Saturday, June 22

Could Willie Jackson be the populist leader that Labour need?

Willie Jackson will participate in the prestigious Oxford Union debate on Thursday, following in David Lange’s footsteps. Coincidentally, Jackson has also followed Lange’s footsteps by living in his old home in South Auckland. And like Lange, Jackson might be the sort of loud-mouth scrapper who could take over the Labour leadership to defeat a national government.

The idea of Willie Jackson as leader of the Labour Party might seem far-fetched. After all, the former Alliance MP is probably the most leftwing in Labour’s caucus and often still comes across as the shock-jock talkback radio host and union leader he used to be. He’s bellicose and mongrel in his style, reflecting that he’s the only Labour MP without a university degree.

Yet maybe that’s precisely what Labour needs right now – someone quite different to the usual “Professional Managerial Class” candidate running the party in the continued mode of the Helen Clark faction that has been in control of Labour for the last few decades. The technocrats have possibly had their day.

The wildcard replacement for Hipkins

As Labour gets closer to the 2026 general election there is likely to be an awareness that the party would be better served by a more populist and working class orientated leader than Chris Hipkins can be. If so, Willie Jackson is shaping up as an obvious option. Keiran McAnulty is the other candidate but is seen by many as too inauthentic and inexperienced.

Jackson would certainly be a good fit for our discontented era. Although Labour tends to select leaders to fit the modern party’s more middle-class and moderate tone – Mike Moore was the last without a university degree – we are now into very different times. The mood of society in 2024 is much more populist and angry. And just as Bill Rowling wasn’t right to lead Labour into the 1984 election and was replaced by Lange, Hipkins is no longer the correct front figure for Labour at the 2026 election.

Hipkins’ losing approach was apparent on the weekend when he gave another mild, bland speech. The Labour leader attempted to display vision but missed the mark, so the media almost ignored his speech. For one of the only news stories covering his speech, see the Herald’s Labour leader Chris Hipkins unveils his vision for the party through to 2040

This has led leftwing political commentator Chris Trotter to write today that it’s time for Labour to consider the more radical Willie Jackson as leader – see: Leading Labour off the big rock candy mountain

Trotter argues that Jackson is the only one in the Labour caucus with the “moxie” to take on the leadership and project a different type of Labour Party to the moderate middle-class one of recent times: “The fact that Jackson straddles three of Labour’s key voting blocs: working-class Kiwis, Māori, trade unionists; equips him admirably, as a left-wing politician, to challenge directly the soft, middle-class centres of Labour’s box of chocolates.”

Indeed, there is now a massive disconnect between Hipkins’ Labour Party and ordinary working New Zealanders. This isn’t just Hipkins’ fault, but at the last election the party lost half of their vote, and a big part of the problem was that Labour had become perceived as being more “woking class” than “working class”. In office, especially in its second term, Labour had become more associated with middle class social progressivism than with delivering a welfare state, an economy, and infrastructure to improve ordinary people’s day-to-day lives.

Labour should be surfing the great wave of populist discontent

Labour has barely recovered from its historic defeat at the last election. An angry electorate threw it out of power, but that discontented public isn’t exactly content and pleased with the new administration either. According to survey results, most of the public continues to believe that New Zealand is headed in the wrong direction.

There is a strong anti-Establishment mood amongst large parts of the public. The best evidence for this was last month’s IPSOS survey, which found that two-thirds of the country believes that “New Zealand needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful”. I examined this and other signs of rising discontent in my columns, Serious populist discontent is bubbling up in New Zealand and Discontent and gloom dominate NZ’s political mood

The various polls and surveys show how disillusioned and distrusting the country is with “the Establishment” and, therefore, that New Zealand is far from immune from the rising populist mood around the globe. Yet Labour appears unable or unwilling to channel and foster that discontent.

Labour is, therefore, misreading the New Zealand electorate. In keeping Hipkins on as leader, Labour doesn’t understand that people don’t want a Bill Rowling figure at the moment, or even necessarily an Ardern figure preaching kindness—they want “strong politicians” who will get things done and aren’t so concerned with decorum, speeches about “vision,” or proper process.

What Labour politician can sell radical tax reform?

According to the Herald’s Audrey Young, writing earlier this month, Labour “has three big issues to settle before it will be in any shape to present itself as a credible alternative government: Leadership, tax and the Treaty of Waitangi” – see: How the Labour Party is rebuilding after election defeat (paywalled)

Tax is the significant policy issue that undermined Labour’s radical credentials during its six years in office due to its inability to carry out any significant tax reform. Ardern and Hipkins’ infamous aversion to any capital gains tax, in particular, showed them up as ineffective and out of touch with popular sentiment.

This is now the biggest issue of contention and factional strategising within the wider Labour Party. Members and activists are very focused on adopting a more radical policy. This was covered in the weekend by the Herald’s Thomas Coughlan, who says that the membership tends to favour a wealth tax being implemented – see: Wealth tax or capital gains tax – Labour’s big choice (paywalled)

Having opposed any tax reform in the past, Hipkins would be an unconvincing salesperson for what will need to be a thorough campaign over the next two years if Labour wants the public to back such a reform. They will need a better communicator who isn’t discredited by their conservative orientation to tax.

Jackson fits the bill on this. As a former broadcaster and talkback host, his communication skills are better than any other Labour MP, especially when connecting with ordinary people. Moreover, Jackson genuinely seems to believe in urgent tax reform – he doesn’t see it simply as a strategic positioning for winning an election.

Could Jackson fix Labour’s Treaty dilemma?

As Audrey Young says, Labour’s other significant weakness is on Treaty as well as its general orientation to te ao Māori. The last government is associated with pushing the controversial co-governance and “Te Tiriti-centric” reform agenda. It was the most radical element of the party’s achievements. But it impressed middle-class progressives more than ordinary people or even Māori generally – most Māori voters deserted Labour at the last election, especially in the six Māori electorates when Labour MPs lost their seats.

Labour will struggle to get re-elected while it fails to find a way to better navigate Treaty issues and the place of Māori in society and politics.

Audrey Young argues that Jackson will play the central role in shaping the party’s direction on this. Along with others in the working-class-orientated “old guard,” such as David Parker and Damien O’Connor, Jackson is “important in the wider debate about what the party stands for and whether identity politics is killing off its working-class support base.”

Of course, for many, Willie Jackson is seen as “part of the problem”. As leader of Labour’s Māori caucus and Minister for Māori Development, he led the co-governance agenda, along with Nanaia Mahuta. And he famously defended elements of that agenda with some anti-democratic statements.

Yet, Jackson’s politics are more complicated than those of others like Nanaia Mahuta, and he might prove to be the person who is best able to realign Labour’s ethnic politics with that of ordinary voters. This is because Jackson is not exactly the “Māori nationalist” he’s often assumed to be.

Instead, Jackson has historically been more of a class-based leftwing politician. He grew up in South Auckland, worked as a freezing worker, became involved in the union movement, and became the “youngest union leader in New Zealand. Regarding his political activism, Jackson was never aligned with Iwi leaders, whom he has traditionally regarded as backward and out of touch with young urban Māori.

For most of Jackson’s political career, he has opposed the “Brown Table” of iwi and corporate interests. Instead, he championed urban working-class Māori and their interests and avoided Treaty politics.

His former wife, Moana Maniapoto, even conveys that when they were together, Jackson had little or no interest in the Treaty: “Back then, Willie had a short attention span. No idea about the Treaty either. I tried to break it down for him once, as we drove from Rotorua to Auckland. ‘Repeat back to me what I just said.’ He’d give me a blank look, shrug, then laugh. Hopeless” – see: The Willie Jackson I know

In recent times, Jackson has re-invented himself as a proponent of a “Te Tiriti-centric” or “culturalist” agenda for Māori. Previously, he was all about economics and socio-economics. Even when Jackson was the campaign manager for Labour’s successful 2017 sweep of the Māori seats, he did this based on a class-centred approach, saying that Labour would help Māori at the bottom of the heap via better education, healthcare, incomes and so forth. He presented the Māori Party as being distracted by a focus on bi-culturalism, separatism, and an allegiance to the “iwi elite”.

Ever the political chameleon, it won’t be surprising if Jackson pivots back to his more socio-economic orientation to advancing the interests of Māori at the bottom of society. In this regard, Chris Trotter writes today in his column: “Only Willie Jackson possesses the credentials to meld together a new Labour message that is, at one and the same moment, staunchly working-class, union-friendly, and which speaks to the hundreds-of-thousands of urban Māori untethered to the neo-tribal capitalist elites of the Iwi Leaders Forum.”

Trotter also suggests that, just like it was Richard Nixon that was able to successfully sell a rapprochement with communist China because he was a Republican president, it might well be Jackson who can sell a new Treaty approach for Labour that is about “uplifting both working-class Māori and working-class Pakeha.” Trotter argues that Jackson “could reposition Labour in a way which would allow it to shrug-off its ‘woke’ middle-class voters to the Greens.”

Is Jackson too populist for Labour?

Willie Jackson appears to be very loyal to Hipkins, so the chances of him organising a coup against the current leader are incredibly slim.

In fact the chances of Jackson becoming leader are pretty slim in general. Last year, the Spinoff’s Duncan Greive put Jackson’s leadership odds at 1 in 100, preferring candidates like Megan Wood (another former Alliance politician). Grieve stated: “His self-belief, union credentials and extremely affable, working class persona would all be assets. Unfortunately his freewheeling talkback-host style would likely detonate any longshot bid within moments of it commencing.”

As to whether Jackson’s wildcard attributes – his occasional train-wreak interviews, his over-the-top attacks on Government ministers, etc – would count him out of contention is to misunderstand the appeal of populists. In a mood of public discontent, negative media headlines about bad behaviour don’t really damage them. And the fact that Jackson is a multi-millionaire would also be of little relevance if he positioned himself as a populist on the side of the people.

Of course, Jackson has another asset that might help him go further in Labour – the fact that he could be Labour’s first Māori party leader and then New Zealand’s first Māori prime minister.

But there’s no real sign that Jackson wants any of those things. And some say that he’s on his way out of politics, suggesting that he might retire anytime soon. That might well be true.

Yet Jackson is now one of the Labour’s most visible MPs. In the most recent Labour Party reshuffle, he moved up three places to number five on the front bench. He’s hardly fading into the background.

Even today, Jackson has penned an opinion piece for the Herald about a rugby hero – see: Going Going Gone: Tribute to Sid Going

Expect to see a lot more of Willie Jackson.

This piece first appeared on the Democracy Project (https://democracyproject.nz) (20/05/2024)

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