The Ecology Of Poverty: The range of common experiences between the comfortably off New Zealander and the struggling beneficiary has narrowed dramatically. The days of "getting out the vote" may be over.
THERE’S A STORY I like to tell about “getting out the vote”. I’m sharing it with you today because unless Labour is able to substantially increase the number of New Zealanders participating in the electoral process its chances of becoming the next government are negligible. The story is also important because I’m not that confident it could be repeated. And if it isn’t repeatable, then the whole character of electoral politics in New Zealand has already changed – irrevocably.
But first – the story. I have changed the name of the woman at the centre of this true tale because it happened a long time ago and she has since gone on to carve out a highly successful career in a major New Zealand company.
But, back in the day, Mary was living in one of those provincial centres where the city fathers (and mothers) like to keep all the unemployed, solo mums, invalids and sickness beneficiaries in one shabby suburb so that the authorities can keep an eye on them. Just about everybody rented: either from the state or from the folks who lived in the nicer parts of town. The houses had mostly seen better days, even if the people inside them hadn’t much hope of doing the same.
Mary and her little boy subsisted on the DPB and whatever extra help her (proudly left-wing) family could provide. Survival, under the tender legacy of Christine Rankin’s WINZ, was a full-time job for most beneficiaries. Very few of them had any time for politics or politicians. And, if we’re being honest, most politicians didn’t have that much time for them.
Though Mary lived in a Labour-held electorate, her MP really wasn’t much cop – at least not as far as the people who lived on Mary’s street were concerned. She had made her way up through the mostly middle-class Women’s Network of the Labour Party which meant that her working knowledge of the working-class was, to put it kindly, somewhat limited.
But, as I said, Mary came from an intensely political working-class family. Both her parents and two of her siblings were left-wing party activists and Mary had acquired the ability to formulate a better-than-average political analysis practically by osmosis. Unlike most of her neighbours, she saw a General Election looming. And just like the city’s shrewder party bosses, she was pretty sure her local MP was in trouble.
Sure enough, the polling booths had only been open a few hours on Election Day when Labour’s scrutineers noticed a frightening trend. If the hundreds of “natural” Labour supporters in Mary’s suburb continued to stay at home (as they were doing in droves) the incumbent MP was going to lose. Somehow word was got to Mary: “Can you get your neighbours out? If Labour doesn’t maintain its vote at your local booth, the Nats will win.”
Now Mary may not have cared much for the Labour Party but she cared for the National Party a whole lot less. So, as the day wore on, Mary wore her knuckles raw on the doors of her friends and neighbours.
She knew them and they knew her. More importantly, they trusted her. So when she told them: “You gotta get down to the school and vote. Yep, right now. Coz if all of us living round here don’t vote Labour, the Nats will win.”
And it worked. Mary’s neighbours squeezed their babies into their strollers, and their voting papers into the ballot box – and Labour held the seat.
I told this story to my brother last Christmas, and he shook his head. He’s been a social worker for 40 years and he told me, sadly, that “the ecology of poverty” (as he memorably described the social relations of deprivation) has undergone a dramatic change since he first ventured into those hard-scrabble suburbs back in the late-1970s. He’s not so sure that the species of citizen to which Mary belonged – already on the edge of extinction 20 years ago – exists anymore.
Had he been dropped into Mary’s social ecosystem 20 years ago, he said, finding a path to survival, though difficult, would still have been possible. The poor still had enough in common with “Middle New Zealand” for a reasonable measure of mutual comprehension. Today, he said, it would be much harder. The range of common experiences between the comfortably off New Zealander and the struggling beneficiary has narrowed dramatically.
“I don’t think I could do it.”
And, believe me, if he couldn’t do it, and if the sort of well-read, politically-aware, working-class families that made Mary possible no longer exist, then the mission of “getting out the Labour vote” has become a fool’s errand.
Twenty years ago the ecology of poverty still possessed a sufficiently political dimension to preserve Labour’s honour. Twenty years later – it’s gone.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 March 2014.