Labour leader Andrew Little has rejected a suggestion by his predecessor Helen Clark that parties on the left must “command the centre ground” to win elections, describing the suggestion as “a pretty hollow view”.
Little says he instead is focused on building “a coalition of constituencies” as he prepares for next year’s election.
Clark told TVNZ progressive parties like Labour could not be written off and had to “roll with the punches” despite poor results around the world in recent years.
“The truth is that the modern politics in democratic societies has become a bit like a consumer exercise. You try something; you try something else.”
However, they had to ensure they had the support of voters in the centre in order to succeed, she said.
“It’s possible and it’s necessary, because to win an election in New Zealand or probably any Western society, you must command the centre ground.
“You have your strong core of supporters, but you must get the centre ground voters, and I think I was successful in that for quite a lot of years.”
But Little said he didn’t think an analysis about the centre is at all helpful – “it’s meaningless”.
Yes, this was a dumb thing for Little to say, but I sympathise. Talking about ‘the left’ or ‘the centre’ is useful shorthand, but the ‘median voter theory’ or, as political scientists call it, the ‘uni-dimensional spatial theory’ of voter behavior is meaningless and has been discredited for several decades, although some pundits still seem attached to it. The Republican Party in the US didn’t win the 2014 mid-term elections by appealing to ‘the median voter’. Trump is competitive in the US race and he ain’t ‘moving to the centre’.
For intellectuals interested in values and policy the unidimensional model is important. You can pick your side – ‘the left’ or ‘the right’ – and decide that they’re the good guys, and the others are the bad guys, and convince yourself anyone voting for the bad guys is doing so out of bad intentions or false consciousness. But very few voters think about politics like this. They decide based on social identity, valence issues like competence, their mood, largely determined by economic factors but also influenced by retail politics: interactions with politicians and their supporters. I think of this as ‘The Good Look’ spectrum (based on the press gallery’s current favourite euphemism for when a politician does something illegal or evil or stupid, that it is ‘not a good look’) and it interacts with the left-right spectrum
On one hand, it feels like the Ideological Spectrum should be bounded by the Good-Look Spectrum: Move too far to an extreme on the x axis and it’s ‘not a good look’, while moving to the centre IS ‘a good look’. On the other hand: Trump.
But in NZ terms, when most voters move from Labour to National, ie from the bottom left quadrant to the top right quadrant it looks to an ideologue as if they’re moving from left to right. But voters just see themselves as moving from a less competent party to a more competent one. This is good news for the left in one sense: we don’t need to compromise our values to win voters! On the other hand, being more competent and organised than National over a long-enough timeline to win an election will be really very hard, much harder than just changing your policy platform and ‘moving to the centre’.