Woo them or lose them, Labour

17:00, Apr 12 2012

The manner in which the Right took control of the Auckland University Students Association is really quite instructive.

From the late 1960s until the late 1980s, with some notable exceptions (the Green MP Kevin Hague being one of them), AUSA presidents, newspaper editors and executive members tended to hail from the Left. Then, as successive governments encouraged more and more foreign students to enrol at New Zealand's universities, things began to change.

Given the New Zealand's Left's infatuation with all things "international", one might assume that its candidates would be the first to reach out to this new and growing student constituency. But, one would be wrong.

Their reputation for beer-swilling racist redneckery notwithstanding, the first student politicians to think of printing posters and pamphlets in the native tongues of Auckland's foreign students hailed from the Right. In return for this, foreign students consistently rewarded the Right's candidates with a winning margin of votes. The moral of this story is clear: "Never allow a new and growing political constituency to go unwooed. Because if you don't woo 'em, somebody else is bound to."

In the last election just over 3.25 million New Zealanders were eligible to vote. On the day, however, just over 2.25m Kiwis actually made it to the polling booths. Or, to put it more precisely, only 69.6 per cent of eligible voters participated in the 2011 general election - one of the lowest turnouts on record. There will always be a hard core of the more feckless sort of citizen who'll just never be bothered taking their civic responsibilities seriously (a statistician friend of mine reckons the figure hovers somewhere around the 6 per cent mark).

There's another group, however, whose refusal to enter the polling booth is a conscious political statement. These abstainers, and their number has been growing steadily since the mid-1980s, have a blunt message for the political parties: "You don't know me. You won't help me. You don't understand me. You can't even speak my language."

A significant minority add: "You betrayed me."

Overwhelmingly, these abstainers are young (18-25 years) poorly educated and unskilled workers and beneficiaries, and most of them reside in electorates that, historically, have been Labour strongholds.

"Politics", if it means anything at all to these youngsters, is generally construed as the sum of all their fears. And "politicians", far from being regarded as people they elect to do things for them, are seen as the people others elect to do things to them.

They couldn't tell you how they know, but they do know, and deep in their gut the knowledge festers like a malignant tumour: they are the ones who are being blamed; they are the ones who are being punished; for economic and social sins they can barely pronounce.

These youngsters should be the apples of Labour's eye. The ones for whom, "Seddon and Savage", James K Baxter's "Socialist Father", returned, in the poem Crossing Cook Strait. For, surely, these are "the angry poor" who were his people? And surely it is their suffering, and the social and economic injustice which engenders it, that defines Labour's "peril and purpose"?

They should be Labour's people, but they are not. Indeed, it is the children of these young folk that Labour once again proposes to abandon by jettisoning its policy of increasing the incomes of beneficiary families.

That amounts to the purest political folly, because, given half a chance, this scapegoat generation, these angry thousands, possess the power to carry not only Labour but this whole country into the future.

The story of New Zealand's tomorrow will be the story of how well, or how badly, Labour responds to the challenge of uplifting these alienated abstainers. Of how, or whether, a future left-wing government provides them with the education, the training, the housing and, ultimately, the responsibility to keep our society whole.

And if the Left refuses to woo them? Then, be warned - somebody else will.