A A very liberal revolution has been taking place in New Zealand politics. Our Parliament and Labor-led government are more socially liberal and diverse than ever, and that is something progressives should celebrate.
Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, embodies this, and is hailed as a breath of fresh air in a political world traditionally dominated by “stale, masculine and pale” social conservatives. He has just reorganized the cabinet of his re-elected government, which has brought more women, Maori and Pasifika to positions of responsibility. It is the most diverse cabinet in history. The appointment of Nanaia Mahuta, with moko kauae, as Minister of Foreign Affairs epitomizes this modernization. Similarly, we have our openly gay first deputy prime minister.
The rise of diversity and liberalism is evident throughout New Zealand’s parliament. One third of parliament are new MPs, many of them with traditionally under-represented backgrounds. Our House of Representatives has become more feminine, younger, darker, and more openly gay.
New Zealand is now the closest OECD country to achieving gender equality, with 48% female MPs. Maori make up 21% of MPs, compared to 12% of the adult population. Pasifika represents 10% of parliamentarians compared to 6% of the adult population. 11% of MPs identify as belonging to the LGBTQI community, compared to an estimated 3.5% of the population. And the parliament has gotten much younger.
However, as our politicians become more diverse, especially those in the Labor and Green parties, this does not extend to socioeconomics or social class. The work history of the deputies is more middle class than ever.
The most common profession represented in the new parliament and government are lawyers. And most of the other deputies have career experience. The days of working class representation are over, and even trade unionists are few and far between. We have an upper-middle-class parliament, with a less organic connection to the needs of ordinary people.
There aren’t even big differences between the parties anymore. The socio-economic backgrounds of Labor and national politicians are increasingly similar. And of course, once they are in power, they are all highly paid, becoming part of the top 1-2% of income earners.
So it is not surprising that class politics, or any kind of socialist politics, is lacking in the political debate in this country. Instead, the focus of these middle-class progressives in power is on social concerns, while other big issues for the working class and the poor, especially poverty, inequality, unaffordable housing and the creaky state of welfare, remain unresolved. Because the modern left in power focuses less on these issues, both its promises and its record are not very different from the right-wing National Party.
There is a precedent for what we are seeing right now. In the 1980s, the Labor Party began its metamorphosis into the vehicle of the middle class focused on the social problems we see today. Back then, the result was the infamous fourth labor government.
It was an administration that was seen as betraying its traditional supporters by introducing economic reforms inspired by Thatcherism and other free-market capitalist philosophies. This caused dizzying inequality and a rebalancing of the power of business interests that has never been reversed.
At the time, the political left felt it was too difficult to challenge or oppose the business-friendly economic reforms that its own Labor Party was introducing. Instead, it was easier to focus on agendas of biculturalism, anti-racism, feminism, peace, and anti-nuclear struggles. As shown in a cartoon at the time, although the left had accepted mass unemployment stemming from government decisions, at least the country could celebrate “unemployment without nuclear weapons.”
Three decades later, it seems that the left is destined to follow the same path, willing to embrace social progress and symbolism rather than fulfill the material interests of those at the bottom of the heap. But to be a genuine left-wing force, the current Labor-led government must address social issues without this being at the expense of economic progress, such as redistributive programs, massive state housing, pro-worker industrial laws, adequate social support. and funded education and health systems.
The left has to learn to do both. It can focus on diversity and socially liberal reforms, while demanding economic progress. Progressives should not be bought in or distracted by more elitist changes in the composition of the political class. Yes, having an openly gay deputy prime minister is something to celebrate, but the left should not forget that her current economic administration is something Margaret Thatcher would have been relatively comfortable with.
Forcing this government to comply with the poor and the working class could require protests and mobilization. Without such pressure, the new professional class of politicians is likely to rest on the laurels of diversity and social liberalism.
Dr. Bryce Edwards is a resident political analyst at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, where he is Director of the Democracy Project
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.