Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Labour's 'man ban' problem

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Trevor Mallard and Labour Party leader David Shearer. Photo / APN
Trevor Mallard and Labour Party leader David Shearer. Photo / APN

Historically, Labour has been the party of workers. More recently, it's become focused on 'identity politics' - i.e. the ethnicity, gender, sexuality and other individual qualities of people. 'The personal is political' is the slogan. This focus is indicative of the 'social liberal' orientation of Labour's now more middle-income MPs and members.

The problem for Labour, however, is that in jettisoning a primary focus on working people and class politics, in favour of what are seen as 'political correct' issues, there is less focus on the 60-80% of the New Zealand public that can be categorised as working class (depending on the sociological definitions chosen). That's a lot of potential voters.

And most of these voters will be less than enamored with Labour's latest proposal to implement affirmative action to ensure that more women are elected as Labour MPs - see Claire Trevett's Pro-women plan rattles Labour. The most significant of the proposals has been dubbed the 'man ban' because, in some electorates, Labour may choose to exclude men from being candidates.

Labour's focus on issues of identity politics has, arguably, been to the detriment of more substantive issues concerning economics, inequality and power.

In this sense, probably the most interesting commentary on the issue has come from a female Labour Party candidate, Josie Pagani. She's quoted in Vernon Small's article, Divisions in Labour over 'man ban', as saying that she opposes the so-called 'man ban' and 'wouldn't stand in a seat where I felt like the implication was I couldn't win it on my own accord without some "special help"'. She also says 'I can't understand why the Labour party would be emphasising something like this when they're trying to get the focus on jobs and power prices and the need to get wages up, so strategically it doesn't make sense to be talking about this right now'.

Essentially Pagani is saying that class and economics is more important than gender and feminism in this debate. She elaborates further in a very thoughtful blogpost, About that 'Man Ban'. She says 'I would prefer Labour to be talking about incomes, jobs, power prices, housing. Instead here we are once again trying to defend the merits of a policy to people who are open-mouthed in amazement at Labour's priorities. Here we are using precious political oxygen trying to explain why it's not really a 'man ban'. We have so much more to do for women than this'. Usefully, her blogpost goes on to look at some of the significant barriers to women's participation in politics, and she complains that Labour and parliamentary politics need to deal more urgently to these problems instead.

Also concurring with Pagani about the need for Labour to focus on economics rather than identity is Colin Espiner, who has written a highly disparaging opinion piece, Labour's barmy 'man ban'. He says that 'The Opposition needs to be talking to the electorate about jobs, housing, incomes, and hip-pocket issues. Not navel-gazing about its gender balance'.

Leftwing blogger Steven Cowan says the strong gender representation focus in Labour eclipses the bigger problem in the party - the lack of representation of those from lower socio-economic groups: 'Labour draws its parliamentary politicians from a small pool of middle class contenders and that is reflected in Parliament. It is dominated by former teachers, lawyers, accountants, bureaucrats and the like' - see his blogpost, The Gender trap. But he goes further than this, saying that Labour needs to reconnect with the working class rather than be diverted into gender politics: 'The Labour Party was established in 1916 as the political wing of the trade union movement and it actively sought to increase the number of working class representatives within Parliament. But we have since seen the embourgeoisment of the Labour Party and its politicians are to a man- and a woman - drawn largely from the middle class. A professional and middle class Labour Party seeks new MPs after its own image - regardless of whether they are men or women'. Incidentally, in this same vein of advocating class politics, another leftwing writer, Dean Parker has a column in the Herald that argues that Labour must recapture the spirit of '38.

Much of the commentary and reporting on the 'man ban' focuses on the inevitable division that will be caused by the proposal - see in particular, Vernon Small's Divisions in Labour over 'man ban' and Tracy Watkins' Shearer bucks party's drive for female quota. It seems that Labour is strongly divided on the issue. Shane Jones, for instance, has said: 'The last time I checked it was the blue-collar, tradie, blokey voters we were missing. The notion of blocking males is so absurd it's hard to believe it came from people with the interests of Labour at heart'.

The issue will be a very difficult one for leader David Shearer to navigate. He risks upsetting some of the 'identity politics' faction of the party in disagreeing with the proposal. Nonetheless, he's doing just that - see Vernon Small's Shearer against 'man ban'.

The debate is getting vigorous. Online, one activist has exclaimed that she was "Feeling so feminist right now my ovaries might explode!!!!' Another Labour Party member, Joe, said 'Restricting a person's ability to seek party selection for an electoral seat because they aren't the right gender is the opposite of liberal democracy. Yes a minimum number of women is needed for parliament to be representative - but you achieve that through making it easier for women to serve in parliament'. And on Twitter, Nick Cross (@NZ_Cross) asks: 'So are Labour saying that their members are sexist? Can't they vote in a fair share of female candidates by themselves?' And Coley Tangerina says (@ColeyTangerina) says 'I like that men are so used having no doors closed that they perceive affirmative action to be a ban on them' - for more such tweets, see my blogpost, Top tweets about Labour's 'man ban'.

The so-called 'man ban' has allowed bloggers and commentators on the right to lampoon Labour. David Farrar has written the best posts on this - see both Labour's proposed man ban, Jones and Little would have been goners, and Who is pushing Labour's man ban?. In the latter post, Farrar considers how the 'man ban' might be used by party factions or candidates to prevent certain candidates gaining office. Farrar has also cheekily put together a spreadsheet for use by the Labour Party to select their party list - based on statistically-reserved places for a variety of identity politics categories. Farrar says, 'Quotas and a man ban are a snake oil solution. They are an easy fix, that does nothing to get to grips with the underlying reasons why we have fewer women MPs'.

But not all on the right are opposed. Former National MP Jackie Blue, now the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner for the Human Rights Commission, has come out in favour - see TVNZ's Labour hailed for women-only quota proposal.

Unsurprisingly, The Standard is full of enthusiasts for this latest identity politics measure - see: On having a more representative Parliament. For another leftwing argument in favour, see No Right Turn's For all-woman shortlists. Academic Deborah Russell has conflicting feelings about such positive discrimination, but says that the 'barriers are real, and very salient for me, as I contemplate entering politics myself in the next year or two'. In the end, therefore, she favours such measures: 'There's a very straightforward reason for using quotas. They work' - see: On quotas.

The strongest defence of Labour's 'man ban' comes from Andrew Geddis in his blogpost, NZ Labour - as crazy as the UK Tories, and in the vigorous comments section after the blog. Geddis labels the current electoral arrangements 'sexist' and says that something needs to be done. He points out that such gender mechanisms are widely used elsewhere, pointing in particular to the British Conservative Party. Geddis has also updated his arguments with a very thorough post about the whole debate, Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.

Finally, on this issue, Scott Yorke lampoons those who argue against positive gender discrimination, with his parody, What foolishness is this, good sirs?. But equally sarcastic is Mike Hosking's Labour's bold and ingenious plan, which also makes some good points.

- 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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