Tuesday, 8 May 2012

A Quiet Sunday Afternoon In Blockhouse Bay

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.


Anonymous said...

Chris, if you think Cunliff is the second coming forget it. I note already the “I know best” labour doctrine why voters deserted them is his mantra and is another HC in drag. As long as Labour is filled with social engineering nutters promoting working for families for beneficiaries, you are destined as the “natural opposition party”.

Olwyn said...

Anonymous @ 9.26am: To be relieved to hear a Labour politician articulate and stand firmly behind core Labour values is not to mistake that person for the second coming. Did you detect messianic tendencies in the wave of manufactured adoration that accompanied John Key's rise?

In Shearer's latest speech he seemed to blame Labour's defeat on a lack of thrift with equal conviction. Did he too display an "I know best" attitude?

In a sense they are probably both right: the lack of "thrift" will have contributed to Labour's getting less corporate sponsorship than ACT, while the Nat Lite policies will have caused many to sigh and refrain from voting. Interestingly enough, Labour's low polling, arguably due to the latter, will also have contributed to the lack of corporate funding.

The evidence suggests that this is where Labour's problem lies: go left, and alienate the big donors, go right and alienate a large section of the voters. Fail to offer those voters hope and you might get the money to get your diluted message out there, only to have it fall on deaf ears.

I am to the left of the party, and favour the risk that goes with the Cunliffe approach. A one-term, austerity government could well prove to be Labour's last stand as a political force. Look at Queensland. Look at Greece, where they came in third behind a Greek Mana equivalent.

Anonymous said...

I sincerely believe that David Cunliffe is the only hope for the Labour Party. He has the passion and charisma the party so desperately needs to convince the million or so who didnt vote to get out next election day. What were the caucus thinking?

Victor said...

Labour needs someone who can do more than merely enunciate policies that are different to National's.

It also needs someone who can explain exactly what's wrong with National's austerity mantra and who can, moreover, explain this to the satisfaction not just of Labour loyalists but of the voting public at large.

It's been obvious to me for a few years now that Cunliffe is that very someone.

Labour needs to get over its petty resentments and fragile (and apparently rather poisonous) little egos. If it doesn't, it will deservedly lose out to the Greens as the core party of the left and centre-left.

Tiger Mountain said...

Heh, check this one out...
there was a bogan undercurrent in the ’Bay in years past.
Go ‘silent T’.


Anonymous said...

And then Jim sat in a Labour cabinet for 9 years that kept Roger's dream alive. Chris, I guess that makes you the only one who refused to sell out?

mel said...

I agree with you Chris. 'National lite' has led to major dissatisfaction and defection from the Labour party. Labour really need to wake up to the fact that most New Zealanders want a fair and equitable society.

dairy farmer said...

In the late 90's I worked in a large NZ Corporate that contracted BCG to lead a progamme to improve profitability through creating value (as opposed to cost cutting (austerity)). BCG brought in half a dozen highly qualified consultants from around the world, they were lead by David Cunliffe. As a fairly Senior member of staff of this organisation I along with many other people were cynical of consultants, we had seen many come and go, collect their 7 figure cheques and move on without any improvement. BCG under David Cunliffe were different, they had an enormous intellect and capacity for work. They focused on CREATING VALUE, not Cutting jobs. The results were impressive. It is exactly what this country needs. We are clearly seeing National 'tank' our economy. I have nothing against David Shearer but I dont think he has the skills that I have witnessed in Cunliffe. And I am absolutly certain that John Key and his mob dont either.

Anonymous said...

I think the NZ public also looked at the Labour policy (the one you failed to mention Chris) of removing GST from fresh fruit and vegetables-saw how stupid and illogical it was and decided that the party was much the same.
Personally I find Cunliffe so deeply unattractive as a person - and I suspect many other do as well that I would delighted if he was the Labour leader - the party would spend many years in the wilderness.
I think we need a really effective opposition and at present Labour are certainly not that.

Pete said...

Despite my realisation that the world has changed over the last 30 years, I still long for a Labour Party that actually has distinctive left wing policies. Policies that differentiate it philosophically from the right and are more than just about 'management' of the country. I suppose I bemoan the shift that Engels described as from the 'government of men' to the 'administration of things'.

As a long-time ad man I would liken the parity between Labour and the Nats as to two identical supermarket products. The difference in consumer choice will come down to how they relate to the 'brand'. The move to personality politics does not reflect a dumbing down but a decline in differentiation. The voter chooses on personality, if they choose at all.

This is the heart of the Blockhouse Bay phenomena and David Cunliffe's analysis. There is, however, no reason why a party should not have both - policies and real leadership. My fingers are crossed.

Anonymous said...

"Blockhouse Bay"is not fasionable".
Really? One would have thought it was very fashionable going by the very over-priced housing in this rather run-down, quaint little area!! Some streets contain shoe-boxes all going to auction, and obtainting near-million dollar prices!!

The gentleman who stood up and spoke about the Zionists raised a good point, and a point that was no really answered by Mr Cunliffe.

All in all, a fine little outing, and Cunliffe certainly has something over the smiley but careful Key-like Shearer.