A discourse on David Shearer and the identity politics thing

For my sins, over the past week or so I have been engaging at The Standard again. It’s been a rather tiresome business (for them as well, I’m sure) but has yielded some lucid moments. One exchange between “Puddleglum”, Anthony and I in the bowels of an open mike thread has been particularly useful, and since it contains my views on a question I am often asked, I’d rather it not end up down the memory hole. I reproduce it here in full (without the benefit of editing; so it’s a bit rough).

[I originally said Anthony was the author FKA “r0b” at The Standard — this isn’t the case; it’s some other Anthony. My mistake, and thanks to the r0b, Anthony Robins, for pointing it out.] Puddleglum has a blog himself — thepoliticalscientist.org — that is well worth reading.

Hi Lew,

If Armstrong is correct in the following quotation (and this leadership race has all been about the ‘blokes’ battling the ‘minorities’ and the ‘politically correct’), then won’t the election of Shearer shift Labour more towards the right wing, social conservatism that you appear not to like about NZF?

“Shearer will bring change by making the party less hostage to the political correctness that still plagues its image. He is interested in things that work, rather than whether they fit the party’s doctrine. “

I may misunderstand where your ‘loyalties’ or preferences lie, but it does seem odd if you are supporting a shift in Labour’s focus towards something that would be much more compatible with NZF (including Prosser and Peters, neither of whom strike me as staunch upholders of ‘political correctness’), given how little regard you appear to have for NZF.

(As an aside, I’m not sure why Armstrong is so sure he knows Shearer’s mind – he’s obviously heard Shearer say more than he’s been reported as saying – but I guess he is a political journalist … It would have been good to hear Shearer say these things to the public if, indeed, Armstrong has it from the horse’s mouth, as his tone strongly implies – “Shearer will …”, etc..).

Hey PG,

I’m not convinced by this argument that Shearer represents the forthcoming defenestration of Māori, women, gays, the disabled, and so forth as a matter of doctrine, although folk who hope it does have been eager to say so — Armstrong, Audrey Young, Trotter amongst them. Shearer’s MSc was on the tension between Māori cultural values and environmental resource management, and he has worked on behalf of Māori in that field, preparing Tainui’s land claim to the Waitangi Tribunal and looking at sultural issues around wastewater treatment in Auckland. I have as yet seen no evidence that Shearer represents the social “right” of the party either. His pairing with Robertson as deputy certainly seems to counterindicate that argument. He says he’s “right in the middle” of Labour, though I suppose he would say that. I am open to persuasion on both these points, however, and if such defenestration does occur I may yet come to regret my support for Team Shearer.

But I think there’s also a misreading of my “loyalties”. The much-loved canard around here and at Trotter’s place is that I want Labour to be an “identity politics” party, whereas, in actuality, I want an end to the infighting that pits “the workers” against other marginalised groups or seeks to subsume everyone’s needs to those of straight white blue-collar blokes. All must have a presence within any progressive movement. I think there’s a false dichotomy that to appeal to “middle New Zealand” a party must be just a wee bit racist, homophobic and sexist, because that’s what “middle New Zealand” is. I don’t agree; although I can see how that is one route to popularity, I don’t think it’s one that’s very suitable for Labour.

Notwithstanding all of that I do think that being able to break the factionalisation and patronage — crudely expressed by Damien O’Connor — that has resulted in a weak list and a dysfunctional party apparatus is the most crucial task facing Shearer, and I can see how this could be spun against him. But on balance, getting the overall institutional and overall health of the party back on track is the priority. As long as it’s not simply replacing one lot of factions with another.


It really depends if he plays zero-sum loss/gain, instead of fixing problems that when addressed help everyone. But even though I preferred Cunliffe I don’t think Shearer is a evil bastard who will throw women, gays and Maori under the bus.

It’s just convincing insecure pricks like Armstrong that they’re not missing out (and normal people who are perfectly fine), while they lift everyone up.

Been one of the problems with the left for a while – not taking middle NZ with them in their thinking and just expecting them to “get it” after it’s done and dusted.

You can see how the Nats do it better with their policy formation and with the task forces they set up, they admit there is a problem that needs to be solved in some way, get a team of “experts” in place, get feedback from all quarters then create policy based on it (even if they were planning that policy all along). It’s a great way to create a narrative that the electorate can follow to understand policy or at least get some understanding that a problem that needs to be solved exists in the first place.

If it looks in the slightest way controversial or a potential wedge issue they will use this method.

As I said, “If Armstrong is correct …”

I think previously you’ve noted the importance of symbolism (e.g., in the early days of the MP coalescing with National).

There is a danger that the symbolic projection being attempted (‘we are ordinary New Zealanders too’ – whatever that means) can box Labour in when it comes to ‘judgment calls’ on those social issues.

Trying to benefit electorally from symbols you don’t really believe in (in its crudest form, ‘dogwhistling’) can bite you back.

I think, for example, that Shearer may well be keen not to “get in front” of middle New Zealand on any of these issues (wasn’t that one of the concerns about Clark’s government, for ‘middle New Zealand’?).

That’s fine and pragmatic, and doesn’t mean necessarily being a little bit racist, homophobic, or whatever. But it might mean muting your commentary and positioning on those issues a tad.

And that could make some, at least, leap from the windows rather than waiting to be ‘defenestrated’.

I think that’s the challenge with the more ‘centrist’ positioning.

Anthony, I agree with all of that.

PG, I think that is the challenge with a more “centrist” positioning, but ultimately the long game is what matters. It’s mostly futile to try to campaign outright on unpopular topics — or those that are “in front” of popular thought, as you aptly put it — when you don’t control the agenda. Clark found out in 2004/5 when Brash hijacked the agenda at Orewa after a very progressive first term, and again in 2008 when the s59 repeal became a de facto government bill about the childless lesbians Helen Clark and Sue Bradford* wanting to personally bring up Waitakere Man’s kids.

I daresay there will be a lot of ideological austerity shared about over the coming term, not limited to the usual whipping children of progressive movements, but likely encompassing the unions and hard-left factions as well (and much of this may be pinned on Shearer to frame him as a “right” leader, when his hand may have been forced by political circumstance.) The project is to rebuild Labour as a political force, because if Labour continues to decline nobody — not Māori, not women, not the unions — is going to benefit.

Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. My major stipulation is that whatever gets nudged out onto the ledge, as it were, is done with due engagement and consideration of those it impacts, not simply decreed by the leadership as being “not a priority” (and if you disagree you’re a hater and a wrecker).


* Notwithstanding the fact that neither are lesbians, and Sue Bradford isn’t childless.

13 thoughts on “A discourse on David Shearer and the identity politics thing

  1. If you look at Shearer’s deputy (Grant Robertson) and two whips (Hipkins and Fenton) they’re actually all from quite far left in Labour and have backgrounds in rainbow, feminist, and student activism. It’s about the team around the leader as much as it is about any individual (though if we’re just going to focus on Shearer, he’s always struck me as quite progressive on things like the environment and Palestine… as opposed to Cunliffe who has some really quite reactionary views on things like abortion..)

  2. Also, I’ve always wanted to know why “middle New Zealand” are all magically male and heterosexual in the eyes of commentators…

  3. Interesting exchange. The difference would only be in a change of emphasis. It is difficult to take a party seriously in the middle of a financial crisis when the most important thing to Labour seems to be the rights and representations of its various factions rather than the very real issues facing all New Zealanders. The anti National education standards campaign is so obviously self interested teachers concerned about hiding deficiencies.

    I wonder if Cunliffe will see a role as a loyal Finance spokesman is worthy of his talent.

  4. It woud be nice to find a party that was interested in doing something about issues raised by the financial crisis, but there doesn’t seem to be one. For example, the party in govt has focused on tax cuts for the rich and picking a fight with the teachers’ unions. If Shearer can refrain from lying about wanting NZ wages to catch up with Australia while planning to implement policies intended to drive wages down, he’ll already be a major improvement over the current PM.

  5. ‘The anti National education standards campaign is so obviously self interested teachers concerned about hiding deficiencies.’ That same old canard. As a former secondary teacher I am nsulted by the comment. Very reasoned opposition has come from boards, pta’s and principal associations as well as teacher unions.

  6. I think someone in the house should give Parata this situation:
    If engineers said a gas pipeline would explode if you built it a certain way would you build it?
    Would it matter if those engineers were in a union or not to their professinal opinion about wether a pipe might explode?
    Then why does she not listen to the advice of educational consultants, principals, teachers, boards and parents?

  7. Hey Lew – The Anthony in this thread is not me (Anthony R0bins / r0b), it is some other Anthony who comments on The Standard. Please correct your attributions / tags etc.

    It was good to see you back at The Standard, I hope you’ll stick around. For better or for worse it is “the” leftie blog, and the more informed and active participants we have the better for all…

  8. I’m so sorry about that, r0b — your real-name thing and Anthony’s frequent and well-reasoned comments bamboozled me into eliding the two of you. My bad.

    Yeah, it’s *the* left blog, but I do find it time-consuming and low-yield, and I have little enough time as it is. But I’ll be around.


  9. hey sorry- why is my comment in moderation? Thought it was up before? I realise it’s not much about the post though sorry.

  10. Gorse:

    You had two identical messages send five minutes apart in moderation. I freed the second one.

  11. Gorse – I assume that your union engineer has reference to a standard. Meaning that they can see what the result of a given configuration or set of inputs will be based on numerous historical examples and experience.

    Quite like national educational standards really.

    But many, including k, would prefer to keep everyone in blissful ignorance of standardised outcomes based on varied inputs.

    teachers unions have vested interests in keeping outside parties ignorant of the results so they maintain control. Its that simple

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