The problems with labels

This post was inspired by yesterday’s, but that one was already getting long enough, so here we are; and in the meantime a similar point was canvassed by Swordfish in comments at The Standard, which then got published as a guest post. The relevant bit:

In reality, the vast majority of voters don’t think in any sort of coherent Left/Right terms. That’s why it’s notoriously unreliable when post-Election surveys ask respondents to place themselves on the Left/Right spectrum. All the more so when so many people think ‘centre’ means ‘normal’ and left and right = ‘extremes’.

And the fact is: UK polls over recent years suggest many of Corbyn’s key policy proposals actually have majority support. You wouldn’t know it from the outrageous rhetoric of shell-shocked Blairite Grandees, nor from the Establishment’s academic/intellectual enablers.

The funny thing about a lot of centrists is the way they talk a big game about rejecting left/right labels – they’re old-fashioned and outdated, let’s just do ~what works~. Yet as soon as someone unapologetically leftwing enters the fray, talking about bold, concrete policies to challenge the status quo, you can’t move for the cries of “too leftwing! Leftwing extremism!”.

The other funny thing is that I kind of agree. Leftwing/rightwing are fairly oldschool terms, which at their core are about economic policy (big government, little government, regulation, intervention, public spending) but have come to include, more or less comfortably, ideas about social justice, individual choice, rights and freedoms.

Like Swordfish said: the majority of people – who aren’t pols nerds like me, or anyone who regularly comments on a political blog – don’t have an academic analysis backing up their ideology. They don’t have ideology! Being philosophically political is an oddity in our society. Your “average” or “typical” voter doesn’t have the time nor inclination for it.

So, back to yesterday’s post: another issue with Rob Salmond’s citing of surveys wherein people are asked to describe themselves as “more left than Labour” etc, is that this assumes “how left Labour is” is a defined thing.

When you don’t even have a clear definition of “left”, how are you going to measure a political party – made up of 32 MPs with varying positions and principles, thousands of members with even more varying ideas of how things should be run, and hundreds of pages of policy documents – against it?

Plus, our media environment tends to highlight the ridiculous – the MPs who say outrageous things, the candidates who once wrote silly columns in a student paper, and policy reduced to soundbites. Many people’s perceptions of where Labour and National stand is influenced by that – not by the kind of in-depth analysis and criticism that pols nerds like me enjoy doing.

The data is simply bad. We don’t have a clear definition of “left” or “right”. We couldn’t nail down Labour or National or any political party to a single point on the spectrum even if we did. And the popular narrative of NZ political parties is that Labour’s about as left as you can be without being a radical Greenie and National’s about as right as you can be without being a radical ACToid.

Of course the majority of people are going say “I’m somewhere in the middle”! No one wants to be a scary fringe extremist.

So it’s a meaningless measure, an oversimplification pushed by people who really just don’t seem to like the idea or label of “being leftwing”.

Unsurprisingly that’s not something I have a problem with! If you asked me to define myself I’d say “definitely to the left of Labour” and I’d define “left” roughly in terms of social support, big government, public spending, taxing the hell out of the rich. It’s a label I’m proud to wear.

But this entire discussion is just too meta. Saying only “we’re leftwing, vote for us” or “we’re not leftwing, vote for us” won’t be a winning strategy under any circumstances. You have to stand for something real and tell it clearly. And as yesterday’s post outlined, my chief issue with the “centre” of NZ Labour is that I haven’t seen either from them.


Statement of the damn obvious: electoral support is a complex beast, and my two most recent posts haven’t addressed issues like leadership, appearance of competence, economic factors, shaping a media narrative (certainly there needs to be a strategy for dealing with the fact that “is this too leftwing” is question that will always come up), or policy formation. I only have so much time in the day!

One Reply to “The problems with labels”

  1. I reckon you will enjoy Chris Trotter’s post today. I did (and I haven’t said that often in recent years)

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