In the weeks leading up to the election, we heard from Jacinda Ardern time and time again that she was seeking a strong mandate from voters. But a mandate for what exactly? And just what is a mandate anyway?
Labour has secured the right to govern alone. The implementation of its policy agenda does not rely on the Greens and the handbrake in the form of New Zealand First no longer exists. This means Labour can enact the policies they campaigned on without having to make concessions to another party.
This brings us to Labour’s campaign platform. It’s difficult to identify exactly what key policies on which the party stood for re-election this year. This was not the case in 2017 where free tertiary education, KiwiBuild, light rail to Auckland Airport, reducing child poverty and homelessness, and cleaning our waterways all featured.
This year, Labour broadly campaigned on stable government and a plan for the economy post-Covid. There was also a promise to tweak the tax rate for the highest income earners and for RMA reform. Beyond that, it’s fair to say there was nothing radical or transformational in Labour’s 2020 election platform.
In fact, we heard more about what they weren’t going to do (and that’s implement a wealth tax).
With that in mind, what is Labour’s mandate?
The political concept of a “mandate” is contested. There is limited agreement as to how a mandate is defined or the extent to which it has binding moral force.
For the party who has won power, however, saying it has a mandate gives democratic legitimacy to its program. It has gone to the country, put X, Y and Z before the voters, been given their vote and, as a result, has a mandate from the people to do those things. Most people agree that this falls squarely within the meaning of a mandate.
In Labour’s case, the question is whether, in this sense of the word, it has the moral authority to implement an agenda it didn’t campaign on. And if not, then what?
Jacinda Ardern’s claims her party has won a “mandate to accelerate.” If the Prime Minister is referring to policies such as light rail, which failed to progress in the previous term, a legitimate argument could be made for the existence of a mandate to accelerate it. It has always remained Labour Party policy, and it won’t be hindered by the handbrake this term.
Beyond that, does the newly elected Government have a mandate to implement radical and transformation change? Or has the electorate actually voted in favour of the status quo? My guess is that it probably doesn’t matter.
Some will want Labour to use its mandate to shift hard to the left. But Ardern, like John Key before her, probably knows that it is in her interests to hold the centre – in particular, those National voters who have jumped ship. So, regardless of the extent to which Labour has a legitimate mandate to effect significant change, it’s difficult to see her risking the political capital she has won to use it. However disappointing that may be.