The Left: Behind – a New Zealand Perspective on Why the Left Keeps Losing

Joe Pagani examines the similarities between the New Zealand, Australian and UK Labour parties, and what lessons we need to learn if we want to gain power.

“I just don’t understand,” said my Uber driver at 6AM on the way home from election night. “How could anyone vote for Boris Johnson? He’s just so awful.”

I nodded wistfully, remembering the same feeling as a triumphant John Key (New Zealand Prime Minister 2008-2016) hailed in a National government after the 2008 election.

Why do people vote for this? Don’t they know what’s good for them?

The thought comes back far too often. After National’s stropping victories in 2011 and 2014, each more of a landslide than the last, after watching UK Labour collapse to four straight defeats, Australian Labor lose the unloseable this year, and after that awful night in 2016, where Donald Trump changed the world. 

Being on the left seems to mean losing a lot. 

The reason why is difficult to swallow - voters know a lot better than you or I what is best for them. If we lose it’s our fault. No one else’s, not the media, not the electoral system and certainly not the voters.

It’s especially hard on the left - no matter where we sit, we want to change the world. We all just have different ways of going about it. For change to happen, you have to convince people it’s in their interest. That’s not a bad thing, it’s the entire point of democracy. That’s how change should work.

But in the UK, the wrong lessons were learnt from Ed Milliband’s disaster of a campaign, which Obama advisor David Axelrod described as “vote Labour and get a microwave.”

Why was the Labour Party - the party of work - advocating a four day working week? Did we really need to offer free internet to millionaires? Where was the message of reward for hard work, reciprocity, and a country where everyone became better off for it?  We offered change for the sake of change, assuming that if Labour were just left wing enough, the masses would awaken and vote us in to power. 

Some of the ideas were good. As I wrote before the election, the British people really do think the rich should pay more tax. They support some nationalisation, and many new spending programmes, higher minimum wages and new social housing. But Corbyn’s Labour overindulged; offering free stuff for the sake of it, not out of a well intentioned plan to make people better off.

Describing Britain as “a nation of billionaires and homeless” is meaningless to the vast majority who are neither a billionaire, nor homeless. They just want a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Calling rich people the enemy, then naming anyone earning over 80k a year as rich, doesn’t reflect how people interact in everyday life. It scared people away from a transformational Labour government. 

As much as we like to pin the blame on unlikable leaders, they become unlikeable because of what they stand for. Good communications come from good policy, and bad communications come from bad ideas.

Corbyn was seen by voters as a grumpy old man who complained all the time because his philosophy was rooted in the past, and his political career spent protesting, rather than building. He was seen as anti-British because he really had opposed almost every action of the British state in his lifetime. He was seen as cynical and hypocritical because a so called “life-long anti-racist” had allowed systemic, institutional racism to metastasise in his ranks. 

And as a result of his failures, it is others who will suffer. The young man I met on the doorstep will have to wait months more before he can get his vital surgery that has been postponed and postponed due to Tory cuts. People struggling on universal credit will have to wait over five years for relief, and for the broken system to be fixed. Dozens of decent Labour MPs opposed Corbyn and still lost their seats.

These are the consequences when Labour parties don’t win. It’s not the politicians in Westminster who will suffer, not the activists in Islington. It’s the welfare recipient, the minimum wage worker, and the people who just want their kids to do a little bit better. 

They are the same consequences the world sees when the Labour movement presents purity over purpose. When it is concerned more with an ideological hatred for capitalism, than winning power and making lives better.  When the left plays politics like a game, ordinary people lose out.

It must never happen again. 

Joe Pagani is Communications Advisor for left leaning think tank Progressive Centre UK. He is an activist in the UK Labour party, and previously for the New Zealand Labour Party. Before working in politics he was a public servant in New Zealand, and he holds a Master’s Degree in International Trade.

This article was originally published on, and has been republished here with permission of the author.


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