GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – Keith Locke: Hard on issues; soft on people


One of the outstanding union leaders of the late 20th and early 21st centuries made many wise observations. The one that registered with me the most was the importance of being ‘hard on the issues but soft on the people’.

That person was Peter Conway. He was active in private sector unionism for many years before becoming first the Council of Trade Unions’ economist and then national secretary. Tragically he died prematurely in 2015.

For a good personal background to him see Stuff  (25 June 2015): Peter Conway obituary.

Implicit in Conway’s approach was that overwhelmingly people are good and that includes many of those one strongly disagrees with (including union and employer representatives).

Even during sharp disagreements there is often common ground that can be found to one degree or another.

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I endeavoured to follow this ‘Conway mantra’ in my years in union leadership. While I believe I measured up on the ‘hard’ bit, the other (soft) bit was probably only ‘work in progress’ as the saying goes.

Keith Locke: a leading public intellectual for social justice and protecting the planet

Although I’m not aware of him using this expression, this was also the everyday practice of the recently deceased Keith Locke. Like Peter Conway; it was part of his DNA. Both were also public intellectuals.

The NZ Herald (21 June) rightly described him as a leading figure in New Zealand activism: Keith Locke dies.

A rock of progressive convictions

That same day I made the following Facebook post:

Knowing that Keith Locke had not been well for some time and being advised of his pending death a couple of days ago did not diminish my sadness with his passing.

I first got to know Keith in the early 1970s. In the sectarian left-wing politics of that time he was a beacon of non-sectarianism and level-headed principles. Impeccable honesty, integrity and courage. Always willing to engage with those with differing views and politics.

He was a rock of progressive convictions. I well remember his farewell speech to Parliament. Throughout his parliamentary career he had made a point of greeting protest marches to Parliament. Then, in a remorseful but humorous aside, he mentioned that the only one he had missed was the previous week – the Assyrians.

Sometimes Keith reminded me of a wobble toy or a tommy-tippy drinking cup. Throughout his political life and activism he was knocked over. But he always quickly bounced back; his feet were always firmly grounded.

I’ve always been reluctant to call anyone a mentor in my life. I think this is an overused term. However, if anyone got close, it was Keith.

I’m a better person because of Keith. Politics generally has been better because of Keith. The Greens were better because of Keith. Let’s all hold onto this. RIP comrade.

Early political days

I first met him in the early 1970s when a student at Victoria University. The American war in Vietnam and racist sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa were catalysts to me becoming more politically curious as I transitioned from the right to the left.

This journey quickly led me to get to know and then join the new Trotskyist Socialist Action League (SAL). The politics fascinated me (and continue to form an important part of my politics even today).

But this was not the only attraction. I was impressed with the calibre and principles of many of its members, including those in its leadership.

At that time Keith Locke was its most prominent leader. Almost all of them are no longer members; either resigning or expelled (as is the way with sectarianism).

I was struck by his humility, insightfulness, integrity and determination. As a new member he made me feel truly valued. In a wider environment of sectarianism within the far left at the time, he was a model of non-sectarianism.

He was always hard on the issues but soft on the people even when this wider environment incentivised sectarianism to get personal.

I left the SAL after three years for two main reasons. First, although this could never be said of Keith himself, I felt that personal sectarianism was impeding the organisation too much. Second, I concluded that its lens while good was too narrow for me to work within.

I have reflected on the narrowing nature of sectarianism in a previous Political Bytes post (13 March): Reflecting on Robespierre and other things .

Consistency of values

In different circumstances these early characteristics of Keith Locke continued after his own subsequent departure from SAL for the rest of his life; in political and social justice activism well before and after his election as a Green MP in 1999.

Such was his respect that he was well-regarded across all parliamentary parties. On some issues where common ground could be found he could also work constructively with rightwing MPs as Peter Dunne has acknowledged in the above-mentioned NZ Herald article.

Semi-naked Keith Locke honours election promise

In addition to being permanently pleasant he also had a sense of humour. When ACT party leader Rodney Hyde contested the National stronghold of Epsom in the 2005 election, a skeptical Keith Locke said he would walk naked down Auckland’s Queen St.

Hyde stunned the pundits (and Keith) with victory. This was an election promise that he could have quietly walked away from. But he stuck to his word, albeit it covering up a very small part of his anatomy.

Keith Locke is an example of how people active in far left politics can broaden their approach while still being consistent with the values that they practised during that earlier activism.

Consistent with his above-mentioned nature, he was always ‘hard’ on the issues while remaining ‘soft’ on people. Everyone, whether of the right or left, can learn from this.



Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Political Bytes


  1. He made one mistake. He failed, as most of us still do, to identify the enemy. ” Know your enemy.” That’s *Sun Tzu 101.
    His greatest ally could have been our agrarian primary industry comprising about 50 thousand people in dire need of friends and Unity. Nothing has changed. Our agrarian primary industry is alone and being predated by a special kind of animal while urban Kiwi’s head off to Australia to try to find their hope, ironically where many of the rich urban Kiwi’s are, feasting on all but free Kiwi farmer money. Aye boys?
    How about some investigative journalism up bnz, fay, richwhite, gibb, chandler, hart etc, etc? They’re the self styled Lairds of The Manor so lets ask them what they think of Keith Locke and his powerless, toothless, ineffective, followers of the fashion of the private wealth creation of the otherwise useless, at any cost ?


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