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about a lot of centrists is the way they talk a big game about rejecting left/right labels – they’re old-fashioned and outdated, let’s just do ~what works~.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!

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

QOTD: McFlock on the Iraq deployment

As highlighted by a moderator at The Standard:

So, to recap: John Key is sending soldiers (we can’t identify) into an area (roughly outlined) for a length of time (we’re not clear on) to train soldiers (whose loyalty we don’t know) to fight (alongside allies we don’t trust) an enemy (that is loosely defined) led by a person (whose name he doesn’t remember).

There are plenty of good, operational reasons to not publicize specifics of military deployments. But when it’s that vague? You know the wool’s getting pulled over someone’s eyes, and it’s probably ours.

Bingo time: being a killjoy feminist thought policewoman

A bingo board of responses to a one-word comment I made on The Standard yesterday, criticising someone’s “joke” about a cis woman’s appearance and comparing her to a trans woman.

(It isn’t nearly as pretty as Waitangi Bingo but I’m an amateur.)

misandry bingo

I especially like the Gerry Brownlee reference, since I’m often one of a very few people on that site who does actually say “let’s stop making fat jokes about Gerry Brownlee (or Paula Bennett, another favourite), there’s plenty of valid things to criticise him/her for.” I usually get much the same dismissive crap for my trouble.

The thing is, I’ve been doing this being-a-woman-who-has-opinions-online thing for a while. And I can already tell you that if I posted this bingo board at a site like The Standard, the responses to it would go along much the same lines, only with a few additions like, “But I never said I hated you for being a woman, so my comments can’t be sexist” or “It’s got nothing to do with the fact you’re a woman, it’s about the fact you’re a nagging/shrill/bitchy/catty/oversensitive/overemotional/PMSing cow.”