The Voice Of Outraged Reasonableness: Labour Leader, Bill Rowling, opened his party's 1978 election campaign with a speech that both delighted and surprised his electoral base. The man property-tycoon, Bob Jones, called "The Mouse", had roared.
It was supposed to be a book about the birth of the NewLabour Party, but somewhere along the way it became the story of what led me into, and out of, the old Labour Party. In hopes of providing future political studies students with a glimpse of what it was like to be a left-wing Labour activist in the days of David Lange and Roger Douglas I am publishing The Journey on Bowalley Road as a series of occasional postings. L.P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” May these memoirs, written in 1989, serve, however poorly, as my personal passport.
Tuesday, 31 October 1978WE WERE ALL VETERANS of one sort or another. Three years of Muldoon had seen to that. Gathered together in that weatherboard slum, we talked of little else but politics. The ordinary Otago students who flatted with us laughed at our intensity – by the late 70s radical politics were on the verge of becoming unfashionable.
Dunedin, hugging its windswept hills, was giving birth to new diversions. Wild enragés like Chris Knox and The Enemy spoke to a generation grown wary of promises. Life was moving to machine-gun rhythms. There were precious few jobs and precious little enthusiasm for brave new worlds. Old and young alike responded to the maniacal Knox’s chorus: “Pull down the shades!”
We were gathered around a black-and-white set; nervously awaiting the televised opening of Labour’s election campaign. I was sceptical about Bill Rowling’s ability to rouse any enthusiasm for a party that had spent the best part of three years stabbing each other between the shoulder blades. My mind went back to the Moyle Affair, the O’Brien Debacle. Could he do it? I was doubtful.
And then Rowling began to speak. The room fell silent. The veterans of anti-apartheid protests, anti-SIS protests, anti-nuclear protests were listening. The little man grasped the podium with both hands, staring calmly out over the heads of his huge and enthusiastic audience. Rowling’s was a serious passion: he spoke with the voice of outraged reasonableness. I recalled his concession speech three years before. “New Zealand will have need of Labour again, and when she does Labour will be ready.”
Somehow he had reached that part of us that still believed in New Zealand. He argued convincingly that what we had all experienced since 1975 represented the worst and not the best of our national character. Labour was the guardian of the best of our political traditions: the tradition of egalitarianism; the tradition of compassion; the tradition of co-operation; the tradition of peace and justice for all humanity.
“There has never been a time in the history of this country when we have been so divided with bitterness and sourness,” declaimed Rowling, “when New Zealander has been turned against New Zealander, when each person tries to keep his place by kicking the other fellow down … the path to recovery will not be easy, but I pledge to you that tomorrow will be brighter … Together, we can make it. Together, New Zealand can make it.” The audience was delighted. The man property-tycoon Bob Jones called “The Mouse”, had roared.
The following day I made my way down to the Labour Party’s North Dunedin office. A chain-smoking young woman, wrapped up against the chill, pushed a membership book in my direction. As I emerged from the office, into the pale spring sunlight, I chuckled to myself. In my hand was a tiny slip of yellow cardboard telling me that I was now a member of the New Zealand Labour Party. I stuffed the card into my wallet and walked on down the street.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.