There is a deep divide within the Labour Party – and it’s no longer the straightforward division between the left and right of the party. Instead the key to understanding the Labour Party of 2017 is to comprehend the left vs liberal divide.

Willie Jackson has become a lightning rod in the Labour Party.

That's a central reason why his entry into the party has been so controversial - he has unwittingly become the symbol for an ongoing rift in the party between the political left and the more middle class liberals. This is a struggle between "class politics" and "identity politics" and it is also the key divide on the political left all around the world at the moment.

Labour's liberals

Labour's liberals are associated with a concentration on finding progress on issues particularly relating to gender and ethnicity, and are often seen as having an over-riding concern for identity politics and political correctness.

Newshub's Lloyd Burr explains that Labour's liberals are characterised as "a small group of easily offended Wellington hipsters, craft beer/chardonnay socialists who are obsessed with being politically correct" - see: Labour's vibe takes a dive

Burr says that until the fight over Willie Jackson, Labour had been looking very united: "The party hadn't looked that good in years. It was refreshing. There really was a great vibe. But it was all just a façade. Enter the vibe killers: Andrew Little and Willie Jackson on one side, with Poto Williams and the Labour's liberal left on the other."

But some question whether this liberal identity politics milieu even exists. According to lawyer Catriona MacLennan who writes about this in the Herald today, "There is no such thing as identity politics. The term is used by white men seeking to hold on to their power and deny the human rights of Maori, Pasifika, women and LGBTQ people" - see: Beware the terms men use to maintain power.


MacLennan's context is obviously this ongoing fight within Labour, and she defines the term "Broad church" - which Andrew Little has adopted as his strategy for widening Labour's support - as meaning that "white men should retain control of all the key positions in the party."

The liberals in the party have been mobilising against the attempt to broaden Labour and to focus more on social democratic concerns at the expense of social liberal ones. It's highly unlikely Poto Williams was acting alone when she set out on her campaign against Jackson.

And as we now know, Williams campaign was not simply an off-hand Facebook post, but one involving the hiring of a PR agency, who sent out her statement as a press release prior to her putting it on social media - see Jenna Lynch's Poto Williams hired PR firm for Willie Jackson ploy.

Other liberals in Labour are also making a stand. Former MP - and currently next on the list - Maryan Street has also posted on Facebook her opposition to Jackson. According to the Herald: "Street has also put up a post alluding to the promise of a high list placing for Jackson when the party is supposed to be boosting its number of women MPs. Street refers to Labour's female candidates such as Rachael Boyack, Liz Craig, Deborah Russell, Priyanca Radhakrishnan and Virginia Andersen, saying they got there through 'hard work'" - see: Willie Jackson meets his chief Labour detractor, Poto Williams

The Young Labour network has been agitating against Jackson with their petition to prevent him being accepted into the party. With over 400 Labour members signing, this has proved to be an incredibly strong weapon against the leadership and Jackson, especially with the news that former MPs such as Maryan Street, Carol Beaumont, and Marian Hobbs had signed it - see Henry Cooke's Open letter to Labour leadership bears names of three ex-MPs

At the heart of the liberal campaign against Jackson are very real concerns about achieving Labour's constitutionally mandated gender-balanced caucus. The problem is that generally Labour men have safer and more electable seats than women do, hence the party list needs to be heavily weighted with women at the top of the list. This is, according to Vernon Small, "why Little's recruitment of Jackson with a promise of a winnable slot... has created an unpleasant undercurrent inside the party that goes beyond any personal issues some MPs have with Jackson" - see: Labour's gender-balanced caucus target is listing distinctly out of kilter.

Outside of the party, there are others cheering on the liberal faction. For example the No Right Turn blogger writes: "To point out the obvious, if Labour insists on making Jackson a candidate, all those Young Labour volunteers could simply withdraw their labour, or apply it elsewhere to candidates and parties more in line with their values. And IMHO they should do so if the party isn't interested in what they think" - see: Labour doesn't need more bigots.

No Right Turn also suggests the fight over Jackson brings the party's leadership under question: "As for Little, if the Jackson decision is an example of his leadership, then Labour needs a new leader. It is that simple. Someone with such poor judgement is not suitable to be a party leader, let alone Prime Minister."

The left of Labour

The left in the party are more focused on economic inequality, and want Labour to return to being a more class-based party who seek to incorporate the struggle for equality for all into a focus on primary issues such as housing, education, healthcare, and poverty.

This struggle between the liberals and the left has been an ongoing tension within the party for decades now, but has become more pronounced since the dying days of the Helen Clark government. In the last two years Andrew Little managed to dampen down the division and create at least an appearance of unity. At the same time Little has also managed to push the party away from an association with social liberalism, and focused the party instead on the more leftwing issues associated with social democracy.

Little has mostly achieved this re-orientation in a careful and non-divisive way. Yet the liberals within Labour are clearly not entirely happy about the new direction. And, when push comes to shove, with a decision like the Jackson one, they explode. Having a former Alliance MP is a problem not just because of his leftwing background, but because of baggage from his role as a talkback host, especially in terms of his role in the Roastbusters controversy.

The most strident critique of the Labour liberals' role in the Willie Jackson controversy has come from Chris Trotter, who says "Memories of the 'Man Ban' and of David Cunliffe's tragic 'I'm sorry I'm a man' comment have been revived" - see: Conflicting Priorities: Has Poto Williams just cost Labour the 2017 Election?

Trotter outlines how Andrew Little had been undertaking a "calibrated plan to reposition Labour in the minds of the voters. The intention is to change people's perceptions of the party. From being seen as the political vehicle for highly-educated, politically-correct professionals living in metropolitan New Zealand, Labour's election strategists are hoping to reclaim its original identity as the party for ordinary working people and their families."

In his view, the liberals' recent "high-pitched screeching of identity politics" has "cost Labour tens-of-thousands of urban Maori (and Pakeha!) votes" and may be a turning point in which the election could be lost for Labour.

Blogger Martyn Bradbury shares a similar point of view: "The damage and threat to Little's leadership is breath taking in its arrogance and naivety. If Little doesn't stare down the Identitarians he will look like he's hostage to them. Identitarians seem more interested in punishing men than working with them, and that can't be a message Andrew Little wants to take into the 2017 election" - see: Class vs Identity Politics - Why Andrew Little has no choice but to stare down the Identitarians inside Labour.

Bradbury argues that class politics is a unifying framework for incorporating a whole host of liberation struggles, such as inequalities relating to gender and ethnicity. But whereas liberals fixate on biological differences - and therefore identify "white men" as the enemy - class politics allows for a unifying of struggles on the basis of the so-called 99 per cent against the 1 per cent: "The need to identify politically with your gender, sexual orientation, race or religion becomes ultimately self defeating as there is no common thread binding everyone who opposes the economic hegemony that damages us all. Class is the common thread here, minimising that risks the type of divisions we are seeing erupt right now."

See also, Bradbury's In defence of Willie Jackson, and Curwen Ares Rolinson's On The Left-Wing Case For Willie Jackson.

Ongoing debates about Jackson and Williams

It's not only leftwing men standing up for Jackson. Broadcaster and feminist Alison Mau has gone into bat for her former colleague at Radio Live. According to the Herald, "She tweeted that Jackson had sought out rape crisis groups and worked with them until they were satisfied he understood the impact of his actions. In response to one reply, she said: "I sit next to him EVERY SINGLE DAY. We talk about these issues all the time. I'm a survivor of sexual assault myself" - see: Andrew Little faces further flak over Willie Jackson.

So is Jackson a major asset for Labour? There's disagreement about this obviously, but in terms of winning over some of those alienated from electoral politics, Vernon Small thinks it's the right move for Labour: "Make no mistake, Jackson is a great recruit for Labour. He is the equivalent of the proverbial 14 point intercept try; he will attract the votes of young urban Maori and 'Shane Jones Maori' to the party while denying the Maori Party one of its flagship hopes" - see: Labour's gender-balanced caucus target is listing distinctly out of kilter.

But at what cost? According to the NBR's Rob Hosking the Labour leadership was naïve in thinking that Jackson could be brought in, given the likely hostility from the more liberal elements: "To put it another way, he is intensely disliked by Labour women, Rainbow Labour, and the teacher unions. If you take those three groups out, you haven't got much of a Labour Party left, these days. In what world, exactly, is that a political coup for any Labour leader? It absolutely beggars belief Mr Little did not foresee the intense opposition from these groups within his own party, and/or do something to prepare the ground for Mr Jackson's proposed elevation above many aspiring candidates - and, let's be straightforward here - some of those candidates coming from those three groups within Labour" - see: Parliament opens with PM on rebound and Labour on back foot (paywalled).

Andrew Little's staff are obviously now getting on top of this week's disaster. Young Labour seem to have capitulated, taking down their online petition against Willie Jackson - see Jenna Lynch and Lloyd Burr's Labour member's anti-Willie Jackson letter disappears.

And now Poto Williams has issued a carefully crafted press release - see Claire Trevett's Labour's Poto Williams accepts Willie Jackson apology - but more work to do.

But will Williams apologise or explain how she came to launch her campaign, and her use of a PR firm to help her? David Farrar comments on this: "I've been involved in politics for around 30 years and I can't recall ever before an MP hiring a public relations firm to help them promote a statement attacking a decision personally made by their party leader. If Little lets this pass without sanction, then his leadership is even weaker than we thought. Any other leader in any other party would sack or suspend an MP who hired a PR firm to attack the party leader" - see: Labour MP hired PR firm to help her attack leader's decision.

Similarly outraged, is young Maori activist, Jevan Goulter, who has made a no-holds-barred six-minute Facebook video condemning Poto Williams: My View on Willie Jackson.

Finally, the title of Chris Trotter's blog post, Has Poto Williams just cost Labour the 2017 Election? originally referred to the wrong year, which led Labour Party satirist Scott Yorke to ask: Why did she do what she hasn't yet done?