At RNZ: How did we get here?

I was asked by Radio NZ to give my thoughts on the rather dramatic political events of yesterday – which I certainly was not expecting! Here’s a taste:

… those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, and Labour has spent nearly a decade doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The prevailing myth of Labour Party strategy since Clark has been that we (for I can’t deny I am, indeed, a Labour Party Insider) must “look like a party ready to govern”. And this has translated to buying into the proper, grown-up, governmental ways of doing things – promising endless reviews or well-costed schemes.

It doesn’t inspire people. It doesn’t feel like a real alternative. The proof of the pudding is in the polls.

Here’s the link to the whole thing.

The middle vs the centre

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.

cornel-west-thermostatThe 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.

I’ll drop identity politics when you present a solution

Life isn’t simple. Capitalism isn’t simple. And the ways we talk about oppression aren’t simple. Yet several times this week (this month, this year, this lifetime) I’ve seen concepts about identity and sexism and racism boiled down to practically nothing, by people who should know better.

Like trying to shut down a conversation about people of colour Anglicizing their names to succeed in white society – by co-opting trans activists’ arguments about name and identity. Forget the very real threat of violence or trauma which is posed by deadnaming trans people – it all boiled down to “it’s impolite”.

We don’t call trans people by their names because Miss Manners advised that it wasn’t proper. We do it because people’s lives are literally at stake.

Then there was this list presented as an exemplar of claims made by those of us on the left who stand for social justice issues.

Claims that doing yoga is impermissible cultural appropriation, arguments that we should drop phrases like “I see what you mean” because they’re ableist, the assumption that linking to Tweets constitutes violence but harassing and degrading people to the point of suicide is noble activism, filing Title IX claims against people for writing essays in major magazines, allowing your position to become synonymous with attacks on the right to free expression, claiming that you can fight capitalism and the state with hashtags — this is the behavior of a movement that cannot win. We cannot win that way.

Do some people say “all yoga is racist” or “all Twitter replies are abuse”? Probably. There are extremists, opportunists and downright silly people in every movement. And there are always people who don’t want to or can’t discuss these issues in a nuanced way.

But you know who else doesn’t get nuance? You on the left, who keep misrepresenting complex discussions about imperialism, commodification and global capitalism – when it applies to women or people of colour, at least – into “you’re ruining the left with your stupid over-sensitive demands.”

It’s bizarre to see otherwise intelligent/thoughtful/analytical people suddenly forgetting how to think. It’s like the spectre of “no white man can EVER criticise a black woman!” which gets raised every single time a white man is asked not to be horribly racist. There’s an absolute refusal to read past the headline and consider another perspective.

But let’s play that game. Let’s drop those trifling ~identity~ concerns like “is my labour undervalued because of my gender” or “am I at higher risk of physical violence because of how I look”. There’s a bigger failure here. Every time this “the left has lost its way because someone asked me not to be casually sexist at them” argument is raised, the lament is the same: we can’t win that way! We need to win!

And what’s missing, every time, is how you think we can win.

We hear a lot about finding out what people are comfortable with – meeting them where they are – but not what that actually entails in terms of strategy or tactics.

We hear that this approach won’t involve sacrificing our core principles – but never which principles you actually think are core.

I’m happy to talk about possible solutions, new strategies, different ways of doing things. I blog about Big Serious Sexy Material Politics all the time. But I don’t see new ideas coming from the complainers. I see a bunch of people in privileged positions whining that less-privileged people would like us to stop trampling them underfoot while we pursue The Great Leftwing Project.

I’m not stupid. I’m well aware that a lot of (but not all) political progress can only be made through electoral success. (Everyone is. Stop being a patronizing douche about it.) But the only suggestion I ever see from the centrists, from the white dudes, from the hand-wringing old guard, is: “shut up, you don’t understand that we just need to win, okay?” And then we keep chasing the centre and losing elections.

The way we’ve always done things isn’t working, chaps. So besides complaining about the fact it’s 2016 and the world has moved on from your comfort zone, what exactly do you propose doing?

You might want to talk about rebuilding the mass movement of the left. Let’s have a chat about that in tomorrow’s post.

Canada and the left

Like I said last time I blogged about the Canadian election, I’m no expert on Canadian politics. But I was a little leery of the perfect, “centrism works, see” scenario presented by Rob Salmond on Public Address. And yesterday’s column by Gordon Campbell (who I assume is far more qualified than me to comment!) seems to confirm my gut instinct.

Trudeau’s victory showed that by rejecting the cost cutting, budget-balancing mania, you can still win elections. One of the decisive moments of the campaign came when Trudeau said that, if elected, he would be willing to embrace modest budget deficits for the next four years and would use that leeway to build infrastructure, create jobs, and stimulate the economy. The sky did not fall in. …

Fatally, Mulcair chose instead to play the ‘ responsible’ card and committed the NDP to budget surpluses (for the foreseeable) as part of the NDP’s attempt to woo support from the political centre. This strategy only succeeded in painting the NDP into a corner right alongside the Conservatives. Suddenly the Liberals looked like the genuine party of change, and the only alternative to a stifling status quo. Mulcair’s Big Mistake – driven by the fear of looking like a loony lefty out of step with the neo-liberal orthodoxy – was the kind of ‘play it safe’ centrist politics that we’ve come to associate with the likes of Andrew Little and Grant Robertson –and increasingly, with the Greens. In reality, there’s not much future in a convergence on the centre that’s driven by fear of your own shadow.

I also quite like how Craig boiled it down:

(See, I do sometimes like what men say!)

The problem NZ Labour’s had with its centrist approach for the last few leaderships hasn’t really been about the position of their policy – however much I disagree with it. It’s been the uncertainty. The constant refrain of “well, we’d have to review that once we’re in government” or “let’s refer that to a Law Commission review” doesn’t give voters certainty.

I’ve said before:

A party cannot look competent when it’s unpredictable. And a party looks unpredictable when, instead of having well-advertised principles guiding its actions, it’s jumping all over the place trying to please everyone except its own supporters.

As with everything in New Zealand politics, there’s a John Key counterfactual: no one denies he’s extremely influenced by what polls well. You could argue he also jumps all over the place trying to please everyone. But he comes from a position of assumed credibility: he’s from the right, he’s a millionaire, he has great preferred-PM numbers. His shifting back and forth will always get portrayed as “responsive, reasonable government” in a way it simply will not when it’s coming from a leftwing opposition party in the low-30 polling doldrums.

I’m realistic. I know that I’m on the left, and extremely feminist, ends of the NZ Labour spectrum (spectra?). My party’s never going to have 100% policy I’m in love with. But it does need a strategy, to get a clear, undisputed message out to Kiwi voters: love us or hate us, you’re not going to feel “meh” about us.

And here’s your topical earworm for the day (language NSFW):

Who is the left’s Rodney Hide?

I had some thoughts on Rodney Hide’s latest column in the Herald on Sunday:

And they kept developing so I figured I had the makings of a blog post there!

Who’s the left’s Rodney Hide? I submit we don’t have one. Many people have equally-extreme leftwing views, but not a weekly column in the Herald on Sunday. Hide is a commentator – not a blogger. There’s a lot of authority in that distinction, and a lot more influence.

We have some great progressive commentators – like Michele A’Court, Dr Susan St John, Deborah Russell. They get some column space and a few TV spots. But they’re usually talking about real issues. (Shocking!) Rodney Hide talks in narratives. Like redefining the word “industrious” to mean “people with a lot of money”. Or reinforcing the idea that the only good thing is economic value, and the only proper frame for deciding what’s right and wrong is profit and loss.

He’s not discussing a real issue or a concrete policy. He’s tearing down a reverend who dared to say money isn’t everything, and people’s lives are more important than one man’s wealth. The rightwing narrative is so entrenched that we don’t even notice that he’s basically arguing against everything Jesus ever said.

There are staunch left commentators – like Helen Kelly and Robert Reid – who get op eds and panel seats on The Nation or Q&A. But they aren’t the equivalent of Rodney Hide, because they’re not actually extreme. They talk about fairness and decent working conditions, not, say, the immediate need for compulsory unionism and the renationalisation of all private property.

And some people who get to comment “from the left” are significantly to the right of Labour.

daenerys fire

Across the Anglo world, we’ve seen rightwing parties get into power and stay in power, despite passing harmful, often unpopular policies, because (in part) they’ve got a loud voice on their right making them look reasonable by comparison. The UK Tories have UKIP, National have ACT, the US Republicans have the Tea Party.

(They’ve also got a lot more money and convinced us all that economics is a hard science, but baby steps!)

The respective Labour/Democratic parties have chased the ever-moving-rightwards centre – conceding the basic argument that the economy is more important than people. Not only that, they’ve usually been the most vigorous opposers of their own left flank.

leo west wing what are you doing
This plays out every time Young Labour put forward a remit on, well, anything. Instead of rolling out MPs to say “no, that’s stupid”, these are opportunities for Labour to go “well it’s a bit extreme, but” then re-affirm its leftwing principles and announce a toned-down version as reasonable, progressive policy.

That is, do what National do when their right flank calls for total privatisation of state assets – “oh no, but what about selling off 49% of the shares in them?” – or a flat tax – “oh, that’s too far, but what about slashing the top rate?”

Expand the frame of available, credible opinions and declare yourself in the middle.

It may seem difficult in practice, because anyone from the left is automatically “less credible” than a taxpayer-rorting ex-MP like Rodney Hide. But our media are crying out for a drawcard, in this age of falling ad revenue and social media distractions. They want drama.

Look at the Goff vs Collins segment on Stuff: the idea (however well you think it’s executed) is to get a bit of argy-bargy going, post something which will simultaneously outrage the lefties and the righties, and voila: more eyeballs on product. Consider Radio NZ’s Panel, which gets a lot more buzz among the #nzpol blogosphere when it’s not Matthew Hooton vs Mike “I agree with Matthew” Williams. Want to get the left and the right tuning in? Have a real argument. That means having real differences of opinion.

gladiator entertained

I think there’s space for a few more staunch, out-there leftwing voices in our discourse. But there’s a final wrinkle: it only works if Labour wants it to. Only if we want to be the party which puts people first, and isn’t afraid of doing the right thing even when the high priests of the economy scream the sky will fall, which refuses to play the right’s game on their terms.

Find the right people. Put them up there. Shift the centre. Or it’s just going to be two more years of Rodney Hide making it easier and easier for National to get that fourth term.