THE SORTING HAT is one of J.K. Rowling’s cleverer inventions. In the first of her best-selling series of children’s books, Harry Potter and his fellow First Years are sorted into their appropriate Hogwarts houses – Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin – by the all-knowing Sorting Hat. As the Harry Potter saga unfolds, it resolves into a life and death struggle between the evil denizens of Slytherin, and everybody else.
In many respects political beliefs, and the way we respond to them, play a very similar role to the Sorting Hat. An expectation that people will be treated fairly assigns us to one political “house”, while a belief that people must learn to stand on their own two feet sends us to another. A love of Mother Nature pushes us in one direction; a love of Lady Liberty somewhere else.
Such diversity remains healthy only for as long as there is something greater than houses holding the Sorting Hat’s assignments together. In the Harry Potter novels, that greater thing is Hogwarts itself. In societies like our own, it is the nation state which binds us: an indissoluble collection of political principles to which all citizens subscribe.
Looking around the world, it is becoming increasingly clear that the nation state is struggling to retain the universal allegiance that prevents it from descending into a partisan war of all against all. Whether it be Donald Trump’s Disunited States of America, or Boris Johnson’s Disunited Kingdom, the all-important “whole” shows worrying signs of becoming something less than the sum of its parts. The houses have become more important that the school.
One of the first people to notice this phenomenon was the American writer and journalist, Bill Bishop. His 2008 book, The Big Sort, was subtitled: “why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart”.
The natural tendency of birds of a common ethnic/cultural/political feather to flock together – in discrete neighbourhoods, suburbs, towns and (smaller) cities, where everybody does the same sort of work, has the same sort of educational credentials, earns the same sort of money and, crucially, shares the same sorts of views, is making it harder and harder for them to understand (let alone stand shoulder-to-shoulder with) those who don’t.
John Harris, writing in The Guardian, recently raised the possibility that this propensity to “cluster” might produce an historic reversal of traditional political polarities in the United Kingdom:
“If you want a possible vision of the future, picture a liberal, university-educated middle class concentrated – by choice – in the affluent south, while a reactionary conservatism speaks for more deprived parts of the country, and the tensions that surfaced around Brexit burst forth again and again.”
Could something similar happen here? Is New Zealand society sorting itself into similar clusters? And if it is, how likely is it to effect a reversal of our politics?
If New Zealand’s four “houses” are Taking Care of Business, Taking Care of Others, Working With My Hands, and Working With My Brain, then New Zealand Labour is unlikely to suffer the fate of British Labour. The latter lost its supposedly impregnable “Red Wall” when its liberal, university-educated middle class lost touch with (and all-too-often actively alienated) its working-class base. Here in New Zealand, however, Labour’s strong relationship with Maoridom makes a similar rupture most unlikely. Overwhelmingly, the house members of Working With My Hands are brown.
Far from losing touch with its brown working-class base, New Zealand Labour’s liberal, university-educated middle class: the house members of Working With My Brain and Taking Care of Others; are doing everything they can to empower Maori and Pasefika New Zealanders. They are doing this by strengthening their unions; by increasing their benefits; by more appropriately tailoring health and educational services to their needs; and, most significantly, by reconfiguring New Zealand’s constitutional structures to ensure their voices are heard and their cultural needs recognised.
Ironically, this leaves New Zealand’s National Party where British Labour now appears to be standing: with insufficient allies to win a nationwide election. Of New Zealand’s four houses, only Taking Care of Business (especially rural business) is overwhelmingly loyal to National. Increasingly, the house members of Working With My Brain, once more-or-less evenly split between National and Labour, are clustering around like-minded “progressives”.
The Sorting Hat has distributed Labour across Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw. National’s stuck in Slytherin.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 May 2021.