With Nanaia Mahuta entering the race to be Labour leader, are the days of the party's 'pale, male, and stale' leaders over?
Prior to her announcement, there were increasing questions about whether the contest was offering enough real choice. Many were asking whether the candidates provided enough demographical diversity.
The possible leadership option of five white aging men was deemed too narrow. To some degree this all changes with Mahuta's candidacy. To see some of the interesting debate about her entry into the race, see my blog post, Top tweets about Nanaia Mahuta running for Labour leadership.
But while the demographical narrowness of the Labour men vying for the leadership has been causing some degree of angst on the left, there is perhaps a more substantive lack of diversity, with all of the candidates ideologically very similar and lacking in political dynamism and boldness.
The identity politics concern with Labour's leadership options
Social liberals on the political left are increasingly unhappy about the lack of personal diversity in the contest. For example, Labour Party member David Cormack (who blogs at The Ruminator) says 'All in all, the white-straight-maleness of the bulk of these leaders is disheartening'. His blogpost,
puts the case for Grant Robertson, and highlights the weaknesses of the other candidates.
For example, on Andrew Little: 'He's a straight white male unionist. Yawn'. But he makes a much more vitriolic attack on David Cunliffe: 'I joined the Labour party for the sole reason to vote for David as leader. Boy was I wrong.... I have never understood the rage and scorn that the ABC contingent in Labour feel towards the man, but since the election it has all become clear. They were right... You are a piece of s**t'.
CTU leader Helen Kelly, who is often talked about as a potential candidate for Labour leadership in the future, has also been reported as expressing concern about the lack of difference amongst the leaders - see TVNZ's Too many Davids, not enough diversity in Labour leadership race.
The report says: 'Even some of Labour's most fervent backers are now expressing their concern at the lack of diversity among the candidates. "I think who they stand with as deputy will be an absolute key, and you raise the issue of women and Maori making a more diverse leadership team," President of the Council of Trade Unions Helen Kelly said'.
On the Daily Blog, Efeso Collins, who is an Auckland Labour Party politician, criticises his party for failing 'to actively encourage Pasifika MPs to put their names forward for the leadership contest' - see: Labour, leadership and White blokes. He called for the party to be led by Nanaia Mahuta and Su'a William Sio, and says that 'Labour need to exhibit their commitment to both Pasifika voters and its own values of fairness and inclusion, by providing a way for a Pasifika person in its current caucus to stand for the leadership'.
One response from the 'pale, male, stale' leadership contenders is to highlight their more diverse supporters in the party, especially by carefully choosing which MPs nominate them for leader - see Claire Trevett's Labour leadership hopefuls get their bids in. Robertson has chosen Rino Tirikatene and Kris Faafoi. And before pulling out of the race, Cunliffe chose Louisa Wall and Su'a William Sio. It seems that considerations of ethnic and sexual issues have been key concerns in these strategic decisions.
Labour's deputy leader and diversity
It is likely that all leadership contenders will endorse a female and/or ethnic minority Labour MP as their deputy. This is an obvious way of dealing with concerns about diversity. As Dene Mackenzie points out in the ODT today, Grant Robertson 'is likely to have Auckland list MP Jacinda Ardern as his running mate. The other two contenders need either a woman, a Maori or Pacific Island MP as a running mate given the strength of the Maori and Pacific Island vote for Labour and the ''man ban'', which requires 45% of Labour candidates to be women' - see:
Vernon Small makes some similar points, suggesting that Robertson might be the best leader, but 'with caveats. Little, Parker and Jacinda Ardern providing the deputy, finance and social policy leadership. The only thing missing from that is a prominent role for any Maori and Pasifika MPs to reflect their importance and loyalty to Labour. Two at least must be on the front bench when the dust settles after the leadership race' - see:
Today Andrew Little is also being reported as signaling 'his preference for a woman as his deputy. "We need to ensure both the leadership and the front bench is as representative of New Zealand as we can"' - see Andrea Vance's
Backlash against Labour's identity politics?
After pulling out of the race for leader, David Shearer has very clearly taken aim at the idea of using the deputy leadership position to solve the diversity problem. This is what he has is reported as saying: 'Today, for example, there was an announcement made that if it was going to be a white bloke that was leading the Labour Party then you need a Pacific [Islander] or a M?ori or a woman [as deputy leader] - it's nuts.... This is what is wrong with the Party, if a woman is selected she should know that she is the best person for the job - not because of her gender.... I just refute and think that is completely the wrong thing and I think it is symptomatic of where we are going and I also think that unfortunately for most people looking at the Labour Party they are saying 'that's not for me' - see TV3's
For more on David Shearer's arguments, see Vernon Small's
. And for some strong reactions in the blogosphere, see Martyn Bradbury's
and Greg Presland's
Labour Party activist, Josh Foreman also takes aim at identity politics, saying that 'The rhetoric coming out of the various factions of our party is indicative of exactly what is wrong and why Labour was decimated at the recent election. The focus on special interest groups, Teachers, Unions, Rainbow, Beneficiaries, Maori et al is exactly why we got smashed' - see:
. Here's his more substantive point: 'Labour needs to become a meritocracy and divest itself of the obsession with rewarding sub-groups or particular individuals. If you are a brown woman and you are capable of stepping up to win in 2017, do it. I will support you. If you are a gay man, and you are capable of leading Labour to victory, stand up and be counted. In this country people are judged, or should be judged on their individual merits, not on the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation or what they are packing in their underwear. We need to debate the issues that caused us to fail, and put aside the cosmetic bollocks that distracts us. Ageism, sexism, racism, factionalism all need to be consigned to the history books. We can and must unite for our political survival and for the sake of New Zealand'.
Even the leadership candidates are making some noises about shifting away from such identity politics concerns. In an interview with the ODT's Eileen Goodwin, David Parker was fairly clear about this: 'Under his watch, the party would push ''egalitarian'' economic policies more than so-called identity issues around race and sexuality. Mr Parker said he supported progressive changes such as marriage equality, which Labour successfully sponsored into law in the last Parliament, but a change of emphasis was needed for the ''next wee while''. ''We have become less identified with the interests of working New Zealanders than used to be the case. And that's a place for us to get back to.''' - see:
Last week Andrew Little responded similarly to such questions. And in a perceptive opinion piece,
, Nicholas Sheppard argued that Grant Robertson was wise to distance himself from Labour's identity politics: 'If the public perceived Robertson to be a beneficiary of that culture, they would likely see Labour as having failed to adapt and evolve, to be still beset by special interests and political correctness'.
Political sameness in Labour's contest
A bigger problem amongst the Labour leadership contenders is their lack of political diversity and dynamism. All three candidates appear to be fairly bland in terms of their ideologies and (lack of) vision. And if it's difficult to discern any substantial differences between them, that is probably because there aren't any. Even David Parker is reported as believing 'there was no significant philosophical difference between himself and Messrs Little, Robertson and Cunliffe' - see Eileen Goodwin's
. What's more, 'Parker described himself as a centrist politician'. His differentiation from Robertson and Little amounts to style rather than substance: 'David Parker is promising a gentler, kinder type of politics if he wins the top job'. He is reported as saying that 'The tone of New Zealand politics must change, to be less focused on conflict'.
So far in the debate the candidates come across as very 'middle of the road' and moderate, spouting only platitudes, vagueness and caution - certainly not much to inspire supporters. The frontrunner, Andrew Little, started out with some relatively bold statements about policy, but has mostly been non-descript since. For example, he participated on The Standard blogsite interacting with lefting activists - see:
His answers to questions - and the evaluations of these - are well documented by Pete George in his post,
. For example, one person summed up Little's contribution: 'Some answers were waffle, some were ambiguous/unclear, some were promising and some quite good. None were outstanding'. Another concluded: 'He came across to me as totally unprepared and full of glib phrases. In fact, he seems to be a mix of Key and Shearer'.
Leftwing activist and blogger,
has tweeted to say, 'I'm struggling to figure out where the lab leadership candidates line up on a political spectrum. Perhaps the alignments are more personal'. This is perceptive, because these days the different Labour Party factions are more about personalities, ambitions and rivalries. The caucus itself is relatively narrow in ideology and views. None seem to be keen to see as traditional Labour or even leftwing. Would any of them call themselves a 'socialist'? Unlikely. Instead they couch their leftism in more vague terms about 'egalitarianism'.
All three candidates are more technocratic than visionary. All appear to be in the mould of colourless deputies rather than visionary leaders. In fact, two of the three have recently been adequate deputy leaders (Robertson and Parker). In such circumstances, its not surprising that bitterness and pettiness come to represent the main forms of internal politics.
The nature of the Labour leadership contest therefore threatens to decline from a dynamic contest of ideas into a personality contest - and possibly a rather drab one. Leftwing blogger, Jono Natusch, expresses his concern about the blandness on offer: 'Grant Robertson really doesn't seem to excite much support out in the wider party. But then, it is a little difficult to get excited by career politicians. The problem is that neither Parker nor Little seem to attract much excitement either. They're solid and intelligent, but hardly charismatic. Andrew Little certainly struggled to shine on The Nation over the weekend, even attracting unfavourable comparisons to David Shearer's legendary inarticulateness during his time as leader' - see:
Martyn Bradbury makes some similar points: 'The leadership contest now seems to be a bleached contest between the groups who didn't want Cunliffe as leader and the groups who really didn't want Cunliffe as leader. The empty rhetoric of the candidates to date is depressingly vague, however seeing as the electorate just rewarded mass surveillance lies and dirty politics, boiled meat and three vege politics may be the perfect feast for a passionless people' - see:
Of course there will be some differences, because the candidates will have make an effort to differentiate themselves from one another. They will signal different priorities and each have a different emphasis. Just as Cunliffe posed as a more traditional 'red' Labour leader in last year's primary contest, we might yet see some of the candidates shape-shift somewhat into new ideological forms. For example, already, we can see Robertson trying re-invent himself in the partial image of Shane Jones, with his newfound emphassis on supermarket reform - see Vernon Small's
Finally, to get a visual idea of how the media, photographers, and cartoonists are portraying the contest, see my blog post,
, which is in addition to the previous blogpost,