Polity by Rob Salmond


Meet the middle

Last week I did a post about Jeremy Corbyn, and the possible worldwide implications of his rise. There’s been plenty of reaction. At the risk of prolonging a PFJ / JPF situation, I’d like to pick up on some points people have made.


Around a third of New Zealand’s population are leftists. Same for right-wingers. But you need 50% of the vote to govern. Guess where the rest comes from? The middle.

There’s certainly a legitimate debate about how best to approach winning over the political centre. But any suggestions that elections can be won without doing well in the centre aren’t grounded in reality.

Rule 1 in politics is “learn to count.” 33 < 50.

Some think this idea – of appealing to the middle – is somehow new or untested. Stephanie Rodgers, for example, talks about it being Labour’s plan “since 2008.”

Starting narrowly, anyone who looks at Labour’s successful 2005 platform and sees anything other than an appeal to the centre is dreaming.

More broadly, this theory – the median voter theorem – has been one of the most dominant global ideas in political science and politics since at least 1948. While it applies at the party-level most directly in FPP electoral systems, its logic applies just as well at the coalition level in most PR environments, too.

There’s actually plenty of revisionism in this debate, I’m sure myself included. Some PA commenters were sure John Smith won UK Labour the 1997 election despite dying in 1994. And Mike Smith is certain NZ Labour’s supposedly sharp tack left won it the 1999 election, rather than, say, comically self-destructive opponents.


Chris Trotter made two points in his posts on this debate: first that centrists believe in nothing; and second that centrists are Nazis. Yes, seriously. I’m surprised at Chris. Everyone knows you can’t be a nihilist and a Nazi at the same time.

Chris is welcome to his self-parodies about Orwell and Hitler. It sure it a long way from his earlier suggestion that Labour chase “Waitakere Man”. It’s almost like 2015 Chris is calling 2010 Chris a sympathizer…

His one argument worthy of response was that centrists lack any political beliefs. Others made similar arguments, too. They’re wrong.

Chris and others suggests centrists aren’t actually in the middle, they just say they’re in the middle because of their confused psychology. But rule 2 in politics is “perception is reality.” That includes the perceptions of people you might not agree with. If they think they’re in the middle, then they are.

While centrists often do not have strongly held ideological views, they do have beliefs and values. They don’t wake up each morning waiting for ideologues to fill their empty heads with things to think. Centrists aren’t goldfish.


Percent agreeing…





Import controls?




More $ for health?








Dole = bludger?




The Table gives some responses from the 2011 NZES, by ideological group. It suggests:

-  Centrists think more like lefties on economic protections and public investment

-  But they think more like right-wingers on new taxes and welfare

That’s helpful to know. You’re more likely to win centrists’ votes if you emphasize the issues where you agree with them, and downplay the issues where you don’t.

It’s the old story of flies, honey, and vinegar.

“Being relevant,” however, doesn’t prevent “standing for something.” None of this is necessarily about changing policy. Labour needs proper social democratic policy in order to stay Labour. Instead it’s about – for want of a better word – “narrative.” And issue emphasis.

From the 2011 data above, if Labour had convinced the population that the most important problem facing New Zealand was lack of public investment, the left could have won. If the right convinces the public that the most important issue is avoiding new taxes, they do very well.


Danyl McLaughlin helpfully mused:

I think [Labour would] look for something new. And I don’t think it would be movement along the values spectrum. It would look, probably, like the data-driven grass-roots campaigning of Obama.

Good news! Data-driven, grass roots campaigning is exactly what Labour – and everybody else – is pursuing right now.

We’re learning more about every voter before we make contact, and talking with more voters ever before. Labour has made good progress in parts of this work, as I discuss elsewhere. In some areas, we lag behind National. In others, we’re in front.

But, as 2014 shows, you can have all the whizz-bang data and volunteers with phones you like – if people don’t like what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter.

Make your message relevant to those voters who’ll decide the outcome, and you’re a chance. Don’t, and you’re toast.

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