New Zealand’s people’s Prime Minister is a real-life successor to ‘Borgen’s Birgitte Nyborg. Confident, charismatic and compassionate, Boris should take advice from her…
Right-wing populism has been on the rise ever since the 2015 European migrant crisis. Whenever there is a mass immigration movement, there is always an anti-immigration sentiment and countries across Europe and the Western world have been turning to right-wing populist leaders in search of a quick fix to the often racist questions of “why are people stealing our jobs?”.
It all started on June 23rd, 2016 when the UK voted to leave the European Union. This Euroscepticism has been around ever since the end of World War II, but was skyrocketed to the forefront of British politics thanks to the campaigns of UKIP and their toad-like leader Nigel Farage. In America, the population elected a madman - a racist, misogynistic creature named Donald Trump who wasn’t even a politician to begin with, but a billion-dollar businessman promising to “build a wall” between the USA and Mexico and “make America great again”.
Even Scandinavia, the most progressive and liberal sub-continent in the world, swung right. In the 2015 General Election, Denmark’s anti-immigration Danish People’s Party (DPP) became the country’s 2nd largest party. In 2018, Sweden’s Swedish Democrats - a party with fascist and white nationalist roots - won 62 seats and became the 3rd largest party. And, in Holland - another former hotspot of progressive liberalism - Geert Wilders’ anti-islamic Party of Freedom (PVV) only narrowly avoided becoming the largest party with 20 seats against Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) with 33 seats.
The good news is that the surge in right-wing populism is now on the decrease. The decline of this very extremist form of conservative politics was fast-forwarded by Donald Trump losing the 2020 US Presidential Election to Joe Biden. Thank goodness Donald is conceding now and on his way out albeit kicking and screaming!
Meanwhile, in the UK, UKIP currently has not one single seat in the House of Commons. I wonder how much of this is down to a general belief that the party had its moment in the sun in the run-up to Brexit and achieved its biggest goal, but now has little function given the deed is done and Britain is out of the E.U.
I’d also put down the decline in right-wing populism to an overall, shared desire for a strong state in the current Covid crisis. In a world with a 1.97 million death toll and Covid infection rates showing no sign of slowing down, people are in desperate desire for equality and unity and want a government that’s always ready to step in and lend a hand. This is a central idea of left-wing politics where the role of a big state is always promoted.
You’ll probably hate me for saying this, but I voted Tory at the last election. Not because I passionately support their policies, but because I always see them as a “safe pair of hands” and certainly much better fit for leading government than the crypto-communism preached by Jeremy Corbyn. It’s not that I wouldn’t love to vote Labour either. I certainly would have done so had I been old enough to vote during the Blair years. His promises of a Third Way between the Left and the Right always appealed to me and the fallout of the Brown-Blair deal and return to the more hardline left-wing practices of Labour’s early days has left the party limping on ever since.
What Labour really needs is a leader like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. Whereas the rest of the world has swung right in the late 2010s, New Zealand has always been a progressive, liberal capital. The country has had three female Governor Generals in Dame Catherine Tizard, Dame Silvia Cartwright and Dame Patsy Reddy. Current Prime Minister Ardern is also NZ’s third female Prime Minister after Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark. And, recently, Ardern appointed New Zealand Maori Nanaia Mahuta as the country’s first-ever indigenous female Foreign Minister.
The 2020 NZ General Election saw the election of “the most diverse parliament we have ever had in terms of gender and minority ethnic and indigenous representation”. Ardern’s Labour Party has 16 Maori MPs (an expanded group who have Pacific islands heritage), the first MP of African origin, Ibrahim Omar, and Sri Lankan origin MP Vanushi Walters.
10% of the MPs in the elected, 120-seat House of Representatives identify as LGBTQ+ including Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson who is the first openly gay man to hold the latter office. Simultaneously the Green Party won as much as 10 seats in parliament and the majority of them are women, indigenous politicians and LGBTQ+. The majority of MPs elected into parliament are also significantly younger than previously and many of them are millennials.
At the centre of it all is Jacinda Ardern who became the world’s youngest female head of Government at the age of 37 in 2017. She describes herself as a social democrat, a progressive, a republican and a feminist. But I, being a Film and TV buff, prefer to see her as a real-life successor to ‘Borgen’s Birgitte Nyborg.
In Adam Price’s excellent Danish political drama series, Sidse Babett-Knudsen starred as Nyborg - the centre-left leader of Denmark’s Moderate Party; hoping to pave a path between terms like “Socialism” and “Liberalism” that her political opponents wave around so insignificantly.
Like Birgitte, Ardern sits in the middle of the Left-Right spectrum - the so-called “Third Way” that catapulted Tony Blair to a landslide victory in the 1997 UK General Election. It’s interesting too that Jacinda once worked within Blair’s cabinet office.
Ardern certainly boasts progressive policies. She says “New Zealand is likely to become a republic in my lifetime” and campaigned on a promise of a referendum on weed legalisation. But she also advocates a lower rate of immigration with a suggestion of a drop of around 20,000-30,000 and describing it as an “infrastructure issue”. She claims “there hasn’t been enough planning about population growth, we haven’t necessarily targeted our skill shortages properly”. She does, however, want to increase the intake of refugees.
I’ve always sat more on the centre-right of the political spectrum; generally favouring a light regulation of the free market and lower taxes. However, anyone from any side of the political divide should support Jacinda Ardern’s intention to halve New Zealand child poverty within a decade. In July 2018, she announced the beginning of her government’s flagship families package. Among other provisions, the package gradually increased paid parental leave to 26 weeks and also paid $60-a-week to families of low and middle income with young children. In 2019, the government simultaneously began rolling out a school lunches programme with the aim of assisting in reducing child poverty numbers. It has also made other efforts to reduce poverty such as an increase in main welfare benefits, expanding free doctors’ visits, providing free menstrual hygiene products in schools and making additions to state housing stock.
The best world leaders, in my opinion, are always the ones that think with their hearts as much as their heads. Tony Blair did this to the controversy of many - I maintain the belief that he genuinely thought he was doing the right thing when invading Iraq. Ardern, meanwhile, became a symbol of compassion thanks to her loving response to the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings where 51 people were fatally shot and 49 injured in two mosques in Christchurch.
Ardern visited members of the Muslim community at the Philipstown Community Centre on March 16th, 2019. A photo of her wearing a headscarf - filmed through a glass window - was widely shared and described by The Guardian as an “image of hope”.
That’s not to say Jacinda doesn’t have a backbone to all her beauty and benevolence. Just look at the way she rebuffed a sexist question on the AM Show about her baby plans. She claimed AM Show host Mark Richardson was “totally unacceptable” when suggesting women should have to reveal their pregnancy plans to employers and called out the systematic prejudice exercised by employers deciding whether or not to hire women based on their plans to start a family.
And just look at the brilliant way Jacinda has handled the Covid crisis. Boris Johnson, take note - back in June, New Zealand eliminated Covid-19. This was a result of tremendous effort on Ardern’s part to control the spread of the virus. On March 14th, she announced the government would require anyone entering the country from midnight on the 15th to isolate for 14 days. She stated that the new rules mean New Zealand has “the widest ranging and toughest border restrictions of any country in the world”. She later, on March 19th, announced that New Zealand’s borders would be closed to non-citizens and non-permanent residents before declaring a nationwide lockdown on the 25th. You’ve got to be pretty tough to pull that off and Ardern did so in style!
She did all this and gave birth to a baby! On June 21st, 2018, Ardern became only the second elected head of government to give birth while in office - the first was Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto in 1988. And Jacinda was the first female head of government to attend the UN General Assembly with her infant present.
Ardern’s division between her roles and responsibilities as a mother and a politician is very ‘Borgen’. In that series, Birgitte Nyborg divided her time running Denmark with looking after her two young children and faced a barrage of sexism which Ardern is more than used to, especially when a creepy Australian journalist named Charles Wooley branded her “attractive” and questioned her and hubby Clarke Gayford on the conception of their child.
Most of all, though, she walks the fine, delicate line in the middle of Left and Right. Perhaps the meanings of “L” and “R” are becoming indistinguishable from one another as her compassionate, people’s based approach to politics has appealed to both sides of the political spectrum. She is a true people’s Prime Minister and the 21st century exponent of Blair’s Third Way.
With her in charge, I have hope for the future of politics in the 2020s. Boris Johnson should take note…