In defence of actually standing for something

Rob Salmond has a post up at Public Address, In defence of the centre, to which Mike Smith has written a response at The Standard.

It’s an argument I’m a bit tired of, really, because it feels like NZ Labour has been having this argument since 2008, without actually paying attention to the empirical evidence happening all around us. But hey, let’s get a scary leftwing feminist’s voice in the mix.

To sum up my personal objections to Rob’s own objections to Monbiot (down the rabbithole we go):

First, they don’t consider the alternative. How have centre-left parties gone when they’ve tacked away from the centre? It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it goes badly.

This assumes that in every case Rob cites, “tacking away from the centre” was the decisive factor. That over-simplifies the issues, as the comment thread at PA shows. Leadership, specific policies, economic factors, actual-freaking wars, all play a role in electoral success and failure.

Second, peoples’ votes are more malleable than their values.

The data Rob uses is is based on people self-labelling their position on the left-right spectrum.But being “more left than Labour” and “more right than National” are hardly objective measurements.

The assumption is that the “I’m in between Labour and National” group are making an academic assessment of their place on the political spectrum and the comparative left-wing-ness and right-wing-ness of Labour and National. The conclusion is that there’s some policy-related “ground” in between the two parties which can be “claimed”.

But “in between Labour and National” isn’t a fixed point on a map. “Labour” and “National” aren’t even fixed points on a map.

So if there is a concrete “centre ground”, I don’t think anyone really knows what it looks like. It becomes “not too left” and “not too right” – another set of meaningless labels.

Third, Monbiot conflates policy with competence … Clarity is always a good quality in a politician. But you can have clarity, and be competent, no matter where you stand on the ideological spectrum. “Clear” does not mean “extreme.”

Two objections: “not centrist” =/= “extreme”, and “centrist” usually does mean “not clear.”

First: remember when David Cunliffe appointed Matt McCarten as Chief of Staff? The immediate meme, repeated in way too many headlines, was “Labour veers hard left.” The source of that meme? Cameron bloody Slater. Labelling our opponents as “too extreme” to discredit them is a shabby tactic. Let’s not.

Second: there’s a group of questions which crops up at The Standard every so often, usually right before elections when the base are arguing just how leftwing/centrist/rightwing the present Labour leader is.

  • Do they support a living wage?
  • Do they support a 40-hour working week with mandatory overtime rates?
  • Do they believe benefits should be paid at a liveable level?
  • Do they support truly free education, including or not-including tertiary education?
  • Free healthcare?
  • State housing?

These aren’t “centre-left” ideas. They’re not “extreme” either. UMR’s 2015 Mood of the Nation report notes (p20):

Since the global financial crisis in 2008, the economy and employment have dominated responses to the question on what is the most important issue facing New Zealand today.

In 2014 poverty and inequality issues took over.

This obviously did not stop the re-election of the National-led Government but the agenda is shifting.

Concern about poverty and inequality issues began to rise in 2011 and became the number one issue in January 2014.

All of those traditional Labour principles above are part of the solution to inequality.  So why did New Zealanders’ increased concern not translate into a victory in either 2011 or 2014?

Because Labour was, and in some ways remains, trying to pursue “the centre”, defined as “not too scary and leftwing”, at a time when New Zealanders’ concerns are leftwing concerns. Money, inequality, class and work.

It’s difficult to clearly communicate a paradox.

For Goff, for Shearer, and ultimately for Cunliffe, those questions above were unanswerable. You could go through reams of policy and say “these kind of align with those ideas” but that’s not the same thing as standing up and saying:

“No one should have to work more than 40 hours a week to feed their kids. Everyone has the right to the absolute basics – a warm, safe home, a social life, time off with the kids, good food on the table, good shoes on their feet. Going to the doctor when they’re ill and getting a good education at the school down the road.

Many people can’t find work, or enough work to pay the bills. When people can’t find work because the jobs aren’t there, when people cannot work because they’re sick or injured or are raising babies or taking care of their parents or grandparents, we have a duty as a community to support them, not make them go hungry and live in mould-ridden housing as a punishment for their circumstances.”

Instead, we’ve had three electoral cycles of: “Everyone should get a living wage but I won’t actually legislate for it because I support small businesses, but they should definitely try to pay a living wage and I’d pay it to government employees, maybe contractors, depending on the financial circumstances.”

And: “I support people who can’t find work which is all National’s fault but also everyone has a responsibility to find work if they can because bludgers are a blight on our society but we must help the poorest except the ones who can paint roofs because if you can paint a roof you can’t be really sick I reckon.”

My examples may be just as cherry-picked and oversimplified as Rob’s, but this is fundamentally my problem with “centrism” or “centre-left politics” as it has been practised by NZ Labour since 2008: it cannot clearly tell voters what it stands for. Because it doesn’t seem to stand for anything.

It’s been tried. It’s failed. Let’s try something new.

stop trying to make the centre happen

4 Replies to “In defence of actually standing for something”

  1. Great post. It was Rob Salmond claiming Corbyn is hard left that really alarmed me. That indicates Rob’s idea of the centre is what I would call right wing.
    IMO Labour was seen by many voters in the last 2 elections as “not much different to National so may as well stick with what we know”.
    Labour needs to espousing left wing policies and values if it wants to seen as a viable alternative to National.

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