Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Good News For The Left!

About Bloody Time! In a recent newspaper article, Stephen Mills, Executive Director of UMR Research, spells out just how well placed the Left is to reverse its current difficulties. All they need are the right policies and the right leader. Piece of cake!
 
EVER SINCE THE DEBACLE of 20 September 2014, the New Zealand Left has been hanging out for some good news. Today, thanks to Stephen Mills, the Executive Director of UMR Research, it has finally got some.
 
UMR Research has for many years been the Labour Party’s principal polling agency, so Mills’ article, The Future For Labour, based on the findings of the agency’s latest “Omnibus Survey” (posted Monday, 10 November 2014, on the Stuff website) may well have been commissioned by its principal client.
 
No matter. Good news is good news whoever pays for it – and the results of UMR’s telephone “Omnibus Survey” are very good news indeed.
 
According to Mills: “Asked to define themselves on a 1-10 left to right scale based on degree of support or opposition for Government provision of services, the need for Government to intervene in the economy and a progressive tax system, 30 percent of New Zealanders were clearly left (0-3) on the scale; 42 percent in the centre (4-6) and 25 percent clearly right (7-10). As is often observed the centre is the battleground in New Zealand politics.”
 
Thirty percent, Comrades! Thirty percent! Nearly a third of the electorate self-identifies with the precepts of New Zealand-style social-democracy. (Those seeking the “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange” obviously constitute a much smaller subset of this larger group, although, if “socialisation” was ever properly explained to the voting public, who knows?)
 
But wait (as they say on the steak-knife commercials) there’s more! Mills and his fellow pollsters were not willing to stop at this broad-brush depiction of the electorate. They wanted to know a little more about these “Centre” voters. Suspecting that their respondents might be using the centrist designation as a safely neutral ideological haven, the pollsters pushed them just a little bit harder.
 
“If the 42 percent in the centre bloc are split up further”, notes Mills, “12 percent go left; 10 percent go right and 20 percent remain smack in the middle of the scale.”
 
That’s forty-two percent, Comrades! No wonder John Key, an inveterate poll-watcher, once conceded that most New Zealanders are socialists at heart. No wonder, too, that the National Party’s strategists are at such pains to abjure the notion that their policies cleave consistently to the Right. Without the support of that 20 percent in the middle of the scale, the National Party’s electoral prospects would be decidedly grim.
 
But, as Mills is quick to point out, there is currently no reason for National to be worried.
 
“The problem for Labour is that National is now both totally dominating the centre and winning more left votes than Labour and the Greens are winning right votes.”
 
John Key’s huge achievement as a conservative political leader has been to build out from the Right’s electorally weak position to encompass enough of what are, potentially, his political opponents to win three general elections on the trot. In the process he has driven the Left’s vote back towards its UMR-identified core of 30 percent.
 
Strategically-speaking, this tactical triumph is not without risk. As Mills notes: “Looked at another way National has moved further from its base than Labour.”
 
When Labour did this, back in the 1980s, the results were tactically spectacular but strategically disastrous. From a dizzying 47.96 percent of the popular vote in 1987 (the election in which Judith Tizard came within 407 votes of winning Remuera!) Labour would plummet, only three years later, to just 35.1 percent of the votes cast.
 
Looking back, the tactical successes racked-up by both parties over the past 30 years have depended hugely on two vital factors: a demonstrably superior party leader (Lange, Key) and the bold appropriation of some of their ideological opponent’s economic and social policies (Monetarism, Labour-Lite) which, for a short time at least, their governments gave every sign of understanding more thoroughly and implementing more effectively than their traditional sponsors. What is equally clear, however, is that such historically audacious forays into enemy territory cannot survive the loss of either the leader, or the economic and social conditions, which made such tactical audacity possible.
 
In other words, if something were to happen to Key, and/or the economic and social condition of the country was to suddenly deteriorate, National would find it very difficult to retain the support of the substantial plurality of centrist voters it currently enjoys, and would very soon be facing electoral defeat.
 
The precariousness of National’s electoral position is not the only good news contained in Mills’ article.
 
Both Labour and the Greens can also draw enormous reassurance from the clear evidence that New Zealanders ideological default position is still very solidly on the Left. Starting from a putative Centre-Left support-base of 42 percent, the two principal parties of the Left need only wrest back an additional 10 percentage points from National for electoral victory to be assured.
 
Labour, in particular, should be comforted by the fact that the UMR survey shows that a solid majority of Green Party supporters acknowledge Labour’s position as the dominant party on the left of New Zealand politics – at least for the foreseeable future.
 
Which leaves New Zealand’s oldest political party with just two vital tasks to accomplish.
 
The first is to find themselves a leader of the calibre, and who possesses the enormous cross-over appeal, of David Lange and John Key.
 
Is that person among the four candidates currently competing for the Labour Leadership? Personally, I’m doubtful. But, if Labour members were content to be guided by the logic of the UMR survey, then the choice would appear to lie between Grant Robertson and David Parker. Not because they best embody Labour’s core ideological values – they don’t – but because they undoubtedly represent Labour’s best shot at wooing and winning at least half of those crucial centrist votes.
 
As John key and Steven Joyce worked out long, long ago, this crucial fifth of the electorate contains neither the best nor the brightest of the New Zealand population. They are, for the most part, extremely lazy thinkers who draw practically all of their notions about domestic politics from the general tone of the news media’s coverage.
 
If the major media outlets’ (especially the television networks’) collective verdict vis-à-vis the Leader of the Opposition is consistently negative, then the chances of the Centre Vote going in that direction are slim.
 
It simply does not pay, therefore, to choose a leader whom the media finds it difficult, or, as happened with David Cunliffe, impossible, to accept.
 
The other crucial task is to make sure that Labour’s policy platform easily and obviously conforms with UMR’s brilliantly succinct description of what constitutes a Centre-Left, social-democratic, programme in New Zealand.
 
·         Support for Government provision of services.

·         The need for Government to intervene in the economy.

·         A progressive tax system.
 
If Labour, fed up with being scratched, opts to stroke the electoral feline from its head to its tail, nothing more is needed. Apart from a leader who’s not going to scare the bejeezus out of the cat!
 
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Tuesday, 11 November 2014.

13 comments:

J Bloggs said...

Wow - how to offend the swinging centre in one short paragraph.

Dare I say it, Chris, that the swinging centre, rather than being lazy thinkers, perhaps pay MORE attention to NZ politics and whats happening in society, than the sheep at the extreme ends who just vote for thier side regardless of who, what or why.

Wayne Mapp said...

So this means an almost equally divided electorate. Essentially the same numbers on the centre-left as there are on the centre-right. I appreciate the poll had a slight advantage to the centre-left as oppossed to the centre-right. But it is close enough. The actual centre is 20%, presumably at the moment pretty much all voting for John Key and the Nats.

But is this really news - surely most politicians already understand this.

What matters is what you do about it.

Chris Trotter said...

Well, that's where you'd be wrong, J Bloggs.

It's been a pretty standard claim of the basic Pols101 syllabus for a great many years that voters self-identifying as Left or Right, precisely because they have strong views about politics, tend to be better informed and more highly motivated than those who self-identify as centrists.

Calling yourself a centrist certainly doesn't mean that you are one - which is why pollsters and focus-group convenors have to dig down into those layers of personal conviction where its much harder for people to hide their true orientation towards ideologically definitional issues.

The Centre is seen as a safe place to be by those who feel ill-equipped to debate political issues because their "choice" of the Centre is constantly validated by the news media.

The latter holds up the Centre as the "best" place for a citizen to be largely because it makes commercial sense for it to do so.

Plumping unequivocally for either the Right or the Left will inevitably alienate a significant portion of any media outlet's audience/readership. (Not to mention, in the unlikely event that any commercial outlet would plump for the Left, its advertisers!)

Hence my strong association of centrist voters and the "tone" of media coverage in relation to left-leaning parties and leaders.

The Centre has always been the fainthearted citizens' safe-haven - and is likely to remain so.

That doesn't make it any the less crucial to electoral success, but it does mean that political leaders can be forgiven for taking the "convictions" of centrists with a very large grain of salt.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Lange might have been a good parliamentarian, but never a great leader of a party/caucus. Even he admitted it.

pat said...

of course centrists could also simply see validity to both points of view and are conflicted or unconvinced that either viewpoint is correct...and consequently vote conservatively, be that left or right of centre.
I recall a very interesting graphic explaining left and right ideologies (though cannot recall its origin) which I believe to be very pertinent and accurate...it was simply a circle with the centrists at one point and the left and right either side by increasing degree...guess where the left and the right end up.

Don Robertson said...

I want to know how labour policy gets made. At the moment it seems to be made by leadership hopefuls during debates on TV. Is voting for the leader the only way party members get to influence policy?

Chris Trotter said...

Policy, according to Labour's constitution, is made by the Party alone - and all MPs are bound to follow it.

From a constitutional perspective, therefore, all the bloviating about policy by the four leadership contenders carries no weight whatsoever.

The moment Labour MPs become Cabinet Ministers, however, everything changes.

The Party can try to enforce its authority when it comes to policy, but, more likely than not, it will be curtly informed that the Government refuses (to quote David Lange) "to be dictated to by external forces".


Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

"The Hollow Men" - T.S. Eliot

Jamie said...

Stuart Nash has gotta be Labours man...

He's got plenty bit of go in him,
He's got dash if you know what I mean...

Victor said...

A strangely selective history of the recent pursuit of the centre, Chris.

Where in your narrative is Helen Elizabeth Clark?

And why do you see Lange as an exemplar of the search for the middle ground, when his government's main achievement was not to occupy the centre but to attack it from the neo-liberal right?

peter petterson said...

You give Key far too much credit for National's tactical success. Key is the face and bullshit, Joyce the organiser, but Mark Textor and his organisation in Australia should be given the credit for National's rise, as Textor helped John Howard in Australia. On his own Key is a fool - ie his comments in recent days about Phillip Smith. I personally believe Key is now going downwards and could be sacrifised if National finds itself in danger of losing power. Key has always known this and expressed it in a very quiet way during the election campaign in 2008. He and Bill English were having a meal and a few drinks with a couple of journos down Courtenay Place in Wellington.

Charles said...

You seem to want to have it all ways, or just make it up fresh each day.
Recently you argued National is extreme right but here they are almost Labour lite in this piece.
Previously Labour lost because they did not properly go left under Cunliff.
Now you think, because a pollster says the left has about 40% of the population they should win if the centre joins them but previously you didn't want Labour to go for centre policies, as that would just be National lite. I don't think UMR have any idea but if they do, do you now want a centre focused Labour govt, pretty much like the Nat lite we have right now?
Are you sure that you don't just want Labour in power in any state at all so any argument that looks half possible you'll grasp?
But since when do people tell the truth to pollsters anyway? They like to please them I think and I bet some people trend left if asked what they think, but trend right in reality. That psychologist Haidt I have referred to before finds a consistent majority of people are conservative, so that will not favour a true left party, unless the conservative party alternative looks bad or mad. That will happen now and then of course.
Surely it‘s same as it ever was, to quote Byrne. Get a good solid leader, look organised and very dominant over the minor parties or factions. Then produce modern policies, which currently means liberal, freedom focused, the market with a bit of government regulation, and you will get there. But if you look ‘old left’ (i.e. the failed socialist policies of the past) or a bit divided between centre left and hard or silly left (Greens & similar factions) you have little chance. Unless the alternative party looks worse. The single biggest factor in any election is what the alternative looks like, I reckon. And so pollsters’ questions, like this UMR stuff you quote, when divorced from real examples just produce worthless noise, in my opinion.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The social psychologist actually said nothing quite so simple Charles. Simply because there is no simple definition of liberal and conservative. :-) It all might be decided by brain chemistry anyway. I suspect confirmation bias here.

Chris Trotter said...

Like so many of my readers over the years, Charles, you obviously have difficulty in separating analysis from advocacy, and advocacy from simple polemic. Writing a column is as much about provocation as it is about information. The purpose being to encourage the reader to take on board – if only for the purposes of refutation – ideas which they find challenging and/or stimulating. At times the columnist, or blogger, will state a position as his own, more often he or she will play Devil’s Advocate. It pays to remember that what you are reading is not a full-scale, peer-reviewed doctoral thesis, but ephemera. Here today, gone tomorrow.

It does, however, behove an intelligent reader to confine their critique to what is actually contained in the text. In the example you cite, the discussion was about the way in which the National Party has pitched itself to “centrist” voters. The argument is not that they are, in fact, “Labour-lite”, but that they have successfully presented themselves as such. John Key’s role in this presentational process has been and remains crucial.

That is not a very difficult argument to grasp – but it seems to have eluded you entirely.

As for the rest of your comment – well, all I’d venture is that you clearly know very little about either Stephen Mills, UMR's surveys or any of the other reputable research into the ideological positioning of New Zealanders.

Indeed, your whole approach appears to be that of a person who cannot believe that his ideological opponents have not lain down and died simply because his side has won an election. The dialectic just doesn’t work that way, Charles. National’s success in 2014 is already re-shaping Labour. By 2017 the political landscape will have changed considerably – and not necessarily to the incumbent party’s advantage.

UMR’s research should warn you that any loss of confidence in Key by those who insist upon calling themselves “centrists” will immediately undermine National’s electoral viability. If Labour can settle upon a leader capable of re-presenting its social democratic values and policies and, thereby, drawing to his side even half of the so-called centre vote, there will be a change of government in three years’ time.