The secret of Jacinda Ardern’s success lies in her conservatism | Bryce Edwards

The New Zealand prime minister’s appeal comes from adding compassion, something her rivals have been unable to emulate

The biggest misconception about Jacinda Ardern is that she is a pioneering progressive or socialist. This is especially so outside New Zealand.

Understandably the global media paint the prime minister as a counter to other, more rightwing or illiberal, leaders. Similarly many overseas progressive activists and intellectuals have seized on her as someone they can learn from in their search for a way forward for the political left.

Yet the biggest lesson to be learned from “Ardernism” is the power of conservatism during a crisis. That is where the Labour party politician has excelled – in 2020 and in earlier years – as a leader. The then 37-year-old took the helm of a party in crisis in 2017, which was polling at just 24%, and took Labour into a coalition government just weeks later. In the latest general election her party won a record-breaking 50% of the vote, giving her the historic opportunity to form a new government without the need for coalition partners.

As prime minister she has excelled at crisis management, dealing with multiple disasters and threats. And in these crises the bulk of New Zealanders have craved conservatism rather than any type of radicalism. The population has wanted solid, reliable government.

By and large, Ardern and her government have delivered this. This is why the prime minister stands head and shoulders above any other politician in this country. Yes, she has been charismatic in her leadership, but more importantly she has been competent and politically centrist.

Ardern’s instincts have been to protect and conserve. She has trodden cautiously throughout the pandemic, providing reassurance and the promise of normality to those in fear of the worst.

Even the leader of the rightwing Act party, David Seymour, said this week: “She’s very good at reading public mood and putting out unifying messages.” He correctly explained: “She’s done that three times now – she did it after Christchurch, after White Island and through the Covid-19 period.” Seymour concluded that Ardern was “a superb front of house leader”.

It would be foolish to suggest anything otherwise. New Zealand enters into the festive season with barely any Covid-related restrictions inside the country. There is no community transmission of the virus.

New Zealanders credit Ardern’s leadership for saving lives and the economy. She is widely seen as “following the science”, and taking a compassionate approach by “going hard and early” when the virus hit in March, locking down the country to a greater extent than any other nation.

Ardern’s Covid leadership was not particularly leftwing. In the best conservative tradition she unified the nation, as she had done in the wake of other crises. This general approach to Covid actually had a large degree of consensus from across the political spectrum (albeit with differences over its implementation).

It was not surprising therefore that when it came to October’s general election many traditional National party voters shifted to Labour, wanting to reward Ardern. Corporate leaders praised her – and she does listen to business (more so, it seems, than to unions). Unsurprisingly the whole of Labour’s election campaign was about Ardern, and her victory over Covid was central to this, with her electioneering mantra being that she had delivered “strong and stable government”.

Now, as the year ends, even rightwing political commentators are singing Ardern’s praises. It’s as if she is the centrist politician they wish was leading the National party. They want to claim Ardern as a fellow conservative.

This isn’t to say there is nothing progressive about Ardern, or that she is rightwing. She might be on the right of the Labour party, and she might have adopted many of National’s policies and approaches, but she does something that her opponents seemingly can’t emulate: espouse compassion as part of her conservatism. Her self-declared “politics of kindness” isn’t particularly revolutionary, nor even very tangible, but it rings completely true to those who have seen Ardern navigate the nation’s crises.

The political left is, however, increasingly bristling at the conservatism of Ardern. There is growing angst about the failure to progress a traditional Labour party agenda. Poverty activists are now protesting against Ardern. Greta Thunberg tweets in disappointment about her lack of action on climate change. Columnists complain about Ardern’s lack of action on the housing crisis. It is said the rich are getting richer and the poor much poorer on her watch. And by continuing to rule out in 2020 any wealth or capital gains taxes, Ardern has irritated those who want to see transformation.

Ardern’s reputation with progressives took a particular dive this year on the issue of drug reform, due to her refusal to make a case for the legalisation of cannabis ahead of the referendum. Reformers knew Ardern’s endorsement would have got the campaign over the line, but Ardern knew sitting on the fence was less risky for her popularity.

Ardern now responds to the many complaints with the ultimate conservative argument, saying she wants to make incremental change “that sticks” by gaining consensus. She explains that she is a “pragmatic idealist” – which increasingly translates as being driven by public opinion.

The political left can celebrate a triumphant year in which their main party and politician are supremely popular. But they also need to accept that this is a direct result of Ardern’s conservative approach.

Ardern has started to use the traditional National party line about the need to “govern for all of New Zealand” (rather than what might be expected on the left – a progressive agenda to further the interests of those at the bottom). This conservative approach is what has previously kept the party of the right essentially in power for decades, presiding over the status quo. It now looks like it’s time for the conservatives of the left to do the same for the foreseeable future.

Dr Bryce Edwards is the political analyst in residence at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, where he is the director of the Democracy Project.

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