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.