Wednesday 16 May 2012

The Journey: A Political Memoir - Posting No. 5

Victory! Naomi and David Lange (and an extraordinarily youthful Fran O'Sullivan!) arrive at the Mangere Election Night headquarters to celebrate the election of the Fourth Labour Government on Bastille Day 1984.

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.

Saturday, 14 July 1984

THE QUEEN’S ROOM of the Dunedin YWCA is buzzing. From all over the Dunedin North electorate Election Day workers are arriving to await the results of the Snap Election. Stan and Anne Rodger moved amiably from one knot of excited party supporters to the next, greeting everyone by their first names and reassuring them that: “Yes, this time I think we’ve got them.”

As the first results began to trickle through there’s the usual furrowing of brows. Country booths mainly, with few votes to count, and almost always favouring the National Party, are traditionally the first results to be posted. It never makes for a promising start to Labour Party gatherings on Election Night.

By 8:30pm it’s beginning to look unstoppable. I think back over the past four weeks. ‘Herculean’ barely describes the enormous effort the party has put into the struggle for power. As Stan’s publicity officer, I have been at it non-stop: thousands of pamphlets, flyers, bumper-stickers, newspaper advertisements – all the standard paraphernalia of electioneering – have had to be designed, approved, printed and distributed, and all in under 14 days.

But, we have done it. All of us. The Labour Party has never been stronger or larger. Nearly 100,000 New Zealanders have acquired those little yellow membership cards. Anti-Apartheid veterans of the ’81 Tour; peace activists from the myriad groups and organisations that comprise the most successful anti-nuclear movement in the world; trade unionists in their thousands, desperate to put an end to the two-year wage freeze that has seen the value of their real wages plummet; the unemployed, organised to a degree not seen since the 1930s; feminists, hoping fervently for a genuine political response to the needs of their sisters; Maori, emerging into the light after a century-and-a-half of repression and assimilation: a gorgeous, shimmering, rainbow-coalition of the angry, the alienated, the outraged and the dispossessed people of Aotearoa. We have done it.

Muldoon concedes defeat, and I break into a grin. It seems a very long time since that November night in 1975, but we are back. Labour is back! I shake Stan’s hand with genuine affection. The room is reverberating with noisy celebration.

Francesca and I drive out to the Fairfield Community Hall where Clive Matthewson – darling of the Dunedin Left – is celebrating with his supporters. As we come through the main entrance I am greeted by Brian. Former flatmates, we had both joined the party after that crucial television address by Rowling in 1978, and now we are laughing and whooping like a couple of sand-boys. I recognise Clive further down the hall. “Victory!”, I cry, and we hug each other. Brothers. “Victory!”

Eighteen hours later I’m standing with my father on a windswept Waverley balcony, overlooking Otago Harbour. The freezing air is bracing, Dunedin can be cold in July.

“The winds of change are blowing, Dad,” I laugh into the teeth of the gale. “The winds of change are blowing!”

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Alex said...

Please keep posting these, it is incredibly important that we remember our history.

Brendan McNeill said...


That is a beautiful narrative, even if we find ourselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum, I feel your optimism, and I love and identify with your hope for a better future.

And that is the reality for those of us who engage politically. We all want the same things in the end. Freedom, opportunity, equity, justice, and a safety net for the poor who through no fault of their own are on the wrong side of employment and prosperity.

The Left looks to the State to provide the legislative environment where 'all of the above' is enforced.

On the other hand, there are a those of us who recognize that there are some things that the State does very badly. Enforcing equity is one of them.

Far better to confine the State to the enforcement of a common law for all, defense of the realm, open markets, an open banking system, an inclusive economy, and the the enforcement of a criminal justice system that protects private property, intellectual property, and honest endeavor.

Rather than the State becoming the surrogate parent of us all, how much better to re-enforce the family and the place of marriage in a healthy society.

Making the family the primary source of welfare and the State as a poor and reluctant backstop.

Only then can we lift New Zealand out of the backwaters of socialist entitlement, anger and resentment, and realize that ultimately it is up to us, our families and our community to create a better New Zealand. One that we are all proud to call our own.

A light to the world, a 'city set on a hill'.

But then perhaps it's me being utopian?


markus said...

Yep, dear old Clive Matthewson, darling of the Dunedin Left, ends up joining various Tories and pseudo-Tories in the precursor to Peter Dunne's United. The vast majority of Labour's 84-90 caucus have a good deal to answer for - very much Roger's fellow travellers. Can't just blame the 'fish and chip'cabal itself.

guerilla surgeon said...

"On the other hand, there are a those of us who recognize that there are some things that the State does very badly. Enforcing equity is one of them."

Actually it does it rather well. Much better than the market.Righties ALWAYS crap on about this as if it ewere a law of physics. Ain't so.

davo36 said...

Chris, I'm enjoying your 'Journey' posts as well.

I'm also on the other side of the political spectrum. However I hated Muldoon and think he did enormous damage to the country. Only 12 at the time of the Springbok Tour, I was too young to march but would have if older.

So as someone else said, often we all agree on what we want, but disagree on how to go about it.

How do we have full employment without the state running all sorts of industries, and very inefficiently? Or conversely everyone having a McJob that pays them very little and gives no security?

How do we prosper economically without stuffing our environment?

How do we build wealth over time without taking a short term view and just making as much money as possible right now - buggering everything up as we go?

How do we get out of the "Capitalism for the Masses, Socialism for the Few" trap we've found ourselves in?

It's these kinds of questions I'm interested in.