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Chris Ford: The Man Ban, the Labour Party and the New Social Movements - no wonder the Right did a wedgie!

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

 This week blogger Whale Oil got a scoop from what appeared to be an internal Labour Party source. This source revealed that sections of the Labour Party were promoting a potential women only shortlist idea used in other political parties around the world.

Slater seized on this tip with glee as did the National Party which may sometimes look at him askance but at other times feed him tasty morsels to hit back at the Opposition with. Hence, Slater and National made the most of another opportunity to practice some good old fashioned wedge politics, courtesy this time of a seeming Labour Party own goal.

The wedge politics that this issue presented gave National the ability, in a week when John Key had his uncomfortable first public showdown with Kim Dotcom, to create a useful distraction. National, through doing so,  were able to reinforce with the infamous voter demographic, known collectively as 'Waitakere Man', that the Labour Party was still preoccupied with identity politics rather than more important issues like health, education, and the economy.

I have to say that while Labour should ensure greater equality of representation within its ranks, I believe that granting electorates the ability to exclude men from shortlists is potentially discriminatory. Yes, I applaud the principle of course but not the mechanism. I would, if I were Labour, approve general guidelines which set targets for representation and actively seek to eliminate the institutional barriers that hold currently under-represented groups like women, disabled people, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, for example, back from being selected. However, the important thing to avoid is the impression that men or women, disabled or gay people are being selected for being simply what they are and not on any other attributes they might have. Therefore, if equal opportunity policies are to be effective, they should seek to still promote the selection of candidates from these groups based on merit but on the proviso that if they are from one that they are then actively supported to go even further by the party hierarchy.

For Labour, this issue also once again exposes tensions that have been common within most social democratic parties since the late 1960s at least - that between the need to retain the support of its core working class voter base and the need to reach out to other socially disadvantaged groups, collectively known as the New Social Movements (NSMs). The NSMs are the feminist, anti-war, youth, disability, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered, environmental and other activist groups that emerged from the middle class dominated university campuses of the 1960s. The NSMs initially sought to bypass traditional political institutions through attempting to reach out to the mass public through public protest. Accordingly, much of the general public in those days rejected their entreaties as they stereotypically viewed many of them, for example, as simply being 'hippies' and 'druggies'. Then, during the early to mid-1970s, following this large scale rejection, the NSMs began to see infiltrating traditional political institutions, such as political parties, as a means of furthering their agenda. In particular, many NSM adherents joined social democratic parties like Labour and even ecologically-based movements such as the Values Party which they saw as at least having an egalitarian and slightly more radical set of values that most closely aligned with their own. These values sat well with many of the NSMs as many of them (and most prominently the feminist movement) called for the more radical enlargement of the social democratic concepts of egalitiarianism and liberation to embrace not only working men but also women, ethnic minorities, disabled people, and gays and lesbians, etc.

According to some of the literature I have read on this issue, this influx of well educated, middle class, radically socially liberal people into the Labour Party caused considerable tension. The NSM generation (who included among their number, for example, Helen Clark) tended to come up against the working class social conservatism of mainly male trade unionists and ordinary branch members. Undoubtedly, though, these NSMs did bring some much needed cultural change into Labour that saw the party become more gradually diversified in terms of membership which translated, eventually, into a more diversified candidate pool. It also led the Labour Party to become more middle class in terms of its membership and activist base.

Hence, the need to appeal to both socially conservative working class and socially liberal middle class activists (and voters) has represented a great challenge for Labour in the same way that it has done for all other parties of the left in modern times. The main challenge for Labour and other left groups has been, with an increasingly middle class leadership and activist base, how do you appeal to groups whose views on social matters can be divergent to say the least? Internally speaking, how do left-wing party hierarchies reconcile the need to retain socially conservative working people in their ranks without offending the middle class social liberals whose financial and volunteer activist support they survive on? 

In many respects, the Labour, Green, Alliance and Mana party hierarchies have all had to face these questions. But they have negotiated them nonethless through diplomacy, tact, sometimes more than a bit of arm twisting, but most times through compromise and even a bit of tactical retreating. On this occassion, though, Labour's policy process has thrown up a potentially good policy which has been undermined through having one severe sounding aspect attached to it - the so-called 'man ban' provision. Clearly, the policy process within Labour doesn't have a political risk lens attached to it. This has enabled the Tories to make hay during a week when the Sun shouldn't have shone for them at all.

Which is all a great shame really - and it's all due to the long term influence that the NSMs continue to have within Labour. This isn't a bad thing at all as I consider myself to be an NSM adherent! However, we NSMers have to be mindful of the fact that the vast majority of ordinary supporters of left wing parties are more concerned with issues of economic survival than which member of the political elites goes where on a party list. This is particularly relevant at this time when New Zealand and the world's economic recovery is still shakey at best. Fellow members of the NSMs will say that there is never any good time to bring in sometimes unpopular changes which promote greater equity for underrepresented groups. I agree but at this time, the Tories are desperate to find anything that they cling onto in order to survive what will be a tight election for them next year. I say don't give them any more of a lifeline!

That's why it's important for Labour to peform a temporary, tactical retreat on this issue by doing away with the female shortlist idea and instituting a set of general guidelines instead. Perhaps, if matters don't improve down the track, then all female shortlists could be looked at again. But perhaps, I also say to Labour activists, do it at a time when you have the relative luxury of a poll lead and can maybe afford to slip a point or two but not right now when the entire left (which is slightly behind the centre-right in many polls) could be dragged down once again by diversions within its leading party.

And another important reminder to Labour activists pushing the so-called man ban too - gay marriage came in at a time when the electorate had finally warmed to the idea. Don't ever rule out the fact, either, that one day Waitakere Man and indeed the majority of New Zealand voters might accept all female shortlists - if it ever need come to that! I only hope that even more women and representatives of other minority groups (including from my own disability community) will make it through via, what in my view, has been the greatest advance for electoral equity so far in New Zealand - our MMP system!





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