Polity by Rob Salmond


In defence of the centre

The leadership election in UK Labour has crystalised into everyone else vs Jeremy Corbyn’s fearless jump to the left. This has led some commentators to ask whether the old political orthodoxy of “move to the middle” is, long term, a death-knell for left-leaning parties. Here’s George Monbiot in the Guardian:

Across three decades New Labour strategists have overlooked a crucial reality: politicians reinforce the values they espouse. The harder you try to win by adopting your opponents’ values, the more you legitimise and promote them, making your task – and that of your successors – more difficult.

Monbiot says Tony Blair’s three election victories, won with a strategy of pursuing the centre, were actually harbingers of a long period in the wilderness, as the Blair-era hardened centre-right attitudes across the UK. There is at least a little recent academic research supporting this conclusion, too:

Voter surveys from Germany, Sweden, and Britain show us that although uncommitted centrists initially respond favorably to Social Democratic moderation, these voters don’t stay with centrist Social Democratic parties for long and the moves to the middle also increase abstentions and defections from formerly core Social Democratic voters.

This idea is taking hold most strongly in UK Labour, with Corybn’s impending landslide, but it also has some following in the US, with hard left alternative Benrie Sanders of Vermont packing stadiums to provide a further left alternative to Hilary Clinton.

However, I’ve got three problems with this thesis. (For the record, these are my personal views only, not Labour’s views.)

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.

Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock lead the UK Labour party through seventeen years of Tory rule. It was bleak. Why did they keep losing for so long? Because under Foot the hard left got to run Labour’s policy, alienating Labour from the middle ground. And under Kinnock the hard left continued to battle prominently for policy influence, allowing Labours’ opponents to scaremonger successfully about what a vote for Labour really means.

How did UK Labour break out of this funk? Tony Blair.

And if you think that lesson, of declining centre-left fortunes when its narrative swings left, doesn’t apply for in modern New Zealand, here are two phrases you may find familiar: “Man ban.” “Sorry for being a man.”

Second, peoples’ votes are more malleable than their values. Monbiot says:

The task is to rebuild the party’s values, reclaim the democratic debate, pull the centre back towards the left and change – as Clement Attlee and Thatcher did in different ways – the soul of the nation.

The part where Monbiot is right is that the centre ground really is where elections are won and lost. (That statement is more controversial in New Zealand than it should be.) There are a ton of people there, and those peoples’ own identities are of being open to voting left or right. Below is a chart showing how New Zealanders perceive themselves, Labour, and National. Over a third see themselves as right of where they see Labour, and left of where they see National. That’s huge.

But “pulling the centre back towards the left” is massively, massively hard. You win those people over by being relevant to them as they are, not by telling them they’re worldview needs a rethink. It is just basic psychology. Tell people they were right all along; they like you. Tell people they were wrong all along; they don’t.

And if you win a majority of centrists, you win. The New Zealand Election Study series records six MMP elections in New Zealand – the three where Labour did best among centrists were the three Labour won.

That’s another message from the adacemic study I quoted above – in Germany, Sweden, and the UK, the elections where the left did best among centrists were the elections where they took power. As their popularity among centrists declined, so did their seat share.

Third, Monbiot conflates policy with competence:

Labour’s inability to provide a loud and proud alternative to Conservative policies explains why so much of its base switched to Ukip at the last election. Corbyn’s political clarity explains why the same people are flocking back to him.

Clarity is always a good quality in a politician. Saying what they’re for, and saying why they’re for it in simple, accessible language, are cornerstones of good political communication. But you can have clarity, and be competent, no matter where you stand on the ideological spectrum. “Clear” does not mean “extreme.”

Here are some of the best, clearest centre-left communicators in modern political history. Clinton and Obama in the US, Lange in New Zealand, Hawke and Keating in Australia, Blair in the UK. Clear communicators, all. Politically competent, all. Hard left? None.

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