Trust The People: Labour Leader, David Cunliffe, needs to grasp the difficult truth that the news media has written him off and is refusing to carry his messages fairly. He must now find the courage to go around them, addressing himself directly to that one incorruptible source of democratic power – the people themselves.
HARRY WAS A GONER. Nothing could save him. All the polls said so – the pundits too. He may have risen to the job by accident, they opined, but his dismissal would be deliberate. Harry was going to lose. You could bet on it. Everybody agreed.
Except Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third President of the United States. At the 1948 Democratic Party Convention Truman rounded on what he called the “do-nothing [Republican Party controlled] Congress”. Not only would he defeat his opponents, avowed the plucky little Missourian, but he’d “make these Republicans like it”.
Truman decided to take the Democratic Party’s progressive platform to the American voters directly – by train – on what would become his famous, 35,000 kilometre, “Whistle-Stop Tour”. The train would roll into a small American town, Truman would deliver a rousing speech, and then, after a few words with local reporters, the train would move on to its next stop.
During one of these tub-thumping speeches a man in the crowd cried out: “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” To which Truman replied. “I don’t give them hell, I just tell them the truth – and they think it’s hell!”
The 1948 presidential election was notable not simply for the vigour of Truman’s campaigning but for the fact that practically all the opinion polls pointed to a decisive Republican victory. So convinced were the “experts”, that one newspaper, The Chicago Daily Tribune, actually called the election for Truman’s rival, Thomas Dewey, on its front page.
In one of the most famous photographs of American political history, the real victor, Truman, triumphantly holds the Tribune aloft. It’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline reversed by the only poll that ever truly matters.
Bad Call: The Chicago Daily Tribune speaks too soon. President Harry S Truman celebrates winning the only poll that matters.
Only after the election did the pollsters realise that their sampling methodology was connecting them exclusively to Americans wealthy enough to own a telephone. Overwhelmingly, they had been questioning Republican voters.
Harry Truman’s come-from-behind 1948 victory offers an important strategic lesson to the beleaguered leader of the New Zealand Labour Party. At the heart of the lesson is one very simple precept: trust the people.
And how is trust established? By meeting the people face-to-face. By letting the magic of the stump – the raw energy that arcs between speaker and audience – do its work. By grasping the difficult truth that if the news media has written you off and is refusing to carry your messages fairly, then you must find the courage to go around them, addressing yourself directly to that one incorruptible source of democratic power – the voters themselves.
Of course the “experts” will sigh and tell David Cunliffe that this is 2014 – not 1948 – and that times have changed. And, of course, ‘times’ have. But the fundamentals of politics have not.
Strategically, Mr Cunliffe has locked himself into a political process which, at the end of every week, is leaving him weaker, not stronger. Political journalists have already stamped the word “Loser” on his forehead and are treating him accordingly. As a communications strategy, relying on the news media to transmit Labour’s policy ideas to the voters has failed. It’s time for a new one.
If Mr Cunliffe was to take a leaf out of Harry Truman’s playbook he would organise and publicise a nationwide “whistle-stop” tour. Starting out softly in the halls of small-town New Zealand and building slowly to a resounding crescendo in the major centres’ town halls.
And, because this is 2014, every meeting, small and large, should be broadcast live on the Internet (brickbats, bouquets and hecklers included) and uploaded to YouTube the following day.
Can’t be done? Actually, it can. In July last year I watched young Martyn Bradbury and his anti-GCSB team fill the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall with 500 people. And then, three weeks later, pack the Auckland Town Hall with more than three times that number. On both occasions the meetings were broadcast live, to thousands more, on the Internet.
It Can be Done: Anti-GCSB Amendment Bill organisers fill the Auckland Town Hall, 19 August 2013.
Mr Cunliffe boasts that his Labour Party has doubled its membership in the space of a year. Let him prove it by making sure every one of the “whistle-stops” on his nationwide tour is Standing Room Only.
And what message should Mr Cunliffe deliver to these audiences? The same message he delivered to the audiences that elected him Labour Leader last year. The message that lifted Labour to 37 percent in the polls.
Or, as business columnist, Fran O’Sullivan, advised Cunliffe:
“Put aside the ‘Gotcha’ politics that both you and John Key have been indulging in. Instead, get out and sell Labour's defining policies – something which you are exceptionally skilled at when you take a disciplined approach.”
Stand and deliver Mr Cunliffe. Take Labour’s “defining policies” directly to the people who need them most. Tell the truth, David – and make National like it. Give 'em hell!
A version of this essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 June 2014.