The High Peaks of Principle: Thoughts on Labour’s “Man Ban”.


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AMIDST ALL THE CLAMOUR of its detractors, the true significance of Labour’s “Man Ban” has eluded most commentators.

Yes, the proposed rule change has undoubtedly damaged Labour’s election prospects.

Yes, there are many more important issues the party would have preferred the news media to focus upon.

Yes, it is further evidence of a party with no reliable political grown-ups in charge.

Yes, Labour’s opponents will dine out on it for months.

And, yes, it’s the only thing the 2013 Annual Conference will be remembered for.

But, the “Man Ban” is also proof of something else: that the distance separating Labour’s rank-and-file from Labour’s Caucus has grown as wide as the gulf that once separated the “old” Labour Party from the “new”.

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It is nearly a quarter of a century since the left of the Labour Party, together with a wild assortment of Maoists, Trotskyites, eco-socialists and radical feminists, converged upon Wellington’s Overseas Terminal building for the Inaugural Conference of the NewLabour Party (NLP).

By the end of that eventful Queen’s Birthday weekend in 1989 the NLP leader, Jim Anderton, realised he had a tiger by the tail. He remained reasonably confident of managing the radical Labour activists who, like him, had walked away from the Lange/Douglas Government in disgust. But the comrades from the Workers Communist League and the Permanent Revolution Group had left him badly shaken. As far as these hard-line Marxists were concerned, left-wing social-democracy occupied the extreme right of the NLP’s political spectrum. Anderton was left in no doubt that the new party possessed a much sharper cutting-edge than the old.

Two constitutional provisions sheeted home the steely determination of the NLP to move away from the comfortable compromises of Old Labour. Interestingly, they were both driven by the women of the party.

The first was the repudiation of the so-called “Conscience Vote”. The NLP had taken a clear and unequivocal pro-choice stance on the abortion issue, and its MPs were not going to wiggle-out of it by claiming a conscientious objection to voting for a woman’s right to choose.

The second was an equally unequivocal commitment to full gender equality throughout the party – up to and including the slate of candidates put forward by the NLP for local and national elections.

There were plenty of older heads that were lowered and shaken at these manifestations of the young party’s uncompromising commitment to left-wing principle. But to the younger party members – myself included – this gale of radicalism was as bracing and invigorating as the wind off Wellington Harbour. We were starting as we meant to go on. Compromise had led the old Labour Party into the quicksand of Rogernomics. The NLP would march only on the high moral ground.

Imagine my consternation, then, when taking the NLP’s message to the doorsteps of working-class Dunedin, I was taken to task for its gender equality rule. Not, I hasten to add, by working-class men, but by working-class women.

For some reason, the NLP’s quota policy struck a very tender nerve. Unschooled in the subtleties of feminist theory, these daughters of the proletariat roundly took me to task for having such a “bloody silly rule”. When I attempted to explain the purposes of positive discrimination to one stern matron, she held up her hand for silence, and told me in no uncertain terms that I was wrong.

“Don’t you see, son? It’s as bad to put someone into Parliament on account of what they haven’t got between their legs as it is for what they have. All that should ever matter is what they’ve got in their heads and in their hearts!”

As you can see, I’ve never forgotten her words.

Still, that was 25 years ago, and her generation is swiftly passing away. Attitudes may have changed.

Labour’s rank-and-file clearly think so, or they would not have endorsed the proposed changes to their party’s candidate selection rules.

And I salute them for it. How could I not? To discover that the members of the old Labour Party are on the verge of embracing the radical social-democratic principles of the NLP has stirred my heart – as well as my memories.

But also, I must confess, it has stirred my doubts.

It’s not that I question the sincerity of Labour’s rank-and-file – not at all. The psephologist, Dr Jack Vowles, who set up the long-running New Zealand Election Study, examined the attitudes of activists who attended Labour Party conferences in the 1990s and compared them with those of activists he’d interviewed at Alliance (into which the NLP was folded in 1991) conferences over the same period. His conclusion? That the attitudes of rank-and-file members of Labour and the Alliance were startlingly similar.

No, my doubts are centred on the Labour Caucus. The public responses of Labour MPs Clayton Cosgrove, Damian O’Connor and Shane Jones make it very clear that the idealism of the party’s rank-and-file is not about to be embraced unanimously by Labour’s parliamentary contingent. Indeed, given the latest remarks from Labour Party leader, David Shearer, the news media will almost certainly make getting rid of the “Man Ban” a test of his ability to rein-in the “stupidity” of the party organisation.

Political journalists and commentators are united in their view that the proposed rule changes constitute a massive political “own goal” for Labour. They seem equally certain that the daughters of the New Zealand proletariat (not to mention its sons!) remain as unenthusiastic about gender quotas in 2013 as they were in 1989. Labour’s problem, according to this argument, is that its apparent obsession with what candidates do or don’t have between their legs will call into serious question what they have (or don’t have) in their heads and their hearts.

And it is here, perhaps, that the experiences of the old and new labour parties do begin to diverge. Though the gender quota rule may have irritated potential NLP and Alliance supporters, these latter parties’ core policies were so unequivocally left-wing in character that annoying internal organisational details could be overlooked.

The same cannot be said of Labour. As was the case in the 1980s, the wishes of the Labour rank-and-file and the political plans of the Labour Caucus continue to clash. Labour MPs remain convinced that, in any battle with the rank-and-file over policy (or anything else) they must never be seen to lose. The rank-and-file’s across-the-board radicalism is, therefore, perennially blunted by parliamentary pragmatism.

Can this battle between pragmatism and principle ever be ended? Not, I suspect, without pitching the party into the same sort of cataclysmic disunity that split Labour and led to the formation of the NLP in 1989.

But all those rank-and-filers who yearn, as I once did, to rescue their party from the quicksand of compromise and lead it up onto the high moral ground, should bear in mind this uncomfortable truth.

There are bugger all votes on the high peaks of principle.

If you want to win elections (which is what political parties are all about) then, in the words of Jim Anderton, you must be prepared to “build your footpaths where the people walk.”


  1. This proposed rule to allow Labour electorate delegates to decide whether they will only put up female candidates in certain electorates has truly back-fired.

    I myself doubt it is the right step to achieve larger representation by female electorate MPs, and other measures to encourage, support and empower female members to stand as candidates should be looked at.

    Yet I understand that this is just a proposal, and it is supported by many women members, so it deserves to be debated and voted on.

    What Labour did not expect, and what is not surprising, is how the media – that is the mainstream media – have taken this topic up and swooped on it. Most must realise by now that the MSM is largely in the hands of private media corporates, of advertising revenue dependent “mercenaries”, who are mindful of what their paymasters may feel and think.

    They are also mindful of the power of the incumbent, the government, with the much “teflonised” John Key, giving the man and his government respect, no matter how many half-truths, untruths and misinformation he spreads. No matter what u-turns, what dodgy deals are struck, few ask hard questions.

    The many reporters, moderators and other journalists all fear for their job security and reputation and status, so they bend over backwards to not upset the government too much, as they need to be able to interview them now and then.

    The court jester may act smart and with a bit of cheek at times, but only on the surface, as the emperor must not be offended.

    So here comes some proposal from Labour’s council, and hey, it is fodder for the many, who have survived the cleansing of newsrooms from the old guard, who were too independent, spent time and effort on analysis and asked the hard questions.

    It just fits in so nicely, and it may even meet the underlying Kiwi psyche of so many, it is just fun, to deal another blow to the one who may try to be the tall poppy, or to be too PC or academic.

    All such “academic” stuff does not get a welcome reception anymore. It is one liners and two liners making news, simple messages, so play off man against woman, and apply some revanchist reverse sexism, and the best news are made.

    It started with talk back, on Radio Live with new redneck (and Michael Laws replacement) Sean Plunket, on 1 ZB Leighton was delivering his bit, and others followed. National Radio may have been trying to show more balance, but only a minority listen to them.

    Bring in the TV news, and again, “Man Ban” is the hitting news item, making no real sense, but such terms are appealing to the poorly informed, over-stressed Kiwi battlers out there, who have no time for internal rules for party candidatures.

    So it goes. It has all only become an “issue” due to the mainstream, privately dominated media and their now mostly Nat friendly, right-wing staff, making this an issue.

    They again have easy, quick news to spread, same like weather, crime, sexual deviant behaviour, liquor shops stirring suburbanites up, and the likes. No research needed, no hard work, no high costs, quick, easy, superficial, non-sensical headline news, and another nail is delivered into the coffin of Labour.

    Hence Shearer, Jones and others now back down, as they cannot handle the media well.

    Labour is taken apart, unbelievable, and they argue amongst each other now in caucus and further afield.

    As I said so many times, the apple is now too rotten within, bring it on, create and found a totally new, left of centre, truly social democratic party, that has no bad baggage, and can deliver a new start with a new program and new candidates!

    All else seems like ongoing agony. Sorry, I wish it was different, but I have given up on this Labour Party long ago.

    • Thank you Labour women for voting me down, you are merely digging your own party’s grave, as you are too pre-occupied with your own goals. The party is DEAD!

      • Apologies to women (still) supporting Labour or being members of the party.

        Having just realised that David Farrar did on Kiwiblog link to Chris’ story here, to use it to push his divisive agenda, I can conclude now, who gave me the many thumbs down for my initial response.

        Clearly it will in majority have been Farrar’s loyal bulldogs of commenters, looking for loot, to express dissatisfaction for me having exposed what the biased media are all about. Some of them will have followed the link, to view this story.

        Yep, Farrar is given too much credit by MSM, and he has at times acted like a “trend setter”, besides “the Whale” also, pushing the “man ban” label to attack Labour.

        As I stated above, the media have a lot to answer, same as Farrar and “the Whale”, and being exposed for their manipulations and intellectual laziness does not go down well with them and their following.

        The good thing out of all this is, now they know that not only The Standard and the odd other left leaning, progressive blog exists. They know now ‘The Daily Blog’. The word and message is being spread, so some good comes out of all, even evil attempts.

  2. I believe labour is grasping at the wrong end of the stick here. Policy to create equality for woman in society would be the way to address this issue. There should be free education, generous maternity leave(for both sexes, I love my daughter too), state housing, enforced pay equality and much,much more.

    If we release woman from the crushing exploitative burden that is thrust upon them then there will be greater involvement. In all spheres of culture including politics.

    To me this policy is showing the shallowness of Labours policy around gender equality, under a lack of initiative to grow our next generation of leaders in an equitable environment labour has resorted to a (on its own) limp policy.

    And this is not to mention the huge number of prominent figures I meet who although not traditional politicians are some of the staunchest leaders I have ever met. A quick trip to Glen Innes will reveal them fighting the government in the streets for their Homes!

    I’m certainly not against this policy, There is inequality, but this a bandaid for the sea of inequality out there. aiming for genuine social equality I believe will not only lead to greater representation but a higher quality of leadership and thus in time make any form of pro-discriminatory policy obsolete.

    Shouldn’t that be our goal, a society where all form of discrimination are consigned to our brutal past, a society without want. Where each delivers according to their ability and receives according to their need?

    Where is the empowerment of our people labour? Disappointing.

  3. “If you want to win elections (which is what political parties are all about) then, in the words of Jim Anderton, you must be prepared to “build your footpaths where the people walk.”

    This eminently intentioned equality move has just consolidated the well worn footpath to the opposition benches.

    The authors are like kids making a really flash kids’ hut. While they decorate it up, dream of making it even more fancy and marvel at their handiwork, the real people are living real lives in real houses. When they look out the pretend windows of their pretendy house in 18 months time will they wonder what caused to still be outside in the cold?

  4. I see Shearer as a Confederate poking a stick into the spokes of his own bike .

    They’ll do anything to keep the Truth contained . I expect him to start wearing women’s cloths or to come out of the closet . Anything but the truth .

    Call me old fashioned if you must but I’ve long given up on the idea that what I see and what I hear is the truth so I’ve decided to build my own theories . Why not ? They do .

  5. I was really disappointed to see these proposals come out. There is only so much you can do in politics and what people really want are jobs, futures for their children, health, education, affordable housing and low power bills. Instead Labour is stuck on social engineering. It is more worried about defining everyone and putting them in a box than fixing the problems that really matter to the majority of New Zealanders.

    I know many party members who are fuming over this. They thought we were changing. We were told we were going back to our origins as a party for the workers. Instead it looks like the champagne socialists from Auckland and Wellington are ruling the roost again.

    I along with other members cheered when Clayton Cosgrove, Damian O’Connor and Shane Jones spoke some common sense.

    If the champagne socialists, out-of-touch radicals want to do this, fine. But they better remember we will loose in 2014 and Labour’s path will be ever downward. If you want to govern the people, you need to understand the people and be of the people.

  6. And yet….and yet….the cacophony of derision from this apparent “nannystate paintergate on-a-plate” is strangely absent from those most affected. This is not affirmative action for an oppressed minority – rather a nod to an increasingly potent majority who seem not too fazed at all.

    Add to that a decidedly decisive stance from the mythical captain mumblekey, and perhaps the equally mythical Waitakere manth is not too worried either.

    Sleep on it. Things will look better in the Morgan.

  7. I fail to see how this policy furthers gender equality. It seems to me this policy suggests (paraphrasing Orwell), that women are more equal than men.

  8. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand it would be good to see women achieving 50% representation in Parliament. On the other, do we need positive discrimination to achieve this end?


  9. Oh dear. For one thing, it’s not a “man ban”, any more than Sue Bradford’s bill against child abuse was an “Anti-Smacking Bill”. Why are “progressive” commentators propagating the spindocters’ memes for them, instead of tearing them apart and revealing them for the shrink-wrapped misdirection they are?

    Second, lets just remind ourselves of the facts behind the spin. Women are just over half the population. Women have had the vote in NZ elections for more than 100 years. Yet in all that time, they have never been close to half of the MPs, and there have been only two female Prime Ministers (and only one elected as such).

    This leads inescapably to one of two conclusions; either the quality of what our women have “in their heads and in their hearts” is not of the same calibre as that of men, *or*, the political system systematically discriminates against female candidates. I can’t sympathize with the unreformed chauvinism required to believe the former, so the next question is; where in the political system is the discrimination taking place?

    Again, let’s look at the unspinnable facts. Voters do not choose party lists, or electorate candidates, so the fault can’t lie with them. As Chris points out, the Alliance maintained roughly 50/50 representation during their time, and the Greens have done the same since they entered parliament separately. The Māori Party, and even ACT, hardly bastions of “progressive” values, have managed roughly a third to a half women MPs.

    The inescapable conclusion is that the discrimination lies within the rules and processes of the parties who have not yet achieved equal representation. Labour’s proposal to change their candidate selection rules is simply the logical way to address this, and I challenge other parties to do the same, along with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner (also a former National MP) that:

    Those who are happy to throw long-term considerations about equal representation under a bus to serve the short-term goal of wining one election are welcome to their opinion, but stop pretending there’s anything “progressive”, “radical”, or even “left” about your politics. These labels do not apply to reactionary demands that women (or tangata whenua, or any other marginalized section of the populace) sacrifice themselves for the dubious benefits of a Labour-led government with unreformed neo-liberals like Shearer at the helm.

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