There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about the “political centre” in the last week or so, particularly due to the fact that Andrew Little denied its existence, instead talking about the “middle”.
The thing is, he’s correct.
The notion is there’s a left/right continuum and people are smoothly spread across it in a kind of a bell curve. The implication is there’s a big chunk of voters out there who think the same way politically.
On this basis, the closer you move to the centre (being neither left nor right), the closer you get to that big peak of potential votes. Do the market research, find the sweet spot in the distribution, pitch to it incessantly and you’re home and hosed.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Very few people outside of the small niche of politically engaged types who read blogs or work in politics actually think about politics as left and right. Fewer still would place themselves on that spectrum and base all their political decisions on that position. Pitching to the “centre” starts to look a bit like a fool’s errand.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole series of shared values held by New Zealanders – a kind of “middle ground”. And my guess is that this is what Little is talking about when he makes the distinction between “middle” and “centre”.
The thing is, these shared values usually aren’t politically coherent in the left/right sense. Even in the more sophisticated two-axis left/right-liberal/authoritarian model. Two values held by the majority of the electorate (and simultaneously by many of the individuals in that majority) might be “we need less government” and “we need more law enforcement” or “we need lower taxes” and “we need to invest more in healthcare”. More often than not, voters will hold two or more middle values that significantly conflict on the basis of a left/right analysis.
Political theorist George Lakoff talks about these voters as “biconceptuals” – people who identify as conservative but have some progressive views (and vice versa). It has to be remembered that Lakoff operates in a two-party system and pays particular attention to how this idea manifests in relation to Republican vs Democratic politics. As he should – that’s his intellectual hunting ground. I’d argue that voters are more multiconceptual – the majority of us have a grab bag of political preferences that come from all areas of the political compass.
The great thing about New Zealanders is the majority of these identifiable “middle” values are progressive. We believe in increasing spend in healthcare, we think that corporates should pay more tax, we hold our environment dear, we want medicinal cannabis legalised, etc. Alternatively we also hold a few less-progressive views. We can be a bit insular, we don’t like beneficiaries (but we also don’t like poverty – go figure), we take far too much pride in our military escapades, we have/had a taste for tax-cuts (there’s strong evidence this is diminishing).
There are a whole lot of possible reasons for why a larger and larger part of the population (probably a majority now) in New Zealand are tending toward a multiconceptual view: political disengagement, more decentralised access to information, a lack of political education in schools, whatever. My personal theory is that market decentralisation has led to political decentralisation. We haven’t suddenly started consuming politics as if it were baked beans, but we expect to be able to choose organic baked beans, good old Watties (English or Kiwi), or the budget ones or whatever. And we expect to be able to eat them alongside a whole host of other choices too.
In effect, New Zealanders now expect to be able to personalise their political beliefs the same way we personalise most other aspects of our consumption – rather than slot into one position on a fixed spectrum and stay there.
The trick is to find the shared middle values that align with your core principles as a political party, or don’t strongly run against them, and play them up to the electorate. National understand that: it’s why John Key plays to “the centre” on a regular basis. But it’s not the centre he’s playing to, it’s a broadly shared value set that happens to be progressive. And it’s important to note that he never ever plays to a progressive value that cuts across his constituency’s interests – eg any policy that might seriously harm speculative investment in housing, any hint of drug liberalisation, any increase in work rights that might significantly tip the balance away from employers.
The best thing an effective opposition can do is map the middle values that the government can’t touch, such as deterring housing speculators, investing in health, or strengthening work rights, and play these up as much as possible to wedge the government against middle voters.
The worst thing an opposition can do is pick a middle value that runs against their core constituency and try to play to it because they mistake it for the “centre”. All that does is piss off your base and reinforce the values your opponent (or in an MMP environment – your competitor) can play to more strongly than you. It makes you look incoherent to all but the small part of the population that holds that particular value set plus one of your more progressive ones. It’s like deciding to market baked beans with dill pickles in them instead of those little sausages – there will be a tiny part of the market that thinks these are just the best baked beans ever, but the majority of people, even the majority of people who really like baked beans, and the majority who really like dill pickles, will just be like “WTF?”
Unfortunately, a lot of progressive parties confuse the middle – those (mostly) good shared values – and the centre – that stupid bell curve. That leads to looking incoherent, and it harms the good parts of your political product. My hope is Andrew Little’s rejection of the centre shows NZ Labour is starting to avoid that trap.