In a post on Public Address titled “In defence of the centre” Rob Salmond uses a Guardian article by George Monbiot to pose the question “whether the old political orthodoxy of ‘move to the middle’ is, long term, a death-knell for left-leaning parties.” It’s good that Salmond’s raised the question; it’s certainly a matter for debate.
Monbiot’s thesis in summary is “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.”
Salmond has three problems with this: First the alternative – “how have centre-left parties gone when they have tacked away from the centre?” Based on Foot and Kinnock in the UK Salmond says “when it happens it goes badly.” He goes on:
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.”
I don’t know where Rob Salmond was in 1999, the last time Labour won government in New Zealand. Labour went into that election with a declared coalition partner on its left in the Alliance, with declared policies to raise the top rate of income tax, to bring ACC back into public ownership and to restore income-related rents for state house tenants. Labour’s narrative swung left and Labour won; the Victoria University book on the election was titled “Left Turn.”
And many of the achievements of the 5th Labour government have remained – Kiwibank is still there, ACC is still in public ownership, Working for Families survives. I don’t think centre-left fortunes declined when Helen Clark became Prime Minister.
Salmond’s second objection is fundamentally about centrism as strategy and I’ll do a separate post on it as it needs more teasing out.
Salmond’s third objection, about clarity of political communication is paradoxically unclear. Monbiot says Corbyn is doing well because he is a clear communicator. While Salmond implies Corbyn is ‘hard left” the question left unaddressed is whether he is also doing well because what he is communicating so clearly in comparison with his middle-ground opponents is striking a chord.
Public ownership for infrastructure, fairer taxes, investment for people, hope for young people – all still resonate, it would seem.