Friday 13 June 2014

Gut Reactions

Horizontal Revolution: Labour's (and Labor's) inspirational leaders of the 1960s and 70s, Norman Kirk and Gough Whitlam, both grasped the decisive electoral potential of suburban voters who longed to escape the relentless sameness of their days. The votes of the women who lived in the "Hill's Hoist suburbs" around Sydney were crucial to Whitlam's 1972 victory.
GETTING ELECTED has always been the Number One priority of parliamentary democracy. It follows, therefore, that the role of a parliamentary leader is to identify and remove every obstacle to his or her party becoming the government. Partly, that’s a matter of opinion polls, focus groups and communication strategies but, mostly, it’s about a leader’s instinctive feel for the hopes and aspirations, the gripes and disappointments, of the people who have the power to make him or her Prime Minister.
It’s John Key’s indisputable ability to divine what’s eating the average New Zealand voter that makes him such a formidable political figure. Yes, he may slip up from time-to-time, say foolish (or downright offensive) things, but always the needle of his political compass recovers the location of electoral North and he’s back on track.
Much as I hate to admit it, David Cunliffe simply does not have Key’s knack for staying on course. The Labour leader has many intelligent advisers, a good polling agency, pages and pages of Focus Group reports and (allegedly) a speechwriter. What he doesn’t have, however, is Key’s feel for where the voters’ heads are at; that unerring ability to find true electoral North.
What makes me even more depressed is I don’t believe that ability can be instilled. You either have it, or you don’t.
Consider the case of Norman Kirk and what he understood about the lives of the people who could make him Prime Minister. Read these lines from the first chapter of the autobiography he began but never finished. The place described is the street in working-class Linwood, in Christchurch, where he grew up.
It did not brood. It had no character. Instead it conformed. The people were drab. The street was drab. The people were poor. The street was poor. It was there because it had to be. It had nowhere else to go. Neither did the people. It did not inspire. It was a sponge. It soaked up hope. And at night it counted its people like a warder counts his prisoners.
Kirk understood that there were hundreds of thousands of Kiwis who’d been raised on identical streets and, like him, yearned to escape the confinement of such hope-consuming suburbs. In these lines you’ll find no romantic celebration of working-class existence, only a visceral longing for something better; for somewhere else to go.
Kirk’s contemporary, Gough Whitlam, understood a very different kind of suburb. The bare, amenity-starved, post-war subdivisions that had sprung up on the outskirts of Sydney in the 1950s and 60s. They were a step-up from the inner-city tenements of the 1930s but the people who lived in them felt almost as constrained as they had in Sydney’s slums. Even in the years of Menzies and the Great Boom there was still so much that was denied to them.
Whitlam, alone of all his colleagues in the near-moribund Australian Labor Party, grasped the progressive political potential of the “Hill’s Hoist” suburbs.
But first he had to clear all the obstacles to getting elected, and in the Australia of the late-1960s that included the proudly proletarian and staunchly left-wing Victorian Labor Party. On the 9 June 1967, as the ALP’s new leader, Whitlam bearded these socialist lions in their den. In what many Aussie historians consider the best speech of his career, Whitlam addressed directly the defeatist political mindset that had produced eight consecutive Labor defeats.
We construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly, the impotent are pure. This party was not conceived in failure, brought forth by failure or consecrated to failure. Let us have none of this nonsense that defeat is in some way more moral than victory.
That killer line: “Certainly, the impotent are pure”, provoked an uproar – but it was a necessary uproar. Because, as Whitlam reminded them: “We are in the business to serve and preserve democracy. Parliamentary democracy.”
Kirk and Whitlam understood instinctively the intense dissatisfaction building up beneath the National/Liberal status quo. Both men’s political intestines told them that the Hill’s Hoist generation – and their increasingly restive children – would not remain prisoners of their own streets forever.
So, Mr Cunliffe, which obstacles to “getting elected” will you remove? What is your gut telling you to do?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 June 2014.


Kat said...

David Cunliffe's electoral compass needs to point to Labour being the truly natural party of New Zealand.

That is where Key has been successful, with his jokey blokey persona he combines beer swilling BBQ's and sausage sizzles with corporate smoked glass and fine dinning and milky deals with the Chinese.

So it seems you need to beat Key at his own game David, forget the fancy ideas and economic policy that may improve the country's wealth and well being, do as Key does but better, and you will have the electorate in the palm of your hand.

Anonymous said...

Except that the entire Key persona is completely insincere and manufactured. It isn't that Key understands the needs and desires of "mainstream New Zealand" (if I might dust off that infamous term), it's that the media for nearly a decade has been cheerleading National: it was they who typecast him as a "pragmatist" and all that other nonsense while he's running up debt to pay for tax cuts and selling state assets.

Cunliffe can never beat Key but out-keying Key.

(As for Whitlam - I would point out that he was dealing with a very different set of circumstances from the those faced by Cunliffe and Kirk, specifically the split in the ALP, and the DLP's preferences keeping the Coalition in power).

The Veteran said...

Anon 14.55 ... read the polls dear boy, read the polls. If you think Key fails to understand the needs and desires of mainstream New Zealand then more fool you.

Read the polls dear boy, read the polls ... and weap.

Jan said...

The ability that needs instilling in David Cunliffe is not so much an understanding of what 'eats at 'Ordinary Bloke', it's his difficulty in getting OB to listen to him - he's an academic and speaks what we call the Queen's English which is anathema to OB. The only way around that is to develop and show a really good sense of humour like David Lange or a 'trust me I know what I'm doing' persona like Helen - Mr Nice Guy just will not do it - OB can have a big chip on his shoulder and often imagines he's being patronized when faced with someone who speaks well. That's where John Key wins hands down, of course - his Manglish is an international embarrassment, but the hoi polloi love him. His inability to speak properly identifies him as one of them, and he can say virtually what he likes as long as he mangles it!
My father, faced with the problem as a well spoken Methodist Minister who spent most of his working life in working class suburbs, developed the David Lange approach. It worked well and I do think it can be developed - I didn't know Dad when he was young, of course, but I believe he was a very serious young man. By the time he died at 78 he was a person much-liked by pretty much everyone he came in contact withb - except for the odd 'rooster', of course(his perjorative term for the hopelessly humourless and/or deluded)

Anonymous said...

>>>Anon 14.55 ... read the polls dear >>boy, read the polls. If you think >>>Key fails to understand the needs >>>and desires of mainstream New >>>Zealand then more fool you.

Yes, that explains the result of the asset sales referendum. Key was so in touch with New Zealanders on that.

Fact is, a decade of intense media bias (really dating to Brash's Orewa Speech in 2004) has turned New Zealand politics into a shallow contest of manufactured personality, a contest where only one side is allowed to win.

markus said...

I agree with the general thrust, here. But I would point out that both PMs (Kirk and Whitlam) lost elections as Labo(u)r Party leader before they finally won (Kirk in 66 and 69, Whitlam in 69). So it's possible to exaggerate their instinctive powers / midas touch. But I take your general point.

Your thesis about the decisive electoral potential of suburban voters is particularly interesting. In my neck of the woods, I can't help noticing how the Left do so much better in high-income Inner Wellington City suburbs than in middle and lower-middle income suburbs out in the Hutt Valley and, to a lesser extent, Mana. It's particularly noticeable just how blue large swathes of Upper Hutt have become over the last 2 elections (in Chris Hipkins' Rimutaka seat). This is true "Nappy Valley" territory.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Veteran - someone who's going to be so patronising should learn to spell. Key doesn't need to know about ordinary New Zealanders to get ahead in the polls. It's a mixture of knowing what the middle-class want, and a lot of smoke and mirrors. Image is pretty much everything these days – dear boy.

Anonymous said...

Keith Holyoak didn't speak like an ordinary bloke but still aquired the nickname 'Kiwi Keith'. He also won four election and, who knows, he may have won a fifth had Jack Marshall not taken over.

CarbonGuilty said...

Key is himself: a nice, bright, cheerful, handsome Kiwi, at peace with himself. But Cunliff is acting, because he is not ......
Most people can see that either on the face of it, literally or instinctively. End of story.

Jan said...

To Anonymous - Kiwi Keith did 'trust me I know what I'm doing'

Anonymous said...

Well, well, well, this is an interesting blog article here.

I ask beyond the question about Cunliffe, has LABOUR any friends left?

David Cunliffe's problem is he is a bit of a narcissist, thinking he got it right, knows it all, and he is now wanted by Labour members, and that is the first big step to become PM.

I am afraid he got it wrong there, as it takes more than just appeal to party members to get voted. Otherwise we may have Colin Craig be considered a valid candidate for the PM job as well.

Cunliffe's problem is his business acumen, his opportunistic streak, combined with a touch of arrogance, and knowing better, while he knows a lot, but maybe not enough to connect to enough potential voters.

He is leaving too many back-doors open for himself and Labour, and that creates distrust. Kirk like Whitlam were STRAIGHT talkers, they knew what to say in the right words at the right time, to connect and convince.

That is where Labour and Cunliffe are falling down. Since Helen Clark, who held a firm hand on the leadership and the party, the Labour Party has lost control of itself, by being split, disorientated and hurt by past election defeats. An old guard clings to their views and approaches, and new ones are too green behind the ears, and too politically correct and afraid to speak up, so they make no difference.

It is looking like the election is a foregone conclusion, but this election will set a totally new scenario, create new parties and opportunities, that will perhaps lead to a more diverse and different political landscape in future.

Labour will no longer hold the opposition reign, I predict, there will be a stronger Green Party and other forces rising, who will shake up the whole Parliament, if not this time, the coming election in 2017.

Cunliffe will be busy sending off his CV to top level jobs overseas, already now, I am sure, he knows this election will not make him PM, and after that his chances will be zilch, he will never be PM of NZ Inc..

And I write this while I hate Key!

Martin English said...

Come forward a few years from the Whitlam era, and you find an ALP run by people like Graham Richardson of Whatever It Takes fame. And he didn't mean it ironically.

The point is, of course, how much of your principle do you sacrifice ? How much can you sacrifice before your party is no longer recognizable ?


Kat said...

The NZ Labour Party is not going away and its day will come again, and soon. Even National accepts that. It's a question of what are the combination of circumstances that are going to make that day possible in September 2014.

Laying all the circumstance for the outcome on David Cunliffes shoulders is a nonsense. Helen Clark lost the 2008 election as much as John Key won it.

As much as some mainstream commentators would like to pitch the coming election as a presidential contest, in reality this election is more about the maturity of the voting electorate than which leader can smile and wave the best.

Another sausage anyone?

jh said...

The reason Labour no longer resonates is that the cultural Marxists have attacked and undermined the very electorate Labour relied on for support.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Key is himself: a nice, bright, cheerful, handsome Kiwi, at peace with himself."

He may be at peace with himself – it helps that he has millions of dollars :-). But since when is being bright cheerful and at peace with yourself a necessity for garnering the votes of New Zealanders. If you think back to previous New Zealand prime ministers........ Key's public image is VERY carefully managed. It has shown the old crack, that it is a tribute to that management that they have been few and far between.

Olwyn said...

Kirk and Whitlam were in the position to promise change for both urban liberals and workers, who were then united in their desire for progress. If these two groups are united in anything just now, it is in the desire for security. Teachers, unions, public servants, Christchurch residents, state house tenants, etc,etc, would all like to be able to trust our institutions to protect them.

David Cunliffe has had very little time to establish a rapport, and conditions are far worse than they would have been had Labour fronted up as a serious opposition from the minute Key was first elected.
In my eyes, his best bet is to counter "the man you would invite to your barbecue" with "the man you would hope to run into if you had been beaten up and had your passport stolen in a foreign country" since the latter reflects the position in which many New Zealanders now find themselves.

However, achieving this would involve standing up to the Key's predatory lot rather than courting them, which is not so easily done. It is worth remembering that Kirk lost his life and Whitlam his office not all that long after being elected.

Robert M said...

My own view is that Australian experience after the 1930 depression had little in common with NZ. The nature of the class settlement in Australia was very different, and in Australia with many educated only in low grade Catholic private schools, the basic education stds and shared experience of NZers did not exist. Also as a much more populated society with a heavy industrial base, a fear of invasion,etc , Australia was a society were both wealth, individualism and widespead experience of casual sex of all types was common. Australia was also one of the main vehicles for r & r during the Vietnam war for the US Armed Forces and this led to a wide open drug and sex culture.
Whitlam's government was moving in two opposite directions with Treasurer John Stone moving to abolish import licensing, lower tarrifs and made Australian investments transferable to London and NY. At the same time many elements of a NZ and UK welfare state were introduced ( but have progressively being phased out since 1986) and a much more regulated property and housing market was introduced.
In terms of the Kirk comment, the view of Kirk on those matters is not all that different from Muldoons. My own view is that in 1930s their were still good reasons to encourage social mobility as many intelligent people still did manual and physical jobs or jobs that were a mix of skill and labour as in most economies that sort of job predominated but by the mid 1970s the intelligent and generally moved into high skill or white collar jobs, and regretably for my popularity in this society, I judge that far too much has always been done to help the bottom 50% of white males and bottom 20% of females since the 1970s in creating jobs, maintaining public health, downgrading education within NCEA, etc.
My comment really is rather similar to Margaret Thatcher when her Chancellor the father of Nigella of coke and cooking fame, asserted reform of the city and more radical economic cuts and reforms would help ordinary people
Thatchers reply that Lawson was barking if he thought the reforms would help ordinary people, because she did not think they were intellectually capable of make the choices or differentaion or adjustments to profit or gain from the new society. Like Blair she favoured move a million, recently unemployed to the disability benefit, maintain another couple of million on the dole and preferred they concentrate on sport and sex and supplement their earnings through the black economy. Like the Soviets she refused to interfere with that lurk.
Really the policy of Clark, Heydrich and Milosovich was pretty much the same, offer the workers, sex or porn, holidays and pork and hang a few unpopular troublemakers.
A million times wiser than Kirks view or the peasant Judith Collins.

Samuel Cohen said...

John Stone was never the Treasurer in the Whitlam Labor Government.He became Secretary to the Treasury [a civil service position] between 1979 and 1984 4 years after Whitlam lost power.Prior to that he was a senior civil servant in the Treasury.
In 1987 he stood for the Senate for the National Party [about as far from the Labor Party as you can get in Australian politics] was elected and served for 3 years.He resigned in 1990.
He was also an unofficial advisor to and admirer of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, which would certainly put him as far from being a Labor Party member as it is possible to be.