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Gordon Campbell on how the political centre is a mirage

Gordon Campbell on how the political centre is a mirage

First published on Werewolf

And now as the dust from the local government outcomes begins to settle, the policy battles between central and local government kick into gear. Could a regional fuel tax for Auckland be back on the table? Might Phil Goff forge ahead regardless with a Vancouver-style stamp duty levied on foreign home buyers? Who will be National’s candidate in the December 3rd by election to find Goff’s replacement in Mt Roskill? Given the reports released late last week that claimed to find a reduced - but still significant - national benefit from the Wellington runway extension, was central government feeling any more inclined to support the project?

Interestingly, on that last question, Prime Minister John Key used yesterday’s post Cabinet press conference to paint a picture of newly elected mayor Justin Lester being in favour of the runway extension –“ he was quite a strong advocate for the project” – but having to deal with the reality of how the Council numbers stack up now, post-election. The economic numbers also need to stack up, Key continued :

….And that’s really about whether you would actually attract international carriers. I think our view has been without Air New Zealand, the numbers are quite challenging…

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It is not unusual for a capital not to be a tourism hub, Key conceded. Canberra and Washington DC strike him as being other examples. But regardless, he says :

The basic issue is when you think about, Air New Zealand essentially runs its basic hubbing out of –primarily – Auckland, and to a degree, Christchurch. And so they won’t fly out of Wellington [ in any long haul service.] It {Wellington] is obviously useful if you’re interested in carrying big on that carrier. But the question is did that support most of the travel that happens with people who want to go in and out of Wellington ? The economics of that don’t look that great. But we will continue the discussions with Council.

Lester could well decide to champion the runway extension regardless, as a piece of “ Go Wellington !” boosterism. There are a few problemas with taking such an approach though….as a populist play for the centre ground the runway tension simply isn’t a very popular cause. Secondly, the environmental mitigation measures suggested in the latest reports will add considerably to the current $300 million estimated price tab and finally….would Lester really want to get offside with the majority of his Council right from the outset, on an issue of such dubious merit? Probably not.


Still, the complexities of the choices facing Wellington’s new team show just how facile it is to place Saturday’s outcomes on any normal left/right axis. Yes, centre left candidates did win the mayoral contests in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Yet it was stretching things for Labour leader Andrew Little to then describe these results as a “springboard” for next year’s general election. After all, the previous incumbents had also been from the centre-left – Len Brown in Auckland, Celia Wade-Brown in Wellington – and this had no discernible impact whatsoever on the 2014 general election.

More to the point, the metropolitan mayoral victors were virtually stealth candidates undetectable by any ordinary centre-left radar. Phil Goff in Auckland did not run as a Labour candidate, the billboards of Justin Lester in Wellington were a different colour (bright yellow) to the traditional red of the rest of the Labour team running for Council. In Christchurch sitting mayor Lianne Dalziel ran virtually unopposed, apart from the largely single issue campaign (against asset sales) of John Minto. If they bore any significance at all for General Election 2017, Saturday’s efforts were primarily just a useful test drive of the Labour/Green ability to turn out the vote.

The fabled centre ground

On Little’s other points about the emptiness of the calls for political centrism though, he has been dead right. The last thing we need is Labour making its case to govern by tentatively offering a fresh set of Tory Lite credentials. After all, on social issues, the public has consistently been to the left of the current government and has been impatiently waiting for a leader who is willing and able to fight an election on those grounds. The UMR polling in 2014 found roughly one third of the public identify as left, a quarter as right, and the rest are in the middle.

This doesn’t mean however, that pandering to the centre will win the fickle affections of that large bloc of voters. Since 2008, the magnet for the centrist voters has been Key’s personality, not his policies. Meaning : the centre shifts to where it wants to go. It is not a given point on the political compass. Since the GFC, the myth of the centre ground has been amply documented:

…Since the financial crisis in 2008, people have been fleeing the centre-ground across the Western political system and the political establishment are yet to confront this with any real, substantive solutions. Whether it is Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in America, Jeremy Corbyn and the historic Brexit vote or the rise of the far-right in Europe – more and more people are fleeing an intellectually and morally bankrupt centre-ground.

Votes are gushing to the political fringes because since the financial crash, establishment politicians have failed to come up with any meaningful solutions to the problems that ordinary working people face every single day. Politicians on both the centre-left and the centre-right across the West have failed to make neoliberalism and globalisation work for the masses.

Little was dead right to describe the calls to woo this mythical centrist voter as being hollow. Centrism is a scam. Bereft of any solutions now that its neo-liberal nostrums have been found wanting, the centre-right appears to be intent on channelling its energy into discrediting all other options, mainly in order to conceal its own impotence. Meanwhile, the problems of income inequality, unaffordable housing and homelessness, environmental degradation, job losses through automation etc pile up.

In the National Business Review this week for instance, Matthew Hooton (without naming his source) recycles some very, very old ideas about the median voter and the ideal placement of political vendors along the political spectrum. Back in 1957, Anthony Downs published his book An Economic Theory of Democracy and Hooton presents Downs’ ideas as if they were timeless wisdom that Little has forgotten, or never learned in the first place.

Well, things have moved on somewhat from 1957, even if Hooton hasn’t. Ritual incantations of the centre amount to “hollow” rhetoric because they mask the fact that the centre is an artificial construct. Left to its own devices, the centre is fluid, and is always susceptible to shifting to a convincingly articulated fresh destination.

So, whatever (or wherever) the centre is now, it was not framed by political parties shuffling democratically to some centre spot where the ‘median voter’ sits, queenlike, inspecting the major parties’ offerings.

From the same essay – and its worth reading the whole essay - here’s the best articulation I’ve seen of the dodgy premises that lie behind the attacks being mounted on Little over this “centrism” issue:

There are some obvious problems with this ‘median voter theorem’, not the least of which is the dubious analogy between economic and political ‘markets’. Politics, like much else in the modern world, is shot through with the language and priorities of advertising: parties are ‘branded’ and policies ‘spun’; commentators will talk endlessly about a party’s (in)ability to ‘sell’ this or that proposal. But whatever the impression politicians give, none of them is in politics to sell consumer products to customers; they are in politics to advance a view of the world and/or a particular set of interests. Sometimes, of course, the interests are their own, and may be reducible to power for its own sake. But the idea that politicians as a group move reflexively towards some theoretical centre is inadequate as a description of political reality; there is more – much more – going on than that.

Nor is the median voter itself a convincing theoretical construct. I can think of two obvious objections: one, it assumes that a voter’s preferences can be bundled together into one position and placed neatly on the left or right of the spectrum; and two, it assumes that those preferences are based on ‘perfect information’ about which party is where on the political spectrum, about what those political parties stand for, and about how what they stand for relates to their interests. In its crude form, the median voter theorem gives a lot of credit to the ‘rational’ voter, and little or none to political parties and their powers of persuasion (or indeed packaging).

It is no accident that this rational choice model – with its deliberate flattery of the timeless wisdom of the median voter – has endured for so long, and has been carted over from economics to politics. For the past 30 years, Treasury-think has assumed that (a) everyone in an economic market has perfect information at their fingertips on which to base their choices and (b) faces no impediment in pursuing those choices. It is simply assumed by the Treasury munchkins that such choices are not skewed by the privileges bestowed by inherited wealth, gender or race. These factors are treated as if they do not exist, and – in the political realm – the consequences are dealt with by centre-right governments only when it is expedient (or absolutely imperative for their own survival) to do so. In practice, benign neglect is their default setting. The housing crisis is a perfect example of the fruits of this ideology.

Little – and one assumes James Shaw of the Greens – oppose the cynicism that lies behind the politics of neglect. What is crucial to understand here is that the theories of the centre ground of the kind that Hooton is espousing mainly serve to “normalise a particular set of assumptions” and operate “to sustain a party or parties in power”:

The idea of the centre is identified with moderation in politics; as such, it dovetails beautifully with notions of politics as ‘the art of the possible’, with all that that implies about consensus and compromise. But since ‘the centre’ changes over time, it is important to consider how it changes and who or what has the power to change it. Do politicians merely move towards the centre; or do they seek, aggressively, to define it?

Sure, it is possible to criticise how Little and Shaw intend to go about defining the new centre ground. But what is not acceptable – for Hooton or anyone else – is to stand in the rubble of neo-liberalism and decry all attempts to escape from this dire situation as being foolhardy, or extremist. Years ago, Margaret Thatcher successfully peddled the notion that “There Is No Alternative.” As many people predicted all along about TINA, we were being sold a crock. Clinging to it now is folly - not centrism, or moderation.

Wolf Alice, in Movies

Here’s a different example of someone willing to take the risk of moving the centre in their direction. Ever since he made 24 Hour Party People years ago, the British film director Michael Winterbottom has never been afraid to experiment. His new music documentary therefore, is not about some safe, iconic band or figure like Iggy Pop or the Rolling Stones. He’s more than happy to leave them to Jim Jarmusch or Martin Scorsese. Instead, Winterbottom has made a road movie about the young British band Wolf Alice, who are about to release the follow up to their debut album My Love Is Cool.

It's a smart choice, given the charisma-to-burn presence of lead singer Ellie Rowsell. Here’s the lovely, bittersweet video for the “Bros” single from the first album

and here’s their set from Lollapallooza last year.

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