December 03, 2003 | Graham

Cream of the working class

There is only one winning margin thinner than that of 47 to 45 and that is 46 all with the winner to be decided on the toss of a coin. Mark Latham’s win will only be a victory for Labor if they now genuinely unite behind his leadership. Beazley has said that he will, but then that is what he said after his last leadership challenge.
I was impressed with Latham’s victory speech . It was well paced, had a good tone and fingered all the right messages – health, education and childcare – while only respectfully and briefly mentioning national security. He promised to be positive, a promise which will be hard for a politician to keep. Latham didn’t try to hedge around his past faults – he admitted them and promised to do better. It wasn’t a polished delivery, another mark in its favour. Andrew Peacock had a polished delivery, but it tended to alienate voters.
Latham based much of his speech around an image – the “ladder of opportunity” – from which the Howard Government “has taken out too many of the rungs”. He connected and personalized. Not only were his wife and family with him, but he talked about his past – the housing commission estate and the frustrations of the local bus service in Green Valley. He distanced himself from the culture of entitlement, so readily associated with Labor and disdained by many blue collar Australians – “I believe in hard work, reward for effort…”
He situated the personal experiences in an historical context – December 1972 is the anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Labor Government. (It is also, as Phillip Adams pointed out on LNL this evening, the day that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France). When asked about the narrowness of the vote he referred to Curtin’s victory over Forde by 11 to 10, but undercut the potential charge of hubris by pointing out that the caucus was much smaller then and that he wasn’t Curtin.
On top of everything he had a couple of slogans – the “War on Terror” has to be matched by the “War on Inequality”, and an “Australian government as good as the Australian people”. All this was wrapped up in the message that the ALP was moving into the future with a new generation.
Latham has to overcome the Brogden problem. Our research found that while voters agreed with what Brogden was saying in the NSW election campaign they didn’t know enough about him, and partly as a result didn’t trust him enough, to give him their vote. Latham seemed to be aware of this problem – “Some will be asking ‘Who is Mark Latham…’”. He’s filled in the gaps with skill, and provided some easily digestible unifying themes that voters should be easily able to remember.
If Latham can keep this up and his party lets him do the job he will offer a real alternative to Howard at the next election. The things people don’t like about Labor are its perceived untrustworthiness. Roy Morgan pollingshowed that people think Latham is a straight shooter, and he did nothing today to contradict that. But he did more than that. He reached out to voters’ individual experiences and made himself one of them in a context where he could give them a sense of historical purpose and belonging – the tribal identity that all good politicians need to construct for their voters. That is something that no politician since Bob Hawke has been able to do consistently.
On Late Night Live tonight Adams and guests were saying how unlike Whitlam Latham is. I think they saw this as a negative, but I see it as a positive. Kim Beazley’s father famously observed that once the Labor Party was full of the cream of the working class, but that now it has become full of the dregs of the middle class. Latham may be generational change, but if he is, it is retro – he is the cream of the working class, and perhaps he can reinvigorate the Labor Party. He’s been a good supporter of OLO. I wish him all the best.

Posted by Graham at 6:11 am | Comments (1) |
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1 Comment

  1. The vehemence with which government ministers attacked Latham in question time yesterday indicates they agree he is a genuine threat. Labor’s questions were also a bit of a gimme to the government.
    They did much better today and had ministers (including Howard) wandering around in word-land a number of times looking for a line of attack.
    The real test will be if Labor can sustain the debate on its preferred issues and not get pulled back to the national security issues.
    The contrast between Crean and Latham is quite stunning but so has been the contrast between Latham and the government ministers. For a so called “wild man”, he has been quite measured and restrained while the government has more or less tried to shout him down or deride him. They run the risk of being seen to be the mindlessly negative ones unless they engage in more substantive debate. I’m probably a bit misty-eyed about this – but I think the public is getting a bit tired of grown men and women shouting at each other in pretence of being in engaged in political debate.

    Comment by Alex McConnell — December 3, 2003 @ 10:25 pm

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