The Dim-Post

August 14, 2012

More armchair strategising

Filed under: Politics,polls — danylmc @ 1:34 pm

Rob Salmond responds to the attacks on Labour’s centrist strategy by taking a look at the data from the New Zealand Election study surveys:

The results are public up to 2008, and have been pretty consistent. There is never an absolute majority of either left wingers or right wingers, usually not even close, and the proportion of people who say they are perfectly centrist (5 on the scale), is around 25-30%. That is a huge bloc of voters perched right in the middle. Ideology in New Zealand is a bell curve, and a steep one at that.

Given this distribution of voter ideologies, it does not take a statistician to figure out that the left needs to do well with centrist voters in order to win. Same for the right.

I don’t think relying on people’s self-assessment of their political ideology is very valid. Most people consider themselves to be reasonable and moderate. Take a look at the political self-assessment distribution from 2008.

So you look at that and conclude ‘New Zealand is a center-right nation’, right? If you want to get elected you need to pivot to the right, right?

Not really. Respondents to the NZES survey are asked a variety of questions, and you can pick and choose which ones are most representative of true political ideology, but I’d argue that the question:

ONE represents the view that the government should reduce taxes and people should pay
more for their own health and education, and SEVEN the view that there should be a tax
increase so the government can spend more money on health and education. Where would
you place your view?

Gets to the heart of the left-right value debate. And here are the results for 1999 and 2008.

Still a bell-curve, but now strongly skewed to the values of the left – although far less left in 2008 than it was nine years earlier. And you could argue about why that is, but my hypothesis is that the National Party is really good at advocating for its core values. They didn’t look at this chart and think, ‘well, we need to win the center so let’s endorse Labour’s policies of taxation and state spending because they’re popular with voters’, they thought ‘we need to get out and make the case for a low tax economy with less government, because that’s what we believe in.’

Which takes us back to Shearer and his roof-painting sickness beneficiary. Sure, in the NZES survey the majority of voter opinion is bearish towards beneficiaries but that doesn’t mean left-wing parties need to concede the debate on that subject to the right. The numbers on public opinion do move, but they don’t do so by themselves.

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41 Comments »

  1. “…the National Party is really good at advocating for its core values…”

    Or to turn that around, the rump of rogernomes and their political advisors who dominate the Labour caucus don’t actually believe in the Labour parties core values (i.e. socialism) so they do a shit job at advocating for something they don’t believe in anyway.

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 14, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

  2. And four years on the graph will look different. There’s less money around and people are feeling more selfish.

    “I don’t think relying on people’s self-assessment of their political ideology is very valid.”

    No. Everybody is in the centre because we have a healthy democracy. Our political parties fight hard to make that middle bar high.

    Comment by Will — August 14, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

  3. I think you are flat wrong about this part: “[National] didn’t look at this chart and think, ‘well, we need to win the center so let’s endorse Labour’s policies of taxation and state spending because they’re popular with voters’…” That is exactly what National did in 2008 when it pledged belated dead-rat support for large government spending programmes that it hates (WfF, interest free student loans), increasing the size of government and therefore the necessary tax rates as a result.

    On your other point, yes public opinion does swing around from issue to issue, and is more favoruable for the left on “tax vs public services” than on “ideology,” but in most major cases it is still a bell curve with a big spike in the middle, as you note, meaning that both the left and right parliamentary blocs need significant centrist support in order to govern. So we can argue about which metric is better, but in this case the different metrics lead to the same conclusion.

    Also, I hardly think that acknowledging there might be non-zero abuse of the benefit system represents “conceding the debate to the right.” That seems a little alarmist, no?

    Comment by Rob Salmond — August 14, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

  4. Oh no you di’int

    Comment by King Kong — August 14, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

  5. “National Party is really good at advocating for its core values. They didn’t look at this chart and think, ‘well, we need to win the center so let’s endorse Labour’s policies of taxation and state spending because they’re popular with voters’, they thought ‘we need to get out and make the case for a low tax economy with less government, because that’s what we believe in.”

    Uh? National appeared to move to the centre substantially in 2008. The adopted many flagship polices they deeply hated like interest free student loans, working for families. They campaigned on limited state sector reform, and capping the public service. The same thing happened in healthcare. This past few years they have be specialists at reform by stealth. I think they realise their core values are plain awful to most people and have actively campaigned to hide them. The same thing was true of UK Tories where they campaigned as party of the NHS!
    This helped create trouble for Labour at last election as people trusted National with health and education, and the mess they had been secretly making was still hidden from view.

    Comment by Luke C — August 14, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

  6. The difference between the left and the right: the left understand that healthcare is not affordable for everyone, so they therefore (rightly) raise taxes so that everyone can have a decent standard of healthcare, which really is a human right in western countries these days anyway.

    Comment by Daniel Lang — August 14, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

  7. Also, I hardly think that acknowledging there might be non-zero abuse of the benefit system represents “conceding the debate to the right.” That seems a little alarmist, no?

    And that take seems disingenuous. Shearer opened a speech with an anecdote about a benefit bludger, and it was a tactic to try and provoke a reaction and get on the news with headlines like ‘Labour leaders sparks controversy with tough new stand on beneficiaries.’ It didn’t work, because the caucus is rubbish, but it was an attempt to troll the left by adopting the rhetoric of the right.

    Comment by danylmc — August 14, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

  8. It was a misplaced anecdote, devoid of any real point because “roof painting” is working. I know a lot of beneficiaries that volunteer their time and they work some of the time to top up their benefit. That scenario seems to be in the same category as the guy painting his roof. You do what you can to get by.

    Comment by Daniel Lang — August 14, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

  9. Rob Salmond’s analysis is an interesting academic exercise, but irrelevant to NZ Labour’s problems.

    The problem is not that a leftish message should be a centre/right message, to attract more voters. It is that both messages lack credibility, because the messengers have not changed. Except for the lead messenger, who is hopeless at communicating any message at all.

    Voters did not sit down and think “Ooh, that Phil Goff is saying the things I want to hear.” They thought “He seems to be saying something different from before, which was different from the thing before that.” So the message didn’t ring true.

    One way to address this problem, post-2011, was to have a new guy who hasn’t said anything before at all. Labour got one. Unfortunately he promptly turned to the very same people for advice about what he should be saying. And now they’re saying … well, nothing anybody can understand really.

    Sliding along the left/centre/right scale really isn’t the issue. Either genuinely believe something, or (hat-tip Hollywood) convincingly fake sincerity about your beliefs. The current Labour leadership seems incapable of either.

    Comment by sammy 2.0 — August 14, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

  10. now strongly skewed to the values of the left – although far less left in 2008 than it was nine years earlier.

    Also far less to the right that in 2008 that it was nine years earlier.

    Comment by pete — August 14, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

  11. And Rob is just plain wrong about the dead rats.

    Key’s message (go back and check his comments from 2007-8) was, in effect “We’re stuck with these financial commitments. We don’t like interest-free student loans, WFF etc but we’ll have to keep them … for now at least.”

    The very term “dead rats” spells this out. It’s a change that’s happened, not a change you like or promote.

    The equivalent of a Labour “dead rat” would be what Clark/Cullen did in the late ’90′s, accepting the Richardson/Shipley cuts, not reversing them.

    Shearer’s message (coded and unexplained, so we have to interpret) is that welfare “reform” (bennie-bashing) is a GOOD thing. He wants to appeal to prejudices, not reluctantly sign up to a fait accompli.

    Honestly Rob, if you don’t see the clear difference, you really don’t get it at all. Have you been advising David Shearer?

    Comment by sammy 2.0 — August 14, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

  12. @Danyl #6: Caucus issues aside, what is wrong with an opposition leader phrasing some true statements provocatively so that they get covered? Isn’t that a pretty big part his job at this point in the cycle?

    Comment by Rob Salmond — August 14, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

  13. “Unfortunately he promptly turned to the very same people for advice about what he should be saying.”

    Exactly. Who are these fools, and who in Labour is doing anything about them?

    Comment by Sacha — August 14, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

  14. @Sammy #11: I do not think your interpretation of Shearer’s speech is at all correct. Labour does not think the particular current welfare reforms are GOOD, as various Labour folk have made plain over recent months. Shearer simply acknowledges that the welfare system is sometimes abused, and part of the duty of any government is to guard against that kind of abuse. Exactly what the est way to address that problem is an issue for another day, but first up we have to size up the problem. I do not get why some on the left have a hard time accepting that.

    Comment by Rob Salmond — August 14, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

  15. what is wrong with an opposition leader phrasing some true statements provocatively so that they get covered?

    Because the right’s strategy is to emphasise the small number of welfare system abuses, and then use that narrative to justify attacks on beneficiaries in general. Shearer is adding to that narrative, which misleads the public into thinking the problem is bigger than it really is.

    Comment by pete — August 14, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

  16. I do not get why some on the left have a hard time accepting that.

    It’s down to history. There’s still some (totally understandable) paranoia on the left about the possibility of the labour leadership being hijacked by the far-right. Combine that with the fact that many on the far-right (Farrar, O’Sullivan, Hooton) endorsed Shearer, and it makes people REALLY uncomfortable when he adopts the rhetoric of right-wing politicians.

    Labour is a party with some unfortunate history and a very unhappy membership, and its leaders and strategists can’t just ignore that.

    Comment by danylmc — August 14, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

  17. “Shearer simply acknowledges that the welfare system is sometimes abused.”

    Other true statements …

    “Some Chinese immigrants don’t speak English.”
    “Some gay men have mental health issues”
    “Some Pacific Islanders end up in jail”

    Why doesn’t the Labour leader say so in a keynote speech? You need me to draw you a picture here? You get how politics and the media works, right?

    Comment by sammy 2.0 — August 14, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

  18. Shearer simply acknowledges that the welfare system is sometimes abused, and part of the duty of any government is to guard against that kind of abuse.

    Maybe I’m being picky but I thought it was Brendan Boyle’s job to do this.

    Isn’t Shearer’s job as LotO to make the case for the next government to be Labour led with him at the helm?

    He is in effect validating the perennial National pitch that Labour has been ‘soft on bludgers / party of the bennies’ by coming out contra.
    Attempting to out-national National seems counterproductive as the public mood slowly but surely shifts away from the right heading into 2014.

    Comment by Gregor W — August 14, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

  19. “He is in effect validating the perennial National pitch”

    That’s the problem with letting your opponents define the ground for you, yes. Strategic muppetry.

    Comment by Sacha — August 14, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

  20. # 17, 18 & 19: by invoking the ‘bludger on a roof’ anecdote, Shearer is falling into the trap of playing the me-too card and allowing Paula Bennett to set the agenda on ‘welfare reform’ – one of the intended outcomes of dog-whistling. If there are dog whistles that need to be blown, I can think of a few, like tax evasion, the prospect of Wall Street hiking up electricity prices, corporate welfare, and above all, ‘socialism for the rich’.

    Comment by DeepRed — August 14, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

  21. Furthermore, is the Lange-Douglas split reanimating (Left vs Right), or is it just a classic example of Peoples Front of Judeaism (Left vs Left)?

    Comment by DeepRed — August 14, 2012 @ 4:49 pm

  22. “what is wrong with an opposition leader phrasing some true statements provocatively so that they get covered? ”

    In this case, the government trades on the idea that laziness and abuse explain why we have so many people on a benefit rather than their economic policy. True statements that accept that narrative without tweaking it in a way that’s favourable to the opposition are not good ones to use.

    Comment by Stephen J — August 14, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

  23. Does this not just take us into a debate about the factors that change political culture? People have expressed concerns to me that the anecdote David S used in his speech to Greypower unhelpfully buys into conservative framing. I can see why people think that, but I do not think that was what the speech was for. On the bigger issue of where voters sit politically, to me the debate is about whether there’s a necessary conflict between pitching at people who currently support National and those who currently don’t vote.

    Overall the bigger task for Labour, rather than these things, is being united and credible and positive. People aren’t going to vote for us at all if they don’t think we are up to the job. We’ve made some progress on that front. We need to make more.

    Comment by Jordan Carter — August 14, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

  24. True statements, Rob. Perhaps Shearer could find an anecdote to encapsulate that rampant voter fraud problem in the USA?

    Comment by Sheesh — August 14, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

  25. Perhaps a more appropriate thing for Shearer to have done would be to have a bet each way, by saying something like “social welfare is a two-way street”. That way, it would have acknowledged the issue of welfare abuse, while at the same time still appealing to core values and not pandering to the dog-whistle.

    Comment by DeepRed — August 14, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

  26. There’s solid (by political science standards) evidence suggesting that people don’t necessarily vote for the party or candidate “closest” to them ideologically. That doesn’t mean that Labour should get Matt McCarten to write their manifesto, but it suggests that positioning the party as National minus epsilon is less useful than signalling to malleable centrists that Labour has some cool policies they might like. Labour has pretty much sucked at this signalling since Clark bailed.

    Comment by bradluen — August 14, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

  27. On this graph, ACT should easily get 6% + in any election. But it doesn’t because it is terrible at being a political party.

    Comment by Nick K — August 14, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

  28. “I don’t think relying on people’s self-assessment of their political ideology is very valid. Most people consider themselves to be reasonable and moderate.”

    Quoted for humour

    Comment by Hugh — August 14, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

  29. “It was a misplaced anecdote, devoid of any real point because “roof painting” is working. I know a lot of beneficiaries that volunteer their time and they work some of the time to top up their benefit. That scenario seems to be in the same category as the guy painting his roof. You do what you can to get by.”

    Um, what? You saying fraud is cool if it’s what you gotta do to get by? Come on sort it out. And as for you comment about the difference between the left and the right, go read a newspaper once in a while.

    Comment by Swan — August 14, 2012 @ 9:54 pm

  30. “Um, what? You saying fraud is cool if it’s what you gotta do to get by?”

    It’s not benefit fraud to paint your own roof any more than it is to mow your own lawn or cook your own dinner, or look after your own kids. Things have to get done, and doing them yourself when you’re unemployed, with no money, makes sense. This was the most stupid guy ever to get down on. What evidence was there that he wasn’t seeking work actively, just doing it at times that weren’t during the best part of the day to paint a roof? He might have been sending resumes on his computer all night. There may just not be much work available in his field of work, and he had all the interviews that there were to get already lined up.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — August 14, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

  31. I do not get why some on the left have a hard time accepting that.

    Because it’s clearly not that simple. Politicians spend hours working on speeches and the delivery, carefully choosing exactly what examples they think will strike chords. The chords in this example are “Get down on the guy who has got no job, for doing some work on his house”. Because everyone knows that beneficiaries are meant to live in fucked up unpainted houses, with unkempt gardens, and spend every day going door to door begging for jobs. That’s way, way better for their character than, for example, applying for the jobs they are most likely to get, that they are trained for, which will give them and the tax man the most money, and won’t take a job away from someone with no skills, and while waiting for interviews, getting on with their lives, doing practical things that need doing. I’d have thought anyone, with any experience at all of work insecurity, would have got this.

    Which makes me think that Labour really have completely lost touch with both working people and the unemployed, and really are seeing the world through the prism of the upper classes, for whom the idea of painting the house is absurd. You pay people to paint houses, don’t you? And the other things I mentioned above too – cooking, mowing, childcare. These are jobs, and thus the doing of them is working for oneself and ripping off the benefit if you’re on one. They really don’t get that a lot of people don’t have enough money for that and don’t accept that they therefore have to do without those things being done at all.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — August 14, 2012 @ 11:03 pm

  32. Thanks, Ben. The speech talked about sickness benefit (which for many in his audiences means not being able to do anything at all, despite the many reasons people qualify for it). However I reckon you’re right about the broader implied narrative.

    If Shearer has the balls to more overtly put the boot into beneficiaries to summon up some votes I’ll at least have some respect for his upfrontness if not the smartness of his ‘strategic’ advisors. And if he’s not willing to fire their asses instead then perhaps he can stop talking about the noble foreign poor scrabbling for his mango skins.

    Comment by Sacha — August 14, 2012 @ 11:28 pm

  33. That does put a different complexion on it. But not enough to make it OK to bust his chops. Being able to do full time work and being able to paint a roof under your own direction, at your own speed, stopping when you need to, aren’t identical.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — August 15, 2012 @ 12:04 am

  34. Surely the main difference between 1999 and 2008 is that by 2008 the government had (at least in perception) already raised taxes to have more to spend on health and education. So plenty of people who in 1999 would have said, yes, raise taxes to pay for these things, would have in 2008 said that things are about right now. Very few people think that raising or lowering taxes is a good thing in every circumstance.

    Comment by helenalex — August 15, 2012 @ 9:34 am

  35. I reckon DeepRed has it @ 25: “social welfare is a two-way street”.
    A problem (?) for Nat & Lab are that most Nzers would be uncomfortable dismantling the welfare system. After all, one of us or our familiy members may have a genuine need to rely on it one day.
    So couldn’t Lab lead the narrative, by discussing the problems one encounters getting off a benefit, mainly the high effective marginal rate of tax? We’ve set up the system so that beneficiaries can’t take up the opportunity of accepting casual work that may come their way. Yet we know that almost nothing is better for one’s self-worth than having work. But if you are constantly in fear of losing your access to a benefit, then you become withdrawn, bitter, hopeless. What can’t these fucktard champagne socialists start thinking about this? They are still fighting class wars that are all but lost, playing identity politics. Worrying about the rainbows, while ordinary kiwis are hurting and resentful. So (subject to what has gone to the greens) Lab has left* to it, only the votes of the tribalist/classists, some gays, the multiculturalists, public servants, unionists. Because the ordinary kiwis who are worried about their access to support (should they lose their job, their partner, their right arm), either vote for National, hoping that trickle-down will work and that there’ll be jobs available for them, or simply don’t vote, because no party “gets” their concerns. (*Yeah, I pulled these “statistics” from my arse, but since I’m not, nor ever have been, a Lab supporter, I don’t really care. Except that, by not sorting their shit out, we get beneficiary bashing as the norm. And for every bene fraudster we know, we know at least 3 genuine cases, and those people feel afraid, disenfranchised. What a way for people to feel, in their own country.)
    I know: to expect the crowd show at Lab to be up to this is risible, but perhaps if they put their mind to it? Unfortunately, I think folk like Sanc are right: the current shower are too fond of the rewards of the jobs rather than the public service aspect. They find it easier to pay lip-service to the old rules (and stay out of power) rather than put some effort into redefining the rules. Sanc won’t quite agree: he seems to be a class-warrior of old, to whom “Capitalism” means some fat white guy abusing the female staff and eating small babies. Instead, he should realise that, in this modern world, your mum the florist is a capitalist; your dad the mobile car groomer is a capitalist; your sister the app designer is a capitalist. (But apologies if I misunderestimate you.)

    Comment by Clunking Fist — August 15, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

  36. Rob

    Not only is he cutting off his nose to save his face, he’s losing both because now Labour are becoming almost as disconnected from mainstream society as National. He’s doing a John Key: saying that it’s not right for him (the roof painter) to be staying home all day and painting his roof (or volunteering time for charitable causes, or raising children, or working only seasonally to boost his income), and yet he is not stating what will help this guy to get work. He’s NOT saying that Labour will create long-term permanent jobs; he’s NOT saying that Labour will reverse the segregational aspects of receiving benefits that have been put through by National; he’s NOT, therefore, doing his job, is the essence of it.

    Comment by Daniel Lang — August 15, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

  37. Clunking Fist

    You and Deep Red are absolutely right. There’s far too many problems that people encounter when they are coming off a benefit.

    There’s plenty of courses for people while they are on a benefit (and this causes conflict with looking fo work at times); there’s programmes available where the Government will pay your employer 70% of your income for the first six months, which is good, however:

    1. It is exploited by tin-pot companies and shoddy businesses that should not actually receive help with paying staff because they may have fallen foul at the same time with health and safety authorities, for example

    2. This 70% should not be paid, initially, by the Government in cases where only a short-term contract has been entered into. If the person in question is offered a three month trial or a six month trial or a permanent job after this short-term contract (less than a month), THEN, and only then should the Government provide the employer with 70% of the employees’ wages

    3. In cases where beneficiaries accept short-term contracts and have genuine sick days and provide WINZ and the employer with a Medical Certificate, they should be paid a fair portion of their usual benefit for the days they had off sick. None of this $100 food grant deal for two weeks of lost income.

    Comment by Daniel Lang — August 15, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

  38. Yet we know that almost nothing is better for one’s self-worth than having work. But if you are constantly in fear of losing your access to a benefit, then you become withdrawn, bitter, hopeless.

    I don’t think we “know” that. Slaves have nothing but work, but may lack a sense of self-worth, and plenty of idle people think a great deal of themselves, if their needs are met and society doesn’t rag on them. Having been there very recently, I can say that the my declining sense of self-worth was less about having work to do (I had plenty of unpaid work, and several projects with endlessly delayed payoff) and far more about not having the means to support myself and my family. I know plenty of smug rich people who do fuck-all. I also know a *lot* of employed people who are extremely unhappy in their work, but too scared of unemployment to do much about it.

    But I agree totally that the fear of losing the benefit, and the enormous marginal tax that produces is a very damaging thing to people trying to get off benefits. It essentially criminalizes any sense of enterprise they have, other than to become a paid worker for someone else. The one thing they have in abundance, time, is the one thing they’re not allowed to use constructively. They’re not even allowed to get an education. It’s a stupid, stupid system. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s better than no system at all.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — August 15, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

  39. #35 & 38: “But if you are constantly in fear of losing your access to a benefit, then you become withdrawn, bitter, hopeless.”

    Which if left to foment, reaches its natural conclusion – something very fiery and straight out of Brixton in 1981, Los Angeles in 1992 or Tottenham in 2011.

    Comment by deepred — August 15, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

  40. I did not say that fraud was okay. I think it is clear to everyone else that the point I was trying to make was that some people look hard for a permanent job and cannot find one that is suitable to their needs and so they work seasonally and are lambasted for it, and that’s just not right.

    You know, there is a difference between the left and the right. Labour brought in the state housing scheme, the student loan scheme, affordable healthcare for those on low incomes, etc. Just because the difference in this current economic climate between the left and the right has lessened, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t differences – just that at the current time, you have to look a bit below the surface to understand them (I don’t know if you personally are able to put aside pointless rhetoric that is devoid of humour even, and rise above your narrow world view and suss out those difference, but you can sure try, and trying is what it’s all about).

    Comment by Dan — August 17, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

  41. Postscript:
    Volunteering your time for charity or taking on seasonal work is not fraudulent.

    Comment by Dan — August 17, 2012 @ 4:31 pm


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