So Andrew Little has won the leadership – by the narrowest possible margin – from Grant Robertson, and has already been depicted by commentators as being simultaneously (a) the creature of the trade unions and (b) the most centrist of the four candidates, which would be an interesting trick to see someone try in a game of Twister. The centrist tag was being applied to him as a compliment, and is MSM code for “not leftist”. Personally, I think it’s doubtful whether a lurch to the centre makes any sense at all – let alone any political sense – when applied to the Labour Party of late. Before people start booking a trip to Centreville for Andrew Little, we need to know more about who lives there these days, and what does that neighbourhood look like?
Much of the recent talk about centrism as the political sweet spot has been generated by this column from pollster Stephen Mills which demonstrated that National currently dominates the middle ground occupied by people who define themselves as “centrists.” I’m not impressed that this is a compelling argument for Little trying to “me, too” himself on the policy ground that National currently occupies. John Key is far more popular than the government he leads, and the other interesting factor in Mills’ polling data says as much:
Asked to define themselves on a 0-10 left to right scale based on degree of support or opposition for Government provision of services, the need for Governments to intervene in the economy and a progressive tax system, 30 per cent of New Zealanders were clearly left (0-3) on the scale; 42 per cent in the centre (4-6) and 25 per cent clearly right (7-10). As is often observed the centre is the battleground in New Zealand politics.
If the 42 per cent in the centre bloc are split up further 12 per cent go left ; 10 per cent go right and 20 per cent remain smack in the middle of the scale. That leaves 42 per cent on the left; 35 per cent on the right and 20 per cent dead centre.
So on that data, more people – including a fair chunk of those nominally in the “centre” – are actually on the left. We’ve known this for a long time, since the 1980s in fact. The electorate is well to the left of an asset sales/ privatization/low tax policy agenda, and there is no reward for Little in trying to outdo the National/Act axis on economic and social policy – in some foolhardy pursuit of ‘credibility’ as defined by the MSM. The fertile ground for Labour and its allies is to the left of that consensus. It lies in highlighting the unfair, unequal, opportunity-strangling outcomes of current policy – not simply between rich and poor, but across generations.
The political centre is not a place, it is a sensibility. Public sensibility, if not fickle, is amenable to a good argument that connects with reality. It’s not happyland out there. On current settings, many Gen X and millennial voters will still be paying off their student debt with their pensions, while they’re still living in rented accommodation and caring for their aged boomer parents, while the eco-system outside is collapsing. National are not only living in denial about those realities but are inducing voters to do likewise. Ultimately, voters may take very little convincing that their current Emperor has no clothes, and that they are being royally ripped off by a boomer elite that has (a) enjoyed every state largesse in their youth (b) denied the same to everyone else while (c) expecting to still be indulged right into their dotage.
Superficially, Little’s signalling that the capital gains tax policy was a mistake may seem to be heading in the opposite direction. It isn’t. Labour swiped that policy from the Greens without ever getting to grips with how it works, and were undone on the details. It needed to have prepared the ground. Labour needed to embed the underlying message – is it fair that wages get taxed with very few exemptions, when wealth derived by other means isn’t taxed at all? Only after it had got that message across would the solution – a fair and comprehensive capital gains tax – have had a chance of being embraced by voters.
In style, Little doubles down on some of David Shearer’s communication handicaps, but at least he doesn’t display David Cunliffe’s air of condescension. Basically, people don’t need to be told it’s a tough world, and don’t like being treated as victims or dupes. Yet in all likelihood, they don’t welcome the fact that they and their children and grandchildren are being denied even a fair chance to compete. (A good government doesn’t make life a Lotto for the few who can somehow beat the odds.) So, rather then trying to emulate the current economic settings – which will only serve to validate them – Little has to convey an alternative that’s worth fighting for, and relevant to people in the 20s and 30s who are coping with what this government is currently throwing at them.
On that front, the Gracinda duo – Robertson and Jacinda Ardern – have an obvious role to play in conveying the Labour message to younger voters, and if Robertson won’t take the deputy role, it should be offered to Ardern. David Cunliffe has become such a polarizing figure that his next role should probably be vis a vis the equally likeable Steven Joyce, not Bill English. Little himself should take the Finance shadow portfolio.
As Lew Stoddard pointed out a few days after the election, we now know who the core Labour vote is:
The demographic groups that kept Labour alive this election were women (6.6 points higher than men), Māori, and Pasifika, and the party would be insane not to recognise the debt that they owe these voters. Of 11 MPs in whose electorates Labour won the party vote, only one — David Clark — is Pākehā, and in his electorate of Dunedin North Labour got 24 votes more than National. Five (Williams, Mahuta, Sepuloni, Wall, and Whaitiri) are women…. Labour’s base as demonstrated by the 2014 election is comprised largely of working-class women, Māori, and Pasifika. So policy proposals that impact those groups more directly — parental leave, free healthcare, ECE, support for family violence services, social welfare — should not be neglected.
As Buchanan adds, it needn’t be an either/or choice. Both the base and the much-mytholigised centre ground will be motivated by the same concerns, and will be alienated by many of the same current policy settings:
Labour cannot afford to be caricatured as a party that only cares about those groups, it must be a party that a broad range of people feels like it could vote for — like the party understands their needs, and would act in their interests. The key is framing messages and policies in ways that speak to the base without alienating the broader public, and to the broader public without excluding the members of these base demographics groups, using separate channels and emphasis where necessary…
Easy peasy, right? It’s now up to Andrew Little to detoxify the Labour brand, and make Labour once again a party worth working for, and voting for.
Correction: An earlier version of this column attributed Lew Stoddard’s quote to Paul Buchanan.