Hooton on Little’s rejection of the centre ground

Matthew Hooton writes at NBR:

No one will ever accuse Andrew Little of being boring after his bold rejection this week of the political centre.

The one political concept almost everyone grasps is the traditional left-right spectrum. People understand that the right tends to want lower taxes and spending and the left wants to raise them; the right likes exams and the left school counsellors; the right is more supportive of globalisation and the left more interested in protecting particular jobs; the right is more likely to support a US military adventure while the left defers to the UN; the right wants to lock up criminals while the left prefers restorative justice.

These are all generalisations, of course but you can?t do political analysis, economics or any social science without generalising.

Moreover, people continue to be happy defining themselves broadly on the spectrum.? When asked in 2014 by pollsters UMR, 30% of New Zealanders roughly identified as left, a quarter as right and 42% as in the middle. That the largest group lies in the centre is why John Key, like Helen Clark before him, has trained his ministers to parrot in public ?we think we?ve got the balance about right.?

More sophisticated models of political values have been developed but the traditional left-right spectrum continues to do its job. ??

Based on the spectrum is the so-called median voter model, on which Ms Clark and Mr Key clearly rely. It was developed in the 1920s and comes from the same school of economics which explains why two ice-cream vendors will be alongside one another on a beach.? Note, the model doesn?t say sunbathers will be distributed evenly along the beach ? they may be grouped at one end or the other ? but it does say the ice-cream vendors should and will set up their stands wherever the median one lies.

The maths works for any number of ice-cream vendors except for three, in which case they should separate and distribute themselves evenly along the beach.? It suggests a system of three parties but no more would offer voters the most choice but that?s not what we have.

With backgrounds in political science and commerce, Ms Clark and Mr Key have almost certainly done this maths while Mr Little, a lawyer, clearly never has. It shows: between them, Ms Clark and Mr Key have won six general elections and 15 electorate contests while Mr Little has won none of either. His public rejection on Sunday of Ms Clark?s advice that he should target the centre ? dismissing it as ?hollow? ? will surely not endear him to Labour supporters. Neither was this just another off-the-cuff Little blunder.

He repeated his rejection of the centre on radio on Tuesday and in an email to Labour?s remaining members.? National?s strategists rejoiced.

Frankly, it is bizarre, and Andrew Little has been explaining ever since.

The reason Mr Little has so boldly rejected century-old mainstream political theory is because the Wellington unionists and far-left activists who advise him are convinced a major sea change is under way in global politics, rendering the old left-right spectrum obsolete. Evidence for this, they believe, is Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the US, the Brexit vote and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and polling upswings by neo-fascists in France and Germany.

These developments are attracting much media coverage but to seriously undermine the basic 100-year-old mathematical logic of targeting the centre they would have to represent greater political changes than those driven by the Great Depression, World War II, the rise of the baby boomer generation, women?s liberation, the failure of Keynesianism, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the post 9/11 terrorist scare and the 2007 global financial crisis.


There is nothing happening in global politics right now that we haven?t seen before.? Mr Little may think he can make progress by mimicking the ?coalition of constituencies? tactics of Mr Sanders, Mr Trump, Mr Corbyn, Ms Petry or Ms Le Pen but all he is doing is giving up more of the centre ground to Winston Peters or even the Greens? James Shaw.? For all the excitement the so-called insurgents generate in the media, the smart money remains on the boring old establishment centrists: Mrs Clinton, Mrs May, Mrs Merkel, Mr Jupp? and our very own Mr Key.

Winston stands to win big as a result of Andrew Little’s stupidity.

I never thought I’d live to see the day when a major party plumbed the depths of Bill English’s result in 2002. I feel that we may see that tawdry record broken next year.