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Labour needs the voters in the centre

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 29/09/2016 Peter Wilson, Political Writer

Where is the centre ground of New Zealand politics? In the middle, presumably, but Andrew Little doesn't seem to be sure about that, says NZ Newswire political writer Peter Wilson.

The Labour leader's surprising dismissal of Helen Clark's advice that parties on the left must command the centre ground to win elections raised questions about whether he really knows what's going on.

She did beat National in three successive elections, so she must know what she's talking about.

But Little described her comment as "meaningless" and "a pretty hollow view".

And then, to make his position clear, Little said his campaign would focus on "the issues that affect middle New Zealand".

Asked if he was steering Labour to the left, he replied "I don't even know what that means".

Little, in a confusing way, is trying to avoid having any labels pasted onto his party.

The government is trying to do that, using glue called MOU.

The memorandum of understanding, or co-operation agreement, between Labour and the Greens is being used to claim a defeat for National next year would put an extreme left-wing government into power.

"If you vote Labour you get Green Party policies," says Prime Minister John Key.

"They're joined at the hip, before and after the election."

These are gross exaggerations but the message is easily understood, and it will he hammered into the heads of voters during the election campaign.

Labour must avoid being tagged in that way, which is why Little is so loathe to talk about the left or the centre.

So he's defaulted to "middle New Zealand", which means the same thing as the centre.

Unfortunately, in doing so he dismissed the opinion of Labour's most successful prime minister of modern times.

Clark was stating the obvious. To win 50 per cent of the vote, parties or coalitions must reach into the centre because that's where most of those voters are.

Peter Dunne, who has been around a long time and does know where the centre is, says no New Zealand government, single or multi-party, pre or post-MMP, has ever been elected without winning it.

Dunne agrees with Little's idea of drawing together a "coalition of constituencies" such as low and middle-income Kiwis concerned about housing and those in the business sector who aren't satisfied with the government's efforts to grow the economy.

"But he is wrong to assume he alone can put them together without the glue of the centre ground," said Dunne.

"Fraser, Holyoake, and more latterly Clark and Key, fully understand that point.

"Mr Little, who is nowhere near their league, appears not to."

The reality is that Little's "coalition of constituencies", which seems to mean developing a manifesto that appeals to a broad spectrum of voters, will end up reaching into the "meaningless" centre ground in the same way Clark did.

His big challenge is to do it as successfully as she did.

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