People living overseas who hear of this cannot make sense of what has happened in the UK. Likewise, those opposed to the current Government in the UK have taken to despairingly remark – what does this say about our country now?
In my next blog I will address the immediate issue of UK polling, which in part is due to the COVID-19 vaccine roll out, but also includes other factors which help explain current polling numbers at this time.
But beyond parliamentary politics, I believe the question of what the pandemic says about British society should be explored more broadly. The last 12 months have seen this country tested and challenged to an extent not seen since the Second World War. It is far too early to assess what the long term social and economic impacts of this crisis will be on either the UK or the world, but one year on from when the first lockdown began, we can start to assess the the impact this has had on society. Also, to assess the responses, both good and bad from the Government and the population as a whole.
There are many aspects to this, but at first we must understand what Britain as a nation is or at least what it is perceived to be. This is now highly contested ground and the term British means very different things to different people. The recent census for example asked people whether they identified as British or English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish or other. For some all people within the United Kingdom are British and are all are part of one country, whereas others see themselves as distinctly Welsh, Scottish or Irish or English. Underlying this are debates about maintaining “the union” and increasing calls for independence in Scotland, Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent Wales. All of this heavily impacts on the response to the coronavirus pandemic as devolved Governments has often responded differently to the crisis and in Scotland this has been used as a political tool to campaign for independence.
The next few posts will explore this issue of Britain and its response to the pandemic, starting with the political response and repercussions.
I think on this day I should just really repeat that I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and of course as I was prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done. We did everything we could to minimise suffering and minimise the loss of life and will continue to do so.
Boris Johnson addressing the nation Tuesday 26 January 2021
Back in May 2020, I wrote a blog which listed the many failings of the UK Governments handling of the crisis. The Prime Minister and his colleagues ignored scientific advise and allowed the virus to take hold throughout the population in February and March 2020. The Prime Minister, in particular, took pride in the fact that he planned to keep the country open even when most other European nations were going into lockdown. It was only when NHS hospitals were near breaking point that Britain followed other nations and implemented similar restrictions.
Probably the greatest failing by the Conservative Government in the fight against COVID-19 was not its response to the crisis but the decade of underinvestment in the country’s public health system. Sir Michael Marmot from the UK Institute of Health Equity published a damning report in December 2020 which highlighted that during the last decade of Conservative Government:
people can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health
improvements to life expectancy have stalled, and declined for the poorest 10% of women
the health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas
place matters – living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less.
The report also made clear that the above trends, in particular the health gap between wealthy and deprived areas, corresponds with data during the COVID-19 pandemic which found those from poorer parts of the UK were hit harder by the virus.
In May 2020 I posted a blog about the state of UK Social Care where for decades successive governments have failed to resolve the funding crisis, or indeed to build proper links between the health and social care systems. In October 2020 Amnesty International published its report As if Expendable which outlined how many older people were kicked out of hospitals and placed back into residential care homes, without first even being tested for COVID-19. This shameful action, along with not supplying social care providers adequate supplies of PEE was responsible for many thousands of deaths. The Amnesty report highlights that the UK Governments treatment of people in the social care system during this time breached both domestic and international law:
The UK is a state party to international and regional human rights treaties which require it to protect and guarantee fundamental human rights relevant to the concerns addressed in this report, including notably, the right to life, the right to highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to non-discrimination – including on the grounds of age, disability or health status – the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.
As if Expendable, Amnesty International report 2020
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has yet to atone for what happened during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the social care sector. Whilst this was not just the fault of his government’s failure, his statement on Tuesday shows he still accepts no-fault and claims they did all they could to ‘minimise suffering’ and ‘loss of life’, a claim the Amnesty International report demonstrates is false.
On the issue of face masks, the UK Government lagged behind most many other nations, initially implying that these were not effective, only later to make them mandatory on public transport. The justification for this U-Turn is that by mid-2020 there was more scientific data, which is fine except many other nations applied this scientific advice much earlier. A Centres for Disease Control and Prevention paper published 2004 found that during the 2003 SARS outbreak that wearing a face mask frequently in public places, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting one’s living quarter were effective public health measures to reduce the risk for transmission. Nationalist Britain knows best self-confidence could well have been a factor in the UK Governments refusal to learn from international experience.
The failure to develop a functional track and trace system has led to one of the greatest policy failures that have contributed to England being in its third COVID-19 lockdown. Very few people would disagree that having schools closed and students having to learn remotely is negatively impacting on students. And most people can understand how difficult it is for any government to balance public health against long term educational outcomes. But when the Conservative-leaning paper The Telegraph runs the headline The biggest mystery in politics: why is Gavin Williamson still in a job? you know that the Education Secretary has performed poorly. The recent example where after Christmas schools reopened for one day in January before closing again due to high infection rates, despite the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warning the UK Government on 22 December 2020 that with the new strain of COVID-19 leaving schools open was contributing to the rising infection rate. A poll conducted earlier this month found that 92% of teachers believe Gavin Williamson should resign as Education Secretary, which is hardly given surprising his abysmal performance in recent months.
Yet the blame for schools does not sit fully with the Government. Her Majesty’s loyal opposition can also take much of the blame for this fiasco. In April 2020, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus pandemic in the UK, newly elected Labour Party Opposition Leader Kier Starmer called on the Government to set out plans to end the lockdown. Starmer, former head of the Crown Prosecution Service and a QC would argue that he meant that there should be a plan which included contact tracing, social distancing guidelines and other measures to make it safe to reopen. But the optics of the call was pressuring the UK Government to lift restrictions and specifically calling on them to reopen schools. Unlike in a court of law, in politics, it is about the key message, not the detail buried on page 7 of the affidavit.
The Oppositions position on schools has been nearly as confusing and contradictory as the Governments. The Party, still recovering from its 2019 election loss (which I wrote several blogs about in early 2020), under a new leader was trying to rebrand, reposition and appeal to voters it had lost. This has not been helped by the internal factionalism (which I also blogged about in May 2020) and the party still not being clear where it sits politically and ideologically. In April 2020 shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey’s position was that schools should reopen when safe, a position that was consistent with the education unions. Shortly after this Long-Bailey was replaced as Education Secretary by Kate Green, who has been clear that she wishes to distance Labour from the education unions in an attempt to present the party as more ‘moderate’.
Green and Starmer’s position throughout this has been motivated by a policy of triangulation and policy by focus group whereby they are appealing to middle-class parents who want their kids back at school. Like the Tories, Labour’s position has been motivated by politics, not science. That former Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for schools to close earlier this month before the opposition is telling. Meanwhile the leader of the opposition was being grilled by media for his confusing position. Many believe that Green was appointed due to her loyalty to Starmer just as Williamson has kept his role due to loyalty to Boris Johnson. One would be more concerned if either appointment were based on ability as this would say a great deal about the capability of the other 648 MPs in the Commons if these two are the best and brightest on offer for education.
The issue of schools reopening is a personal one for me. In my blog earlier this month, I told of how my partner who works as a secondary school teacher in London caught COVID-19 and how we both spend Christmas and New Year recovering from the illness. When Greenwich Council tried to close schools in the borough due to skyrocketing infection rates, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson threatened legal action to keep the schools open. By this time, most schools in the area had a significant percentage of students sick, or in isolation having been in contact with someone infected. In many schools, pupils were sent home due to the number of teachers off sick with COVID-19. To argue that continuing with this situation is any better for secondary school students is nonsense.
Much of the concern over school closures is the impact on students’ grades. When the Government announced GCSE and A-level exams would be cancelled once again in 2021 this added to the anxiety. One of the issues here has been this Government’s shift towards having student grades mostly assessed through examinations. This style of assessment favours certain learners over others, as exams favour those with short term recall skills. Many other countries have moved away from a full examination model of assessment to a mix of exams and course work assignments during the year. But aside from implementing a poor education assessment model for students, the pandemic has highlighted the risk of placing so much emphasis on examinations as, if for whatever reason, these cannot go ahead, it becomes difficult to determine student grades. The UK Government’s position on education and assessment is blinkered and ideological, which has meant it struggled to come up with sensible pragmatic solutions to this problem during the crisis. Worse, the Education Secretary has demonstrated he lacks the intellectual rigour and leadership to address these issues.
A coherent and strong opposition would have easily made political mileage during this time, however to date, the opposition has opted for triangulation and timidity. The opposition MP who has made the clearest and most articulate statements regarding school closures during the pandemic has been Lisa Nandy the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who came a distant third in the 2020 UK Labour leadership contest. What Nandy had to say was hardly earth-shattering, merely that the Government needed to get testing and track and trace working properly before it would be safe to reopen schools. To be fair, Starmer, Green and Long-Bailey probably also thought they were saying the same thing, but what people heard was quite different.
Prime Minister Johnson’s non apology on Tuesday was an insult to the British public. Yes, this was a difficult crisis and all governments have made some mistakes at this time. But the UK has done particularly badly and the statement on Tuesday shows he has learnt nothing. The Conservatives won the 2019 election with the sizeable majority that they did largely due to Brexit (see my blog post immediately after the 2019 UK election) and divisions within the opposition. Boris Johnson is not a strong leader and in this crisis, he has proved to be woefully inept. It is well known that Johnson likes to compare himself to former Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in which case the COVID-19 pandemic has been his Gallipoli.
At a time when the country is in its third lockdown, when over 100,000 people have died, when the economy is in recession and the number of jobless is set to rise, few now are looking to the next election which will likely be held in 2024. Yet that still motivates leaders of the UK’s two main political parties. Polling numbers in recent months have been fairly close between Labour and the Conservatives. Where polling has been much more consistent is in Scotland, where the SNP maintain a strong lead heading into the Scottish Parliament’s election on 6 May 2021. Support for Scottish independence also maintains a strong lead and as I predicted in my blog post nearly a year ago this issue continuing to feature prominently on the political agenda, despite fierce opposition from political leaders in London. Without a doubt, independence campaigners in Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland and Wales, continue to win support for their independence calls on the back of the UK Governments inept handling of this crisis.
There is however hope on the horizon. The Governments rollout of the COVID-19 vaccinations will hopefully in time slow the movement of the virus to a point where current restrictions can be lifted. It is a wonder of modern science that within a year of COVID-19 emerging that scientists, including those at Oxford University, have developed a vaccination. Despite concern by some about the speed with which this has been released, the evidence so far is that widespread vaccination will stop the spread and save thousands of lives. Credit where credit is due, the UK Government have been quick off the mark to get this vaccine available to the most vulnerable with the aim of immunising as many people as possible over the next year. And to the oppositions credit, they have supported the Government on the vaccine rollout.
There is still a long way to go until this crisis ends and the Government have a lot to answer for badly mishandling things to date. The Prime Ministers apology on Tuesday did not cut the mustard and was an insult to the families of those who have died. Lessons from the mistakes over the last year need to be learnt and with this, the Prime Minister needs to cut the bombast and bravado and instead learn humility and humbleness. The successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine will be essential not only for ending the crisis but also for rebuilding trust in public trust British state after it has managed this pandemic so badly.
Wednesday 6 January 2021 The US Capitol building in Washington DC was the site of armed insurrection, incited by the outgoing President Donald Trump. The last time this building was breached was in 1814 when British soldiers set fire to it during the brief war between The United States and the United Kingdom which at that time saw the building partially destroyed. The violent incident which occurred on Wednesday saw four people killed and both legislative chambers, The House of Representatives and the Senate had to suspend business and elected representatives were forced to take shelter whilst pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol.
This was never going to be an easy transition of power. Trump’s ego would never allow him to accept that he lost the election. Sadly, it was always likely that he would incite violence by stirring up his base with false allegations of voter fraud and a stolen election. My earlier blog post on the subject correctly predicted that Trump’s legal challenges to the election would likely fail. So too were the hopes that the Election Certification of Joe Biden’s victory would be overturned by the Senate and its chair, Vice President Mike Pence. Then to add salt to the wound, voters in Georgia ensured that Biden’s Party would have a majority in the Senate by narrowly voting for the two Democrat candidates in the traditionally Republican Party voting states runoff election.
As I outlined just before the 2020 election and earlier on the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration there are significant problems with the US electoral system. Twice in the last twenty years, the candidate who won the most votes nationally failed to win the presidency through the electoral college system. Trump, both in 2016 and in 2020 failed to win the popular vote. Yesterday when speaking to his mob of supporters in Washington he claimed to have won in 2020 with a bigger majority than in 2016 and claimed the Democrats victories were “explosions of bullshit.” The only bullshit that has exploded is the lie that Trump ever had majority support in the US. Certainly, in the 2020 election, Trump not only lost but did so by 7,059,741 votes nationally in the popular vote and by 74 electoral college votes.
On Monday a recording was released of a call between Donald Trump and a Republican Party election official from the state of Georgia, where Trump demands that the official find the 11,780 votes needed to win the state. This attempt at corruption and electoral fraud by Trump makes the Nixon Watergate Scandal of 1973 seem like a minor misdemeanour in comparison. He then followed this up by encouraging his supporters to go down to the Capitol and cause disruption to the Election confirmation vote to confirm Joe Biden as the next US President. Trumps inability to accept defeat and instead to manipulate his supporters through lies and inciting violence will be his final legacy.
Unfortunately, there remain many who support the Trump presidency and continue to argue that journalists who are critical of this president are reporting fake news. A former work colleague of mine sent me a clip showing thousands of Trump supporters singing the national anthem, claiming that the media not showing this clip meant Trump and his supporters were victims of media bias. That the media did not report protesters singing probably had more to do with the fact that it was irrelevant, especially when compared with armed protesters storming the legislature, planting pipe bombs and generally using violence to try and stop lawmakers confirming the 2020 election result.
Much has been said about the response from Trump to this protest in contrast to the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the George Floyd killing in 2020. Contrast the two statements from Trump in the image below:
Eventually, Vice President Mike Pence called in the National Guard and authorities took back control of the Capitol. Despite earlier praise from Pence for those Republican Senators wishing to challenge the result (most of whom backed away from this position after what happened), Pence chaired the confirmation and agreed to uphold the election result.
The ugly finale of the Trump presidency will have long term consequences. While many Republican lawmakers now distance themselves from Trump, it took them far too long. For the last five years, they have allowed Trump to create a narrative of misinformation tapping into America’s worst prejudices and fears. Trump has successfully built a following based on these lies and in the process created a political climate of hostility and fear that will inevitably now lead to further conflict and civil unrest.
Prior to the events at the Capitol on Wednesday, my take of the Georgia senate runoff was that the Democrats will have a narrow majority in both legislatures for two years, then most likely would lose one or both to the Republicans in the mid-terms. Now things are not quite so clear. Whatever the shortcomings of Biden and the Democrats in the coming months, it will shadow in comparison with the president who incited an insurrection at the Capitol and tried to intimidate an election official in Georgia to “find votes.” The Republican Party will now split between those who continue support Trump and those who would now like the GOP to return to its pre-Trump state. Further, the many new voters who turned out in 2020 to get rid of Trump, and in Georgia to elect two Democrat senators will likely not want to see Republicans regain control of either house after Wednesday’s scenes. Whilst Biden will face opposition, the 81 million who voted for him will not wish to see the events of Wednesday repeated, meaning the usual trend of voter turnout declining in the midterms may not happen next year.
The Trump presidency has laid bare the many weaknesses and deficiencies in the US political system and shown the world that it is a country rife with prejudice and division. While the US remains economically dominant (though this too is declining), it no longer has the credibility it once had on the world stage. Wednesday’s insurrection further tarnishes America’s reputation as a credible democratic nation. Significant changes will be needed before this reputation can be restored and it is hard to be optimistic that the US political system is capable of reforming itself in the way it needs to.
The hope for the future is that those who believe in democracy, both in America and throughout the world demand change. Wednesday’s events were a low point in the history of the United States. But there is still hope for change. Through continued work on voter registration and turnout that the US has a chance of turning a corner. The work done in Georgia on voter registration has shown what is possible and if this is replicated throughout the United States things may actually get better.
Two years ago I wrote a short pithy little blog about New Years and the self-reflecting navel gazing that traditionally occurs during this time. It can be viewed here.
The end of 2020 was quite different. This is the case for most of us, but for me it ends a very eventful year. It also ended with me having testing positive for COVID-19. I have spent much of the last week feeling unwell and exhausted.
2020 was not easy for anyone. A global pandemic which as of 31 December 2020 had killed 1.8 million people and infected over 83 million. It has plunged the world economy into an economic recession that could well take years to recover from. For many this year will be very memorable for all the wrong reasons.
2020 was not an entirely bad year for me though. Both in terms of my professional and personal life, 2020 was actually been positive. Just under a year ago I started working in the House of Lords with Baroness Greengross. I have had the privilege of working in the House of Lords at a time when it adapted to the pandemic by having virtual proceedings and moved to online voting. Whilst having worked remotely much of the year, I still have an office in Westminster which I will return to in 2021.
Personally, things have also gone well. I started a new relationship earlier in the year and we recently moved in together. Also, throughout 2020 I have continued to build and strengthen my friendship networks in London, especially in the South East where I live. I am very lucky to have good friends around me, especially at a time when I have come down with COVID-19.
The virus itself came from my partner who works as a teacher at a London secondary school. Infection rates have been climbing steadily in recent weeks and just before Christmas she caught the dreaded lurgy. When we both got tested on the 18 December she tested positive and I negative, but within a few days it was clear I had also contracted the it.
I could write a whole post about how well the UK government have responded to the pandemic in 2020. I may do this at a later time. Suffice to say 2020 ended with London in Tier 4 restrictions meaning much of the city was closed and people advised against going out or leaving their local area. Needless to say having to stay home for New Years Eve was no great hardship when very little was happening in the city. Earlier plans of heading to Edinburgh for Hogmanay will also have to wait until another year when Scotland is not under COVID-19 restrictions.
So, is the virus as bad as it has been made out? Well for me the symptoms were flu like, high temperature, headaches, blocked nose and sore throat. The fatigue is probably the worst feature of this virus. From Boxing Day till 29 December I was mostly bedridden and living off ibuprofen and Lemsip. Luckily I can still taste food, though it became clear my sense of smell had dulled when I could not smell Vicks Vapour rub or coffee – which anyone else would think my flat stinks of right now. The worse feature of the virus was the fatigue and reduced energy levels which I started feeling the week before Christmas and persisted long other other symptoms had passed.
As of now I feel better. My concentration is improving but still reduced. I am very aware that despite having done little over the last few days my body is still tired. I hope energy levels restore to something resembling normal fairly quickly in 2021. I am lucky in that already the symptoms of COVID-19 begin to fade which is not the case for many others who have caught this virus.
2021 will also be a very different year. We all hope the situation starts to improve in the coming weeks and months, but the reality for the UK is that restrictions on peoples lives will remain in place for some time yet. International travel will also remain limited. It is highly unlikely that I will be able to visit family and friends in New Zealand until 2022, as quarantine restrictions and flight options being very limited and expensive at this time. Zoom has been great for keeping families connected throughout 2020 and will continue to provide this important role again in 2021. It is not the same as actual face to face contact which once this pandemic is over is something many of us will relish.
Four days into the New Year and the UK Government has announced that England will be returning to a full lockdown. This will include schools doing remote learning, something that SAGE told advised should happen before Christmas. How long this lockdown will last and how soon things finally return to normal in 2021 is not clear.
One thing that is the same as New Years two years ago, I have once again changed my calendar.
Last month New Zealand made history by joining a growing list of nations to legalise assisted dying for those with a terminal illness. The question was put to the country in a referendum held at the same time as the New Zealand General Election. In the referendum, 65.1% of voters favoured legalising Assisted Dying compared with 33.7% who were opposed.
The above graph is from the NZ Electoral Commission showing the official results of the End of Life Choice referendum: see full results here
Whilst voters in New Zealand strongly favoured this law change, a vocal minority ran a strong campaign in opposition. This opposition included advocates from the disability community, many of whom had unfounded fears that supporting the End of Life Choice legislation would be used adversely against those who are sick and disabled. The bill was in fact very clear that Assisted Dying would only be allowed to people who meet the following criteria:
be aged 18 years or over
be a citizen or permanent resident of New Zealand
suffer from a terminal illness that’s likely to end their life within 6 months
have a significant and ongoing decline in physical capability
experience unbearable suffering that cannot be eased
be able to make an informed decision about assisted dying.
New Zealand follows Canada who legalised Assisted Dying back in 2016, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany the Australian states of Victoria and Western Australia and 10 jurisdictions in the United States, including California, Washington and Oregon. The Republic of Ireland’s Dáil (parliament) is also currently debating a bill which aims to legalise assisted dying.
There is now growing recognition internationally that the right to a dignified death is a fundamental human right. Assisted dying is not about reducing health care costs or pressuring those who are frail, old or disabled to end their life prematurely. It is about allowing those with a terminal illness the choice to die rather than face a period of significant physical decline and suffering before the end of their life. The significant point here is that this is about choice. Those whose faith or beliefs are against assisted dying have nothing to fear from this change as it merely gives choice to those who want assisted dying while still protecting the right to life for those that do not.
In the United Kingdom, opinion polls consistently show that most people support the legalising of assisted dying. In March 2019 a poll commissioned by campaign group My Death, My Decision found that 90% of people in the UK favoured such a law change. Despite support for Assisted Dying in the UK being higher than in New Zealand, to date parliament has shown a reluctance to support assisted dying legislation. In 2014 Lord Falconer introduced an Assisted Dying Bill into the House of Lords which was unsuccessful. One year later in 2015, a similar bill was put forward in the House of Commons by Labour MP Rob Marris which was also defeated. Prior to these attempts, the late Lord Joffe tried unsuccessfully on four separate occasions to introduce bills that would have legalised physician-assisted suicide. In 1997 MP Joe Ashton’s bill to legalise Dr Assisted Dying was defeated, as were attempts in the 1960s and 70s in the House of Lords by Lord Raglan and Baroness Wootten respectively.
New Zealand has a lot in common with British society in terms of culture, politics and societal attitudes. Both are small ‘c’ conservative cultures, but also where the values of compassion and social justice are important. The New Zealand referendum came after years of debate. In 1995 MP Michael Laws introduced an Assisted Dying Bill which was defeated in the second reading. Another attempt was made in 2003 by MP Peter Brown, where the bill was once again defeated in parliament, this time by just two votes. The recent referendum was a compromise by MPs as despite strong public support, parliament remained reluctant to pass this legislation.
In 2020 Lord Falconer has once again put forward a bill to legalise Assisted Dying. The Lords should support this well-drafted bill which would allow those diagnosed with a terminal illness the choice of assisted dying, but like the New Zealand law protects those who do not. Parliament should listen to public opinion and support this law change. But if it does not have the courage to do so, then like in New Zealand, the question should be put to the public in a referendum.
Two weeks after one of the most tumultuous elections in US history it is now clear that Joe Biden has won. This was not clear on election night as much of the in-person vote favoured Trump in key swing states. But as the postal votes came in it became obvious that in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and Michigan were going with the Biden/Harris ticket. Whilst traditional swing states of Florida and Ohio went to Trump this would not be enough for him to get the required 270 electoral college votes to win.
My previous post outlined the importance to America and the world of a Trump defeat in these elections. It also outlined the many limitations the US political system put in place to make much needed political, social and economic reform in that country difficult (though not impossible). It also highlighted the absurd electoral college system that twice this century has allowed a presidential candidate who received fewer votes than their opponent to win the presidency. The 2020 election could well have been the third such election based on election night results, but postal ballots make it clear that Trump is on his way out. In an election where one of the main dividing issues now is whether or not to believe science, those worried about COVID-19 were more likely to postal vote and thus these votes were more likely to go to the Democrats.
Trump is mounting a legal challenge to the election result claiming the election was rigged. In many cases, the state authorities running the ballot system were under the control of the Republican Party. Trump is unlikely to succeed in any of his legal challenges and even if he does this will unlikely result in him gaining the required 270 points to win. There is little chance of a repeat of the 2000 Presidential election where the Supreme Court ordered the recount of votes in the State of Florida to stop, a disgraceful chapter in the history of US elections and one which exposed how flawed the US system really is.
In 2016 Donald Trump received 62,984,828 votes nationally. In 2020 his national vote increased to 71,927,381. Biden’s apparent victory was down to increased voter turnout nationally and specifically increased turnout and in the swing states listed above. When looking at the results in both Congress and Senate, the Republicans have reduced the Democrats’ majority in Congress, and the Senate is now split with Republicans only losing one senate race last week and now having a runoff election in January 2021 which will decide which party has control of the upper chamber.
The projected ‘blue wave’ that many pundits predicted (and this author hoped for, but did not expect) did not eventuate. There are plenty of possible explanations for this but ultimately it comes down to the simple fact that support for Donald Trump and indeed for the Republican Party did not collapse in 2020. If anything, the Republican Party held the line with their base and even won some new support despite a woeful mishandling of the pandemic and having a President who was blatantly dishonest and self-serving. This is disappointing, but not at all surprising. Trumpism did not just come out of nowhere, and nor is it likely to disappear anytime soon.
The election for Congress saw the Republicans reduce the Democrats’ majority. This was probably the Democrats greatest failure this election, given they only gained control of Congress two years earlier in 2018 and already their grip on power here is slipping. This is reminiscent of 2006, where Nancy Pelosi led the Democrats to victory during the Mid-terms as President George W Bush’s popularity was waning. By 2010 the Democrats had lost control of the House in Obama’s first mid-term. Despite the loss, Pelosi remained the Democrat leader in Congress, and in 2018 became the speaker once again when Democrats capitalised on anti-Trump sentiment to gain control of The House. The issue for Pelosi and the team around her in Congress is that twice they have won during mid-terms when opposition to a Republican President is strong. Now a Democrat is President, Pelosi cannot just be an oppositional figure, she and her team need to put forward a policy agenda to address the issues facing the country. Just like when Obama was elected President in 2008, Biden’s win this year is happening in the middle of a serious economic crisis. Democrats in Congress need to be offering policy solutions to this crisis. Now maybe time for new Democratic leadership in Congress that can step up to this challenge.
The Senate currently hangs in the balance with Republicans holding onto more senators this month than expected. In early January 2021 a runoff election will be held for the two Senator seats in the state of Georgia. The race between Biden and Trump was very close in this state which has traditionally been safe Republican. The change in Georgia was down to voter registration and turnout campaigns led by Stacy Abrams who narrowly lost the Georgia Governor race in 2018. This campaign is one Democrats should be looking to replicate nationally as it has been widely praised as successful.
In early 2018 I wrote a blog post about hope in which I said the following about the Obama Presidency of 2009 to 2017:
Obama promised hope and intended to deliver that through the US political system. The problem is that system is flawed. He gave people hope in a political system which could not deliver on the promise.
Hope – A powerful but dangerous tool, April 2018
When trying to understand US politics we need to understand that it is indeed a flawed and inflexible system. This criticism could be made of most democratic systems, but the flaws in the US are stark and very hard to shift. In another 2018 blog, I wrote about the issue of Gun Control, a prime example of where the US system, despite public opinion has successfully blocked any form of gun control for decades.
In August this year, Rolling Stone Magazine published an article by Anthropologist Wade Davies called The Unraveling of America. I would recommend anyone who has not yet read this to do so. In this article Wade outlines how the COVID-19 pandemic has furthered the decline of the United States. Wade claims that one-fifth of all COVID-19 deaths were from that country. He highlights how the United States has lost its moral authority on the world stage, citing the below example:
Trump’s performance and America’s crisis deflected attention from China’s own mishandling of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, not to mention its move to crush democracy in Hong Kong. When an American official raised the issue of human rights on Twitter, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, invoking the killing of George Floyd, responded with one short phrase, “I can’t breathe.”
The Unraveling of America Anthropologist Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era. Rolling Stone August 2020.
And indeed, the Black Lives Matter Movement has like COVID-19 shown the world that the United States Government is neither interested nor capable of looking after its own population. Given this it is little wonder many throughout the world no longer view it as a moral authority on the world stage. Wade also argues that Donald Trump is a symptom of the decline, rather than the cause of it.
On the morning of the US election results, the BBC Today Show interviewed former UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. He expressed concern that an uncertain result would be used by dictators in countries like China to discredit democracy. The reality is that the United States is a poor example of a functioning democracy in 2020. The country’s widespread voter suppression, its antiquated and undemocratic voting system, its cumbersome and difficult to change constitution, its poor record on climate change, its institutional and systemic racism, its increasing inequality and last but not least its shocking record on the international stage of supporting dictators like Pinochet and Suharto, discredit it as any sort of moral authority. When looking for examples of modern, functioning democracies we should look at places like Germany, Scandinavian nations like Norway or Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, Uruguay and Costa Rica. Even in the United Kingdom, though in recent years has faced considerable challenges in response to Brexit and a fairly ugly General Election in 2019, not to mention a voting system that does not deliver proportional outcomes, the political culture in the UK is still much healthier and far less divisive than in the US.
This is not to beat up on the United States or to say that it does not still have the potential to play a positive role in the world. The point is that for the United States to do this it needs significant reform. Biden, even if he gains a majority in the Senate will not be able to deliver this in one term. And the level of opposition this administration will face internally from Trump/Republican Party supporters is formidable. But this too can change. In 2020 increased voter turnout stopped Trump getting a second term and may still help the Democrats narrowly win a senate majority if Georgia goes their way. Hope can be dangerous if it gives people the false idea that a broken system is ok. But in understanding that there is a fundamental problem, there is then the opportunity for real change, something which would be cause for some cautious optimism. At the very least, the more people understand the problem, the greater the chance of things improving.
In a few days’ time the United States has its presidential election. And this has been an election like no other, in a country in the middle of a pandemic, divided over issues of race and facing very grave economic outcomes. The candidates debates between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have been heated and personal, which many potential voters will certainly have found to be a turn off. Politics in the United States has hit a new low.
When Trump first announced his candidacy for Presidency in 2015, he was largely written off as a joke. The political establishment were quick to pronounce “oh that will that will never happen.” 18 months later he’d beaten both the Bush’s and the Clintons, the families who’d won 5 out of the previous 8 elections. He was able to win rust belt states like Michigan that previously were considered ‘safe’ Democrat states. The reality is that Trump defied the odds, and he was able to harness the support of enough angry, alienated hope deprived American voters to install himself into the white house.
Genius Trump, published Nick Kelly’s blog 20 January 2018
I stand by my assessment made nearly three years ago and further believe it still applies today. Currently Democratic challenger Joe Biden is ahead in US opinion polls and has been consistently since gaining the Democratic Party nomination. This would be reassuring news for those wishing to see Trump removed from office, were it not for the fact that in the 2016 race Hillary Clinton also was ahead (albeit by not as much) in polls. Winning US elections is not about winning the most votes nationally. Hillary won the popular vote in 2016 by roughly 3 million votes, yet she still lost. The presidency is decided by an antiquated and thoroughly undemocratic electoral college system whereby each state has a certain number of electoral college points, and the candidate who gains 270 or more points wins the presidency. For this reason, and this reason alone, a second term for Donald Trump still cannot be ruled out.
Trump has built a core base of support, espousing cynical politics of fear and hate. His achievements after four years as president are few, and his mistakes and political missteps are too many to count. Yet he has a base who believe in him and his message. Specifically, they believe that the media misrepresent everything that he says and does, or that when something goes wrong that it is everyone else’s fault but his. Most frighteningly, when he uses the language of hate, it resonates with a significant section of US society.
There are many who feel demoralised by the offerings in this election. Biden, who was Vice President under Obama has been both gaff prone and uninspiring throughout this campaign. For those who supported progressive candidate Bernie Sanders, Biden represents the Democratic Party old guard who will do little but maintain a broken status quo. For those on the right, who oppose Trumps racist, anti-science and socially conservative agenda, they struggle with having to support a Democrat even if the Republican candidate is repugnant. And for many millions of voters in the US, they see the political system as dysfunctional and not something they wish to take part in.
US politics operates in a binary system where you get a choice of two parties. In this race the choice is between two old white men who have considerable wealth. Many would argue that voting for Biden over Trump is merely supporting the lesser evil and ultimately achieves nothing. Whilst Biden maybe just the lessor evil I completely disagree that supporting or voting for him in 2020 achieves nothing.
Were I eligible to vote in the US election this year I would vote for Joe Biden and for Democratic party candidates in both houses. Further, I would actively encourage all eligible voters to do likewise. Why would I do this you ask?
Firstly, we are currently in the middle of a global pandemic. In the US, the most powerful nation on the planet, there is a President who has consistently ignored the science, who shamefully has defunded the World Health Organisation and whose actions have caused many preventable deaths both in the US and globally. Further he suggested that drinking bleach may help cure COVID-19. By contrast, Biden does listen to scientists and has not tried to appeal to “anti-maskers” or those who deny there is a global health crisis.
Secondly, one of the challenges we face as a species is that of climate change. Again, President Trump has consistently ignored all scientific advice regarding climate change and instead actively pursued a policy of supporting polluting industries and resisting any opportunity to change. Further, under the Trump Presidency, backed by Republicans in the Senate, the US has refused to sign up to international treaties that would reduce carbon emissions. The Democratic Party’s record on climate change is far from great, but they acknowledge it is a real problem and that action is needed. A victory for Biden would see the US take more action on climate change.
In June I posted a blog about the Black Lives Matter movement and the underlying racism that exists within the US and the English-speaking world generally. Trump has consistently attacked this movement and tried to frame the debate as a law and order one. Further, he refused to distance himself from the far-right Proud Boys group, reminiscent of his 2017 comments after the attacks on protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia where he infamously said there was fault on both sides. Trump has consistently pandered to racists for support throughout his presidency and before. Again, the Democratic Party’s record on race relations is far from exemplary (they were the Party of the slave owners during the Civil War), but when comparing Biden’s record to Trumps on race relations, Biden wins hands down.
Trump won in 2016 by appealing to voters in “rust belt” states where traditionally the Democratic Party had done well. Trump promised to create jobs and help those who had been left behind over the last few decades. The Clinton campaign ultimately lost because she and senior Democrats did not understand that the economic policies of both parties over the previous 30 years had left these communities behind. Trump offered them hope. Four years on it is clear that this hope was false. Trump’s presidency has primarily been to serve the wealthy and powerful, not least himself. Understandably many would argue that Biden does not offer significant economic change if he beats Trump, a criticism that is fair. But a second term of Trump rewards deceit and opportunism. Electing Biden gives the Democrats an opportunity to restore the trust and confidence of its former supporters by implementing policies that address economic inequality in the US.
Trumps presidency has been about “America first” isolationism, white supremacy and serving the powerful elites and ignoring science. It is simply unacceptable that the most powerful nation on the planet is ruled by a president like this. Not only should Trump and his Republican Party be defeated in the upcoming election, they should be defeated in a landslide. There needs to be a clear signal that this sort of cynical, deceptive and dangerous politics has no place in 21st century democracy.
However, whilst I would vote and campaign for Biden in the US presidential election, I do so with the understanding that the US political system is fundamentally flawed and in no way a good example of a functioning democracy.
As already mentioned, the electoral college voting system means the candidate who wins the most votes may not win the Presidency. This was the case in both the 2000 and 2016 presidential races. The reason is that the electoral college points are allocated by states and this tends to favour smaller and traditionally more conservative voting states. But the electoral college is not the only issue. The senate elections are also not proportional as each state is given two senators. Wyoming with a population of 586,107 has the same number of senators as California with a population of 39,114,818 (see Ranking of States by population here). And if you live in Washington DC then you do not get representation in either Congress or the Senate.
I have posted on this blog before about electoral systems, and specifically believe that the First Past the Post electoral system used in the UK and the US results in too many votes not counting and the final outcome not representing the will of the people. The electoral system used in the US strongly favours the two party system and makes it near impossible for other parties to be represented. It also means if you are a Republican voting in a safe Democrat state or vice versa your vote probably will not count.
The United States is further held back by a Constitution that is cumbersome and difficult to change. Trying to bring about any sort of serious change to allow Gun Control in the US, something that polls suggest a majority of Americans support, would require a change to Second Amendment of the US Constitution. How can the US Constitution be changed? It requires 2/3 support for a proposed constitutional amendment in both the Congress and Senate (see above about how these houses are NOT representative). On gaining this, it then needs to be approved by the legislature of 34 of the 50 US states then ratified by 38 of the 50 states (again the smaller conservative states get a much greater say than larger ones). A full explanation of this can be seen here.
Then there is the Supreme Court. Whilst this court has in the past made progressive rulings resulting in more liberal laws such as the 1973 Roe vs Wade decision on abortion or the 2013 United States vs Windsor decision on gay marriage, this court is politically stacked. In 2016 Republicans successfully blocked President Obama’s appointment to the Supreme Court, yet in 2020 Trump successfully appointed conservative Amy Coney to replace the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was a progressive. That the country’s highest court is so clearly partisan, again a system protected by the constitution, means one can have little confidence in this country’s justice system.
Then there is wide-spread voter suppression in the US, something which may still decide the 2020 US Presidential election in many marginal states. As this Financial Times opinion piece outlines this practice involved measures such as strict voter ID rules, despite many from poorer and often black communities not having any form of ID. Deleting from registers the names of those who have not voted in years, rather grotesquely referred to as “list hygiene.” Then there is the practice of denying the vote to those who have been incarcerated or who have a criminal record.
In 2015 former US President Jimmy Carter said the US was now “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery”. Few can now doubt that US politics is dominated by big money, something that has always been a factor but in recent decades has become much more dominant. The US political system is a difficult one to reform or improve. It has also proved to be one that is easy for big business to control. Why does the US not have a free public health system like the UK, Canada or most other western democracies? Because private insurance firms spend big money campaigning against it, including funding political campaigns of candidates from both major parties.
Will electing Joe Biden president help change any of these fundamental flaws in the US system? Almost certainly not. Even if the Democrats win a 2/3 majority in both houses, and gain a majority in over 38 state legislatures, and have the courage to try and amend the second amendment, it is still unlikely that the amendment would succeed. Unless of course there is a groundswell of public opinion demanding change that can stand up to the well-funded gun lobby.
A Biden Presidency, with the numbers in both houses to pass legislative change, can take serious action to prevent the spread of COVID-19, on climate change and to tackle racism head on. It may even create an opportunity for some much-needed economic reform in an increasingly unequal and unbalanced society. But for more significant and positive change this will require not only the election of politicians willing to reform (something many Democrats lack both the will and the courage to do), but a political movement unlike anything ever seen before in the United States.
In a broken political system like that of the United States, voting for Joe Biden over Donald Trump is not selling out. And yes, a Biden/Harris presidency will likely do things that many of us find objectionable – especially in foreign policy. But at this juncture in history, it is important that the presidency of Donald Trump is defeated on Tuesday 3 November 2020, and soundly. For as much as Biden may not deliver in many policy areas, a second term of Trump will do untold harm not only to the United States but to politics globally.
On Saturday, the New Zealand Labour Party had its best election result in terms of percentage of the vote since the 1940s. On preliminary results Labour will have the numbers to govern alone and not need to form a coalition – something that has not happened since New Zealand changed to the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system in 1996.
The results are still provisional as special votes, including votes from overseas such as mine, will be counted ten days after the election so will not be expected until next week. Traditionally special votes favour the centre left and in 2017 both Labour and the Green Party gained an extra MP each once special votes were added.
The 2020 election was more than just a victory for Labour and more than a crushing defeat for the National Party (New Zealand’s main centre right political party). This result marks a significant watershed in New Zealand politics which will likely have implications long after this parliamentary term. The closest comparison would be the first New Zealand Labour Government. It was elected in 1935, then returned in 1938 with a significantly increased majority widely seen by historians as an endorsement of its progressive social democratic policies which included the creation of the Welfare State through the Social Security Act and building state housing to providing low to middle income earners affordable housing. The first Labour Government remained in power until 1949 and remains one of the most influential governments in New Zealand history shaping the country’s domestic and foreign policy for decades.
Back in January this year I wrote a series of posts about why the UK Labour Party lost in 2019. Part of this analysis was that Britain was historically a conservative electorate where the Conservatives win more elections than they lose. Throughout the 20th century New Zealand had very similar voting patterns. After losing power in 1949 Labour won only five of the following seventeen elections. The move to Proportional Representation has improved things for NZ Labour and the left, as Labour has managed to form a coalition government in four of the first seven MMP elections held since 1996. In the case of the 2017 election it did so despite winning fewer votes than the National Party and relied on both The Green Party and the socially conservative NZ First Party. The latter party being blamed as a hand brake on Labour being able to deliver on its 2017 manifesto promises.
In politics a crisis can present an opportunity. There can be no doubt that the New Zealand Labour Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has helped deliver this strong result. As too will have Jacinda’s strong response to the Christchurch terror attack. The reason countries like the UK and New Zealand tend to have right leaning conservative governments, is largely due to people forming voting habits. People become used to the right being in power and so feel more comfortable voting that way. It is a mistake to assume most voters are deeply committed to an ideological viewpoint, more they form a habit of voting a particular way as it is more familiar or comfortable. For this to change, something dramatic needs to happen.
Normally the factors that influence an election are turn out and swing. High turnout historically favours the left, and in particular turnout from voters in lower socio-economic communities helps Labour. The other factor is swing voters who switch their votes regularly. The second group have historically been middle class and deemed ‘centrist’, though this characterisation of swing voters and the use of the term centrist should be used very cautiously. What we can say with certainty is that each party has a certain base level of support, and in most English-speaking democracies the main centre right party tends to have a stronger core vote to rely upon.
Saturday’s result was a disaster for the National Party, and more generally for the right in New Zealand. National were polling near 40% prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and had for the previous 15 years enjoyed support at around that mark or higher. On Saturday they won only 26.8% of the vote, the Party’s second worst result in 20 years (their worst being in 2002, but soon recovered a few years later). The rise in support for the soft libertarian Association for Consumers and Taxpayers’ Party (ACT) to 8% will give some comfort to the right. But with the Green Party also winning 7.6% of the vote this means with Labour’s 49% the NZ centre left won 56% of the vote, where the combined National and ACT vote comes to only 34.8%. In terms of a swing from right to left 2020 has been both dramatic and unprecedented. This in part has been due to the petty, dishonest and frankly immature response by National to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it also reflects the fact that the style of politics and types of policies they support do not appeal to the New Zealand electorate any longer.
Until the final results are in one should be careful of going into too much detailed analysis of the numbers. But we can see a number of so-called safe National Party seats such as Ilam, Wairarapa, East Coast, Northcote and Whanganui where Labour won quite comfortably this year. Under MMP it is the party vote nationally rather than local electorate seats which determine who will win the election, but these local results do show a collapse in support for the right and conversely a strengthening in support for Labour. It is also clear that an on the ground campaign really made a difference and had built up Labour/left networks and infrastructure throughout the country at a time when the National Party machine was very openly crumbling.
Many lifelong National voters switched to Labour in 2020. Whether these voters return back to National in 2023 when the next election is due will be interesting. While old habits die hard, when voters finally make the break it may be permanent. Or it may mean the size of New Zealand’s potential swing vote is about to grow considerably meaning there could be very large dramatic swings in future NZ elections.
The coming term will not be an easy one for Labour, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rumble on and the world plunges into the worst financial crisis in decades. On Saturday Labour were rewarded for their handling of the crisis so far, but the hard part is yet to come. On the one hand they need to rebuild the NZ economy at a time when international tourism is dead and export markets are volatile. But even prior to this the New Zealand economy was unbalanced and in a precarious state. Its over reliance on dairy exports has made it vulnerable if anything happens to this market and resulted in over intensive dairy farming which has harmed the environment – not a good look for a country that brands itself as clean and green. It also faces growing inequality with a significant growth in homelessness and poverty in recent years.
Labour were elected in 2017 on the promise of moving away from Neo Liberal economics. Whilst much of the policy offer was fairly moderate, in particular their commitment to stick to fiscal responsibility rules, the rhetoric from Jacinda was radical as the quote below illustrates:
Yet for this and various other noises about making the system fairer, Labour have not made radical changes. The 2019 year of delivery promised by the Prime Minister did not see election promises such as Kiwibuild meet the targets for building new homes promised in the 2017 election. In policy areas such as employment legislation Labour blamed NZ First for being a hand break. Many Labour supporters were disappointed to hear Jacinda rule out the introduction of a capital gains tax in 2019, and despite public support for tax increases for high income earners, Labour’s progressive tax policy is still very modest and many of its supporters would have liked it to go further. Scaremongering by National about the Greens wealth tax policy seem not to have resonated. Some commentators claim moderate Tory voters switched to Labour to give them the numbers so they would not need to form a coalition with the Greens. Whilst this sort of strategic voting may have been at play, the significance of this is being overstated by the commentariat. Further, polling suggests that Labour could have taken a stronger position on taxation and increasing public spending and still won the election with a commanding majority. That instead it has jettisoned policies such as extending free tertiary education to second and third year students shows the fiscally conservative nature of this government. The economic crisis of course forced the government to make tough choices, but NZ Labour seems to have chosen the status quo when other progressive and electable alternatives were possible.
Over the next three years Labour will have a strong majority. Labour will no longer have the excuse of NZ First holding them back. It is unclear whether Labour will continue in coalition with The Greens but given the result Labour will have the numbers to push its policies through without needing to form a coalition. Labour have been given a strong mandate and they need to use it to deliver. In policy areas like housing, transport and reducing poverty this term needs to be about delivering. In opposition these were key policy areas Labour criticised the previous government for, this term is their opportunity to really make significant changes in these areas.
Labour in New Zealand now has a strong mandate to deliver on its manifesto. If it can deliver on longstanding domestic policy issues whilst continuing to lead the world in the fight against COVID-19, Labour could remain in power for many years to come.
The final point about the election based on the provisional results, is that of diversity and representation. Based on current numbers 55% of Labour MP’s are women, 70% of Green MP’s are women and the overall make up of parliament is 48% women. In addition, there are many elected from the LGBTI community, there are 16 Maori MP’s and also Pasifika and ethnic Asian MP’s. NZ has elected its first African MP, a Sri Lankan and a Latin American MP. The point of representative democracy is that members of Parliament truly represent the population of the country. This parliament will in terms of gender, sexual identity and ethnicity be the most representative of the New Zealand population of any NZ parliament in history. This is a wonderful achievement and represents an important and fundamental shift in the country’s democracy.
Throughout 2020 there have been many fascinating twists and turns in the tale of how we as a species have tried to overcome the COVID-19 virus. Some nations like the United States or Brazil have not managed so well, whilst others like New Zealand or Vietnam at first seemed to be faring much better, though now have also seen the virus sneak back in.
In a pandemic like this there is no playbook, and governments and health officials are forced to learn and adapt as they go along. One can understand that along the way there will be various mistakes, and all but the very angry and militant few would seriously expect governments to get everything right during this time.
One important lesson early on in the crisis was back in April when Singapore, who were seen as one of the world leaders in defeating this virus suddenly faced a spike. Singapore was far better prepared than many other nations having learnt lessons from the 2003 SARS and 2009 H1N1 outbreaks. Singapore is well known for its focus on public hygiene and encouraging its citizens to wear face masks and wash their hands is nothing new. By early April it seemed Singapore were weathering the storm, but then things went wrong.
As outlined in this April CNN report, clusters of migrant workers living in poor overcrowded housing were found to have the disease. From here the virus quickly spread again meaning the city state went from very few cases in March to over 1000 in April. It took Singapore until August to reduce COVID-19 infection rates to their March 2020 levels.
In contrast to many other nations Singapore has still managed this pandemic very well. But by neglecting its most vulnerable and not providing safe and healthy accommodation to its migrant workers, the country undermined the public health for all people living in this city state.
There will be many lessons coming out of the 2020 pandemic. But the lesson here is clear, if you do not look after the poor and vulnerable in your community, ultimately you undermine the health and wellbeing of everyone.
Just over three years ago, a few weeks before leaving New Zealand, my friend Rob and I were in Burger Fuel on Cuba Street the hipster trendy part of Wellington. Piko was renting an office space in the old Wellington Trades Hall and we were doing painting and renovations of the space. In our crappy paint-covered work clothes we sat in Burger Fuel when Rob alerts me to who had just walked in the restaurant.
24 hours beforehand, Jacinda Ardern had replaced Andrew Little as leader of the Labour Party. We both knew Jacinda so said hello and talked about the Stand with Pike campaign we had been working on which Jacinda had pledged to support a few hours before. This slightly awkward conversation with the new leader of the opposition did not last long. None of us, I suspect even Jacinda, knew that in a few weeks’ time she would achieve one of the greatest upsets in New Zealand political history and become Prime Minister.
In just over a month New Zealand is holding a General Election. A First term Labour Government under the leadership of Jacinda Ardern will be aiming to win a second term in office. Jacinda Ardern is held up globally as a modern progressive leader and is praised throughout the world for her compassion and humility. In her three years as Prime Minister, she has faced terrorist attacks, volcanic eruptions and now the COVID-19 pandemic. In all these crises, she not only got the country through but showed the world that she was an articulate and competent leader. Jacinda is a world leader at a time when the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsanaro and Scott Watson are running the show. It is hardly surprising that Ardern is seen as a beacon of hope in contrast, but what has her government really achieved?
Jacinda’s response to the recent COVID-19 pandemic will likely be viewed as her crowning achievement, albeit one which was as much due to the actions of civil servants and the support of the wider NZ public as it was the Government. However, in a world plagued by COVID-19, ending community transmission of the disease in New Zealand is a significant achievement, and one the rest of the world is quite envious of.
However, I believe Jacinda’s greatest achievement was in the wake of the Christchurch Mosque shooting where over 50 people were killed. Jacinda Ardern’s immediate response to a targeted attack against the Muslim community was that this was an attack on the whole country. Her words “they are us” sent a powerful message to Muslims both in Aotearoa/New Zealand and throughout the world. A flatmate of mine in London on hearing Jacinda’s words said to me that no UK Prime Minister had ever said that he as a Muslim was part of UK society, highlighting how powerful Jacinda’s message really was. A few weeks later I had a three-week contract in Saudi Arabia and was talking to some of the local labourers over a meal break. On hearing I was from New Zealand these workers were very excited, and told me how wonderful they thought Jacinda’s words after the attack were. The other impressive thing in response to this shooting, was Jacinda’s response the following morning that semi-automatic weapons would be banned. This was a rare example of decisive political leadership in New Zealand politics, which I am sure in years to come will save many lives.
When Jacinda took over as Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party in August 2017, many thought her chances of winning the election seven weeks later were slim. Labour was polling at around 24% when Jacinda took over, whereas the right of centre National Government was consistently polling over 40%. When adding the relatively high Green Party polling numbers at the time to Labour’s there was still little likelihood that NZ would elect a centre-left government a few weeks later.
During the election campaign, Jacinda pulled off a meteoric rise in support for Labour that astounded political commentators. In part, this was due to the arrogance of a third term National Government, who a year earlier had changed to a leader who did not have the charisma and eloquence of his predecessor. By contrast Jacinda presented herself as the fresh face of politics, with a message of positivity and optimism.
On election day I had moved to London. I woke up on Saturday morning and watched the results online. Labour had increased its votes, but National was still the largest party in Parliament. Even with the Green Party Jacinda did not have enough seats to form a government. An economically centrist and socially conservative party called NZ First held the balance of power. This party had previously been in government with both National in the 1990s and Labour in the mid-2000s. In the past, it had gone with the major party who got the most votes and had been hostile to the Green Party, who would be needed in a coalition with Labour. However, the NZ Tories made a tactical error during the campaign of targeting the NZ First leader Winston Peters and releasing details of a pension overpayment. After four weeks of coalition talks, Winston Peters announced he would form a coalition government with Labour and the Green’s.
It is fair to say that this coalition has not been easy to manage. The politics of NZ First are quite different from the socially liberal progressive values of NZ Labour and the Greens. NZ First have acted as a hand brake on many policy areas, even on issues wherein opposition they had sided with Labour and the Green Party. An example of this was probationary employment periods, where having opposed them when National introduced them, recently fought to save them when Labour tried to scrap them. A coalition partner that is more interested in self-promotion and being oppositional is far from ideal.
It is easy for both Labour and the Green Party’s to say they could not achieve all they wanted in their first term in government because of a difficult coalition partner. But this can only go so far. There are certain policy areas where the current Labour-led government have simply not yet delivered. At the beginning of 2019, Jacinda Ardern announced that it would be the year of delivery. Yet in policy areas such as decreasing homelessness, or the now ill-fated Kiwibuild program to build houses to combat the NZ Housing Crisis – delivery simply has not happened. Yes, these are difficult policy areas, but they are also policy areas where Labour took a strong stance in opposition. Twenty years ago, homelessness was rare in New Zealand, yet over the last decade, the streets of Wellington and Auckland now compare with cities like San Francisco for rough sleeping. The current government’s handling of homelessness has been described as an abject failure by commentators. I have blogged about the Housing Crisis in the past and pointed out then that politicians the world over have failed to address this issue. Labour’s promise of 100,000 new homes in ten years has now been abandoned and frankly, the government’s record on this issue to-date is little better than its predecessor.
There are other policy areas where the record is much better. On election to government, NZ Labour kept its promise to make the first year of tertiary education free, as a way of trying to reduce student debt. The Government have finally modernised the country’s abortion laws so that abortion is no longer listed in the NZ Crimes Act. The minimum wage has been increased under the NZ Labour-led government from $15.75 to $18.90, bringing it closer to the NZ Living Wage rate of $22.10, that campaigners are currently pushing for. A cynic might suggest that in policy areas where there is a stronger cabinet minister, much more has been achieved.
The attack line of the opposition and much of the NZ media is that this is a government that has only a handful of competent ministers and that the Labour-Led Government are being carried by the popularity of Jacinda. The recent departure of two fairly senior cabinet ministers suggests there is some truth to the claim that certain ministers have not been performing. Further, it seems there are a few cabinet ministers who have picked up larger and larger portfolios when one of their colleagues is forced to resign, rather than new talent being brought in from the backbench. Megan Woods has been brought in both to salvage the Kiwibuild fiasco, and more recently immigration and border control to fix up the mess of an underperforming predecessor. Meanwhile, Chris Hipkins is now minister for Health, Education, State Services and Leader of the House which is in no way a sustainable workload, especially during a global pandemic. It seems a smaller and smaller clique now surround the Prime Minister when there are many other talented backbench MPs who are ready for ministerial portfolios.
The media in New Zealand have been critical of this government. For years the National Party have made a concerted effort to build a close relationship with the parliamentary press gallery, attending every social and ensuring that the right egos were stroked. With some very worthy exceptions, the quality of NZ political journalism is poor and focuses much more on personality than policy. In this context, it is impressive that Jacinda managed to win the 2017 election for Labour. However, it is generally agreed it was very much Jacinda’s popularity as a leader that won Labour the election. The media remain critical of Labour, particularly certain members of its current front bench who were there prior Jacinda becoming Party leader when Labour was consistently polling under 30%. Many on the left claim the media hold a political bias and in the case of “journalists” like Mike Hoskins, this is very true. However, critical reporting of certain ministers and performance in their portfolios is more than justified.
New Zealand changed from the British First Past the Post system to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system based on the German model in 1996. Had New Zealand stuck with the First Past the Post voting system, Jacinda Ardern would not have won the 2017 election. In my series on the 2019 UK election, I pointed out the foolishness of the UK Labour Party’s continued support of the First Past the Post electoral system. When you compare the 2017 elections in the UK and NZ, Labour achieved a similar result in both countries. However, in NZ proportional representation meant it could form a government, though other factors were at play in the UK. The challenge for NZ Labour though, is this is the first time since electoral reform that the party that got the most votes did not form the government. The combined Labour and Green Party vote was higher than National’s meaning the centre-left block has more MPs, but still many have questioned the legitimacy of the government due to this. Psychologically, government ministers may feel this too, possibly explaining a reluctance to be too bold in certain policy areas.
At the start of 2020 polling was neck and neck between the government and opposition in New Zealand. Despite an inept leader, National continued to poll around 40%. The COVID-19 crisis changed things dramatically. Recent polling has Labour on 53% support with National down to 26%, its worst polling numbers in 17 years. The National Party have now changed leaders twice in three months, gone through numerous internal scandals and continue to haemorrhage support. It seems unlikely their new leader Judith Collins will be able to pull things back enough for an upset victory in a months’ time. In a country where the National Party have won roughly two out of every three elections since the Second World War, and who despite losing in 2017 gained over 40% of the vote, the current collapse in support is significant.
The government’s handling of COVID-19 and Jacinda’s strong communication style throughout this crisis has clearly shifted public opinion. That NZ stopped the spread of the virus has meant Labour is polling very well, and Jacinda now holds the record for the best preferred prime minister polling numbers. Whilst it is always risky to pick election results, it now seems unlikely that NZ Labour will lose the coming election in September, despite polling numbers from earlier in the year suggesting this was more than likely.
But Jacinda and her government should not be complacent. Whilst there are undoubtedly areas where this government has performed well, there are other policy areas where there is need for improvement. In a three year term, there is only so much that can be achieved, but this is a government elected on hope, which, as an earlier blog post outlined can be dangerous if you do not live up to expectations. The added challenge now is the COVID-19 crisis and managing the global economic recession that is now hitting. Whilst eradicating the virus has helped the economy as lockdown restrictions could be eased earlier it has also meant the country’s borders have to be tightly controlled. In a country where tourism is a major part of the economic, this is not good news at all.
Critics have dismissed the Jacinda Ardern government as being one of style over substance. This is unfair given the challenges this government has faced and the policy achievements it has had. However, it is a government that has much work to do if it wins a second term. And its over-reliance on Jacinda as party leader is a huge strategic risk, especially when the governments front bench is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be lightweight. If current polling is accurate and NZ Labour win with a commanding majority next month, they will have a real opportunity to not only address these issues but significantly shape the direction of NZ politics for many years to come.