Reddening The Burbs: If anyone can persuade the quiet suburbs of New Zealand to accept and embrace the need for change, it’s David Cunliffe.
BLOCKHOUSE BAY is one of those suburbs you drive through without taking much notice. It’s a quiet, tidy community that minds its own business and expects you to do the same. The houses are modest, the hedges trimmed, the lawns mowed and the streets clean. The trendy eateries and funky stores that characterise Ponsonby and Grey Lynn are not in evidence here. Blockhouse Bay is not a fashionable suburb.
But the people who live in Blockhouse Bay, and the scores of suburbs just like it in cities across New Zealand, are important. They may not appear in the lifestyle sections of the Sunday papers, or feature in Metro magazine, but it’s the voters living in the Blockhouse Bays of this world who make and break Governments. Change the minds of the people who live in these unassuming urban communities, and you change the whole political environment. Win their hearts, and you win the country.
As I pulled into the car-park of the surprisingly large and well-appointed community centre at the end of Blockhouse Bay Road, a couple of Sunday’s ago, I wondered what I would discover inside. It had been many years since I attended a Labour Party branch meeting – twenty-five to be precise – and I pondered how much might have changed in that quarter-century.
As it turned out, the changes were minimal – surprisingly so. Gathered there were the same solid citizens that I remembered from my days in Dunedin’s Castle Street Branch. Women in hand-knitted cardigans; elderly gentlemen in caps and windbreakers; younger, professional types; earnest immigrants learning the ropes of politics. After twenty-five years, the rank-and-file of Labour seemed almost unchanged.
Not so the world that so many of them, filled with youthful idealism, had joined the party to improve. The New Zealand into which the majority of these people, now rapidly filling the spacious hall, had been born, half-a-century ago, has changed dramatically. And the bitter irony remains that it was Labour which set those changes in motion. In the great tsunami of reform unleashed by the government of David Lange and Roger Douglas, many of the achievements by which Labour had, for decades, defined itself were swept away. And it’s that menacing historical irony that squats, like a 900lb New Right gorilla, in the corner of every Labour Party gathering.
It was to slay that 900lb New Right gorilla that I had quit the Labour Party, alongside Jim Anderton and thousands of others, in 1989. Our defection was bitterly resented by many of those who opted to stay and fight the good fight from within. A surprising amount of that ill-feeling still persists in Labour’s ranks; so much that, without a personal invitation from the afternoon’s guest speaker, I would not have dreamed of turning up to a meeting of the New Lynn Women’s Branch.
The person these 70-80 people had come to hear was their local MP, David Cunliffe. In last year’s election Mr Cunliffe secured 16,999 votes, 5,190 more than his National Party opponent. In the Party Vote stakes, however, New Lynn, like so many other Labour-held seats in Auckland, went (by 749 votes) to the Nats.
The speech Cunliffe delivered to the New Lynn Women’s Branch on Sunday, 29 April addressed that peculiar political schizophrenia head-on.
“When the right-wing party says that it’s going to cut your leg off,” Mr Cunliffe told his Labour Party audience, “voters want the left-wing party to say that it’s not going to cut your leg off. Voters don’t want to be told that the left-wing party is also going to cut your leg off, but cut it off a bit lower down and give you some anesthetic.
“I think that’s a major reason that nearly one million voters deserted us at the last election. It wasn’t because we failed to communicate our policies. Quite the opposite. Those voters saw that our policies – with the exception of asset sales – were mostly the same as National’s. So we can’t really be surprised at the result.”
That, in Labour Party terms, is fighting talk. In fact, it’s exactly the same sort of language Jim Anderton employed to attack Rogernomics more than twenty-five years ago. And, just as the Labour rank-and-file applauded Jim Anderton’s defence of core Labour values in the 1980s, so, too, did the Labour audience gathered together in the Blockhouse Bay Community Hall a couple of Sundays ago.
I drove home with three conclusions. One: the deeply cynical and self-destructive folly of Labour’s caucus in refusing to make Mr Cunliffe their leader. Two: the MP for New Lynn’s singular and radical understanding of the need to steer Labour into the new, fast-flowing tides of historical change. Three: if anyone can persuade the quiet suburbs of New Zealand to accept and embrace the need for change; it’s David Cunliffe.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 May 2012.