, Ardern backed up her commitment to domestic capitalism by actively pursuing the military and economic interests of New Zealand as a minor imperialist power. In 2018, she extended the deployment of troops to Iraq as part of New Zealand’s membership of the “Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)”. Today, military personnel from the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) continue to be stationed in Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar, acting under the US-led anti-ISIS mission “Operation Inherent Resolve”.

In November 2021, Ardern sent NZDF troops as a component of the Solomons International Assistance Force (SIAF), announced at the same time as the Solomon Islands, traditionally subordinated to Australian and New Zealand imperialism, was establishing closer relations with China. New Zealand police were also deployed to operate alongside their NZDF colleagues to “maintain peace and stability” in the Pacific island nation.

Under Ardern, New Zealand was an active partner in the Anglo-American “Five Eyes” intelligence apparatus and routinely engaged in joint imperialist naval war games in the Pacific. Last summer, this included participation in the bi-annual Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise, hosted and administered by the United States Navy's Indo-Pacific Command. Much like the provocative “freedom of navigation” naval exercises carried out by US imperialism in the South China Sea, RIMPAC is primarily aimed at projecting military power in the region and intimidating the Chinese deformed workers’ state. Of course, New Zealand also signed on to the US/NATO-led war in Ukraine, providing military aid and war materiel to the Kiev regime, while NZ Army personnel in Europe are delivering training to Ukrainian soldiers.

Ardern’s Real Legacy

There is a tendency on the soft left, in New Zealand and abroad, to regard class collaborationist social democracy as a “lesser evil”—perhaps flawed and even ultimately opposed to the interests of the working class, but nevertheless a preferable alternative to “allowing” a right-wing government to take power. This leads many so-called socialists to channel support to reformist politicians like Ardern in the hope they will keep the far right at bay. In its most deformed sense this might even take the form of calls for support to openly bourgeois parties like the US Democrats. Whatever the flaws of the candidate or the party, however deep its ties to the ruling class, and however tepid its promises, it is at least better than the right-wing alternative—or so the argument goes.

This perspective on Ardern is well represented in the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) article of 23 January, “After Ardern”, which presents some criticisms but ultimately is more focused on praise. The housing crisis does not come up at all. Nor does New Zealand’s increasingly hawkish alignment with US-led imperialism over Russia and China. Though the ISO rhetorically acknowledge that the Labour Party is an impediment to the development of an independent working-class political force, they devote far more space to what they regard as the gains of the Ardern years. Indeed the reader might detect a touch of misty-eyed nostalgia for a time when “Ardern, so obviously a master of detail and evidently a highly intelligent, highly skilled politician [was] operating unflappably in the most stressful environment”.

Perhaps the most significant part of the ISO piece, however, is its call for “solidarity” on the left against right-wing attacks on Ardern instead of “a critical attitude that is in fact demoralising and demobilising.” This hectoring of Labour’s left-wing critics as pessimistic and divisive, alongside a mournful tone over Ardern’s departure, is not how revolutionaries should respond to a change in reformist leadership. A “critical attitude” (that is, a healthy antipathy) to the reformist parties and their leaders is crucial for breaking the working class from their illusions in these parties and creating what the ISO claims to want: a real socialist movement that can overthrow capitalism and establish workers’ power. What really will “demoralise and demobilise” workers is consistently advocating a vote for a party that has not demonstrated even a distorted desire to fight for their interests—as the ISO did in the last two elections.

In fact it is exactly this demoralisation, stemming from failure to deliver any meaningful improvement to workers’ lives in the face of growing social crises at home and abroad, that has been Ardernism’s downfall. New Zealand’s swing towards the populist right and its attendant symptoms—from the crushing defeat of centre-left candidates in last year’s local elections to the spread of reactionary and conspiratorial ideas through the poorest sections of the working class—are born out of disillusionment with the gap between Labour’s promises and its results. While rightist demonstrations like the 2022 Parliament occupation or the so-called “Freedom and Rights Coalition” protest in Wellington last August were not themselves fascist, they present dangerous opportunities for the growth of a real fascist mass movement in New Zealand. The presence of large numbers of traditionally Labour-voting poor workers and Māori in these demonstrations should sober up any observer who associates reformism with stopping the rise of the right.

This rightward shift, which puts even the modest gains made under Labour in danger of reversal, is the real legacy of Ardernism. Leftists, in New Zealand and worldwide, should take note. It is not merely the case that reformists and “progressive” liberals cannot ultimately address the needs of the working class; they also offer no safety from the reactionary right, as it is precisely their inability to meet these needs and the resulting disillusionment that plant the seeds of right-wing populism. Self-proclaimed revolutionaries whose response to the explosive growth of the populist right is to hide behind and sow illusions in a “lesser evil” have already conceded half the struggle. Rather than indulging in these fantasies, Marxists must build the independent forces of the working class as the only sure means of cutting off reaction and fascism at the root.

Hipkins: Plus ça change

The new prime minister, Chris Hipkins, is being hailed in Labourite circles as a return to traditional working-class politics, although there is nothing in his record to suggest it. As former minister of police, Hipkins pushed for expanded surveillance powers and the erosion of privacy rights while defending racist police profiling. Rather than engaging with the trade unions, for example, Hipkin’s first official visit after becoming PM was with a consortium of business leaders in Auckland fronted by former National Party leader Simon Bridges (who reported a favourable impression). Hipkins’ “bread-and-butter” mantra is just as hollow as Ardern’s “transformational” rhetoric, a ploy to win workers’ support for three more years of neoliberal managerialism. Labour will no doubt continue to tinker round the edges as the material position of the working class erodes and the various impending global crises, from climate collapse to the threat of Western-led imperialist war against Russia/China, steadily worsen.

The only way out of the crises to which the imperialist world order has driven humanity is the revolutionary overthrow of global capitalism and the creation of a rationally planned, egalitarian socialist order free from exploitation and poverty. This requires a revolutionary workers’ party guided by the Marxist programme. A key task of revolutionary socialists in New Zealand in the coming period will be dispelling illusions that anything will fundamentally change under Labour.

Related articles:
Jacinda Ardern—no Friend to Workers and Oppressed (1917 No.43)
Labour’s Bid to Run New Zealand Capitalism (1917 No.40)
Imperialist Hypocrisy in the Pacific: Hands off Solomon Islands! Defend China! (1917 No.46)
Capitalist Necrosis & Right-Wing Populism (1917 No.46)
Marxists & Bourgeois Elections (1917 No.42)