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Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: What does the Labour Party want to be?

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Shane Jones. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Shane Jones. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Shane Jones' shock departure from the Labour Party caucus has sparked a debate about the direction of the party.

Divisions over the Labour Party's ideological direction (or lack thereof) are not new, but have been brought to the surface because Jones has represented and voiced one possible direction. As John Armstrong puts it, the bitter debate on the left over the last week 'was as much about Labour's direction as it was about Jones' - see: Labour's brutal week reveals Achilles heel.

Shane Jones has become a lightning rod for the discussion about all that is right or wrong with the Labour Party, and about what it means to be leftwing in 2014. Most fundamentally, it has pushed the question about whether the party needs to focus on economic or social issues. Rightly or wrongly, Jones has become associated with those in the party who want Labour to concentrate on economics and everyday issues versus those who want to prioritise social issues. The caricature is of either 'man bans versus jobs' or else 'enlightened human decency versus misogyny, sexism and racism'. It's a dichotomy that is far from accurate, but it does represent something real about the battle for the future of the Labour Party.

Labour's Josie Pagani has been articulating the division between the two factions, arguing strongly for a more economic focus. In Michael Fox's article about divisions in the party - see: Labour reels in Jones' wake - she is reported as identifying the divide 'between those focused on social mobility and those focused on social engineering - "we'll make you better off versus we'll make you a better person," she said.

The Labour Party was there to support wage earners and promote better jobs and higher wages "and that's the thing that unites everybody".

Vernon Small also attempts to explain the division: 'On one side there are the "good riddance to Jones" merchants who seem to believe the broad church party would have a wider appeal if its MPs came from a smaller chapel... On the other side are those who lament the loss of Jones' appeal to Maori, soft centrist or conservative National voters but use his supposed straight talking - too many "geldings" in the party etc - to attack identity politics' - see: Church collapsed? Buy a house.

Claire Trevett explains how Jones' departure has fostered this debate: 'Jones was seen as the last bastion of the centre ground for Labour as well as providing an important buffer from the view that the party was more obsessed with identity politics and political correctness than everyday grafters' - see: Keeping up without Jones.

There has been a tendency to see the division as being between the left and right factions of the party. Such a view has merit, but it possibly makes more sense to see it as a divide between those in the party focused on social liberal concerns, and those focused on economic and more traditional Labour issues. In political science terms, this divide is generally termed a materialist vs postmaterialist debate.

Materialists are more concerned with economic issues, while postmaterialists are mainly concerned with focusing their attention and political policy on social issues. While materialists want to focus on the things that materially impact on voters, such as jobs, housing, the economy and the state's provision of services including social welfare, postmaterialists are interested in social issues often related to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disabilities, human rights, and foreign policy. To see more about this argument, see my blog post, The Labour Party - divided between materialists and postmaterialists.

The Herald newspaper editorial also summoned up as similar dichotomy, saying that 'For Labour to entrench itself as a party of government it must determine what it stands for. And that must be rooted in its heritage, and the day-to-day reality of what matters to most Kiwis. Jobs, health and education - not GCSB protests and smartphone apps' - see: Labouring under false impressions.

An alternative schema is to conceptualise the factions as the 'beer track' (materialists) and 'wine track' (postmaterialists), according to Liam Hehir's column Narrowing of the Labour Party. He says that the 'wine track' politicians are concerned with the 'metropolitan middle classes... who are often relatively secure economically' (Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern) versus the 'beer track' who are 'economic battlers and their principal concern is the security and aspirations of their family and friends' (Damian O'Connor and Shane Jones).

Decline of the working class Labour Party?

There's an argument that Labour has moved too far away from its focus on working people. Originally, of course, the party was created in order to put working people into Parliament, but it has allegedly come to focus more on putting middle-income professionals into politics. Shane Jones has been seen by many as a more visceral representation of the working class voter. There has accordingly been much angst about how Jones best epitomised Labour's traditional target market: the 'blue-collar' voter.

So is Labour leaving the working class behind? Narelle Henson thinks so, and puts the case strongly in her column Why Jones' departure hurts Labour. Here's the key part: 'The new norm for the party seems to be finding people who represent minority groups in society and trying to make them all get along together. Whether its the feminists, gay rights crowd, Maori, Pacifica, unionists or fans of the extreme left, the party seems to be focussing less on broad appeal and more on niche groups each with their own agenda. Just take a look at Labour's top 20 MPs listed online. They are hopelessly academic, aloof and disconnected from the people the party says it represents. How many former manual labourers are in its ranks? Damien O'Connor is the last man standing on that count. Yes, Grant Robertson worked a supermarket job to pay university fees, and Phil Goff did the same at a freezing works. But that's a different story from trying to raise a family, or pay a mortgage, on the minium wage. How many MPs in its ranks could even be considered working class? All I could find was a bunch of former lawyers, diplomats, unionists, professionals, and activists'.

For another critique of how Labour came to be more middle-class orientated, see the guest blog post on Kiwiblog: Why is Labour Struggling in 2014? An Essay on the History of Labour's Predicament.

See also, Philip Ferguson's Shane Jones and the nature of the Labour Party.

Broad church and division

With bitter fights about Jones and the ideological direction of the party, Labour is in grave danger of appearing divided. John Armstrong makes this case most strongly, saying that 'this week's very public exhibition of the disunity which flows freely and abundantly from the deep schisms within the party may well have proved to be sufficiently damaging to have put victory in September's general election out of reach' - see: Labour's brutal week reveals Achilles heel. He paints a picture of 'the outbreak of factional warfare in the form of the Labour left indulging in a danse macabre on Jones' still warm political corpse'. He also pushes rumours of internal National Party polling that supposedly show Labour on as little as 23% support at the moment.

Tim Watkin also points to the danger of disunity: 'But mostly the loss [of Jones] does damage via perception - the sense that Labour is a house divided and certainly not a government-in-waiting. Voters won't listen to its ideas about housing or tax or education if it doesn't think the party is fundamentally competent to run the country' - see: Time running out for Labour.

The postmaterialist liberals strike back

Why can't the political left and the Labour Party focus equally on economic and social issues? Surely Labour should and does put focus on both the materialist and postmaterialist concerns of voters. This is the argument put forward by many social liberals in Labour and on the left. They point out that economic and social concerns are not mutually exclusive.

For example, today Dave Armstrong argues that a focus on social issues can produce economic gains: 'No one understands the necessity for cheap childcare and for women to be paid fairly better than a working class male with a family. For those poorly paid men, income inequality based on gender affects their family pay packet. It's not a "boutique", "PC", "front bum" or "gelding" issue' - see: Jones departure deals a painful blow to Labour. Armstrong also disputes the idea that working class voters are attracted to social conservative politics: 'Some critics have been quick to justify Jones's "gelding" sexism by claiming he appeals to blue- and brown-collar males. Where is it written that all these men hate gays and think that a woman's place is in the home?'

There are a number of critiques of Shane Jones which question how useful he was as a politician, and whether he really did resonate with working class voters. For example, Martyn Bradbury says 'If 'being a character' means you are a sexist, anti-environmental head kicker, then we need far better measures of character. The idea that Labour will lose connection with the 'working class' because they don't have an identifiably sexist MP is the projection of pundit bigotry, not insight' - see: Whare of Cards - It's a shame that Shane sold out to keep up with the Joneses.

For other strong critiques of Jones, see Danyl Mclauchlan's The Beatification of St Jonesy, Tim Selwyn's Shane Jones Nationalised, and The Press' Less than stellar political career.

Labour's minor versus major concerns?

Labour has recently been accused of being too focused on minor issues. This can be viewed as a way for MPs to avoid the big ideological questions confronting Labour. So we've recently seen Labour MPs speaking on out issues such as Nigella Lawson's visa clearance, and Labour's recent pre-Easter transport announcement. The latter was strongly critiqued by Manawatu Standard editor Michael Cummings, who says that while such announcements are 'almost comically lightweight', in contrast, 'Every utterance by a Labour MP between now and polling day should be related to three things: economic and social inequality, the housing crisis, and why households would be better off if a Labour-led government was running the economy' - see: Laboured with minor matters. The transport policy was also very cleverly parodied by Scott Yorke in his blog post A statement from David Cunliffe.

The latest minor focus by Labour has been on the Hollywood Lego Movie's joke about New Zealand - see Cherie Howie's Film damns 'Middle Zealand'. One blogger compared the party's concern over this with its lack of statements about the recent drone killing of a New Zealander - see Steven Cowan's Down with Lego. For more discussion on this issue, see the Southland Times editorial Defamed by a plastic Gandalf and Matthew Beveridge's Darien Fenton and "morons".

Shane Jones everywhere

There were plenty of interesting and important items during the weekend about Shane Jones' departure from Labour's caucus. Jones himself went on the weekend political TV shows - see The Nation's 9-minute interview: Shane Jones and Kelvin Davis, and Q+A's 12-minute interview, Shane Jones explains shock departure from politics.

See also, Torben Akel's 3-minute overview, The colourful career of Shane Jones.

But possibly the most in-depth account of Jones was Jonathan Milne's Jones: 'The right man in the wrong party'. This profile and backgrounder on Jones also includes two very useful quotes from the departing politician: 1) 'I've never said this on the record, but I was deeply influenced in a positive way by the figures of the Lange Government. I didn't do my due diligence to discover how much the Labour Party had changed. And Opposition is a waste of my talent and skill'; and 2) 'Might he make another tilt at the Beehive? "Possibly," he says. "Never rule anything in or out."'

Finally, for humour on Shane Jones and the Labour Party, see Toby Manhire's RE: Shane - tsunami in the parliamentary pond, and Steve Braunias' Jones quitting Labour the best news in a long time.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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