Only Robertson can go to the centre

In 1972 Richard Nixon visited China and met with Mao Zedong, and the expression “only Nixon could go to China” was born. It comes from the idea that if a virulent anti-communist like Nixon went to China, it must have been necessary. Nixon’s anti-communist credentials were beyond doubt. So it would be with Labour under Grant Robertson and appealing to the centre.


At present, the Labour left has an established and disproportionate influence over the party. If the progressives in Labour refuse to join one of New Zealand’s genuinely progressive parties, then Labour needs a leader that can bring the progressives with them to fight National for the support of swing voters. A leader with robust, established identity politics credentials has better odds of doing so. Being from a sexual minority group gives Robertson these credentials.

Normally, the Labour left doesn’t want to move to the majority – they want the majority to move to them. But under Robertson, fighting for the centre would be fighting for New Zealand’s first openly gay Prime Minister. Such an historic identity politics achievement would likely focus the desires of the Labour left, and help them tolerate a shift to the centre. Labour could again pitch their strategy, policy and messaging at the moderate, apolitical, relatively conservative voters that have twice put John Key into power.


Of course, being able to move to the centre is only half the equation. The centre has to be receptive to the message AND the messenger. There’s no guarantee that someone like Robertson would appeal to working kiwis in the provinces as much as Shane Jones’ arch-blokiness did. While Robertson may not be the perfect candidate from the centre’s perspective, he is an excellent candidate for pulling the Labour left into line.

Admittedly this isn’t strictly a ‘Nixon goes to China’ dynamic, but you’ll forgive me for sacrificing accuracy for a snappy metaphor. The Nixon-China dynamic was about ideology instead of identity, about initiating rather than reinstating contact, about convincing observers rather than corralling the base. What is more, comparing Robertson to Nixon is hardly flattering. The analogy is helpful nonetheless. Like Nixon’s anti-communist credentials, Robertson’s identity politics credentials are beyond question. If he says Labour must go to the centre, I suspect much of the Labour left will believe him.


7 thoughts on “Only Robertson can go to the centre

  1. Interesting analysis for sure. I like the Nixon metaphor about Robertson going to the center.

    I think you are definitely right in that moderate positioning by Robertson would still hold some progressive voters, simply due to the historic nature of his candidacy.

    Yet, I think one thing you haven’t factored into the equation is the new Labour primary system dynamic – which in my opinion essentially forces candidates to the left in order to win the membership and union vote.

    Can Robertson win the primary by going left intially, and then tacking back to the center in time for 2017? Maybe, only time will tell.

    Lastly, I must query though, why does Labour even care that much about its very left wing voters? Such votes will potentially dislodge only to the Greens. In an MMP enviroment, having the center left party going hard for the center and a coalition partner to mop up the fringe, is probably the best strategy anyway.

    • Hi Mark,

      Great point. Labour’s leadership selection process has changed the game. Like you say, Robertson’s candidacy would be historic, and I suspect this would sway a lot of the Labour left.

      In regard to your second question, I think the leadership primaries are the reason that the party cares about its left flank so much now. The activist base now has a lot more power. Cunliffe is a great example- he was elected against the wishes of caucus thanks in part to the left.

      It would be interesting to know how the unions will decide who to back. If they back the candidate that best represents their interests, it’s fairly straight forward. But if they tend to line up behind the favourite, then it empowers the activist base even more.

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