The Price of Power: To secure selection as the candidate for a major political party requires the surrender of all those qualities generally associated with femininity. To survive as an MP, women must develop an impenetrable outer-skin which, as it thickens, leaves less and less space for the things it is supposed to protect.
I’M NOT PROUD of what I did. In fact, recalling those events, I recoil in dismay from the memory of my former self. Why did I do it? Because experience had taught me a very simple and brutal truth: in politics you either master the art of destroying your opponents – or you are destroyed by them.
The media storm whipped up by Labour’s plan for ensuring gender equality in its caucus – the so-called “Man Ban” – has concentrated all its force on the merit-based selection versus party-mandated quotas debate. There has been next to no attention paid to the more important question: why do fewer women than men make it through the candidate selection process?
The whole purpose of a quota system is to even up a contest which, from the very outset, is stacked against women. Or, perhaps, that should read: a game which, from the very outset, is stacked against those who demonstrate the characteristics our culture generally associates with women.
Can you stand up at a party branch meeting and respond to anyone foolish enough to oppose your plans with such cold ferocity and unflinching personal cruelty that not only do they shut up for the rest of the meeting, but they never attend another? Are you willing to spend hours on the phone lining up supporters for, and running down the opponents of, party movers-and-shakers whose backing you need to succeed? Can you cross off the names of former friends, allies – even lovers – from the “ticket” your faction is running at Annual Conference? Are you prepared to assure a pivotal party “fixer” that although you were once a fervent supporter of a cause he or she opposed, you have now seen the error of your ways?
These are the “skills” the aspiring parliamentary candidate needs to acquire in order to stand a reasonable chance of selection. Not to beat about the bush, they are the skills of a sociopath: the ability to lie convincingly; the ability to manipulate and exploit; the ability to impress and overawe; and, most vital of all, the ability to hurt and betray other human-beings not only without compunction – but without the slightest guilt or remorse.
Culturally-speaking, these sociopathic qualities are overwhelmingly associated with masculinity. And, no matter how loudly we may condemn the men who display such immoral behaviour, when we encounter them in the flesh it’s a very different story.
Almost against our will, we are seduced by these ruthless individuals. Some ancient species memory kicks-in to subdue our moral qualms – reminding us that these are the qualities that work. It reassures us that the family, tribe or nation that places itself under the protection of such men stands the best chance of survival. Extraordinary moral strength is required to avoid falling under their spell.
The most pernicious aspect of modern, democratic politics is that it cannot explicitly acknowledge any of these arcane truths. No political party is going place an ad’ saying: “Parliamentary Candidates Needed. Must be prepared to discard all conviction and compassion in the name of victory. Sociopaths Preferred.”
On the contrary, the qualities “officially” sought after by political parties (especially those of the Left) indicate the exact opposite. Fidelity, commitment, diligence and a high level of emotional intelligence (traditionally, the defining attributes of femininity) are the qualities demanded of a modern politician. Significantly, these were precisely the qualities which the pioneers of women’s suffrage promised their sex would bring to the corrupt and cut-throat world of male politics.
It was all a lie. The women who took such blandishments at face value and put their names forward for selection soon discovered that sweetness and light were no match for bitterness and the night. Those with no stomach for the vicious battles that clearly awaited women candidates and parliamentarians, withdrew from the arena. The ones who stayed had no option but to acquire both the weapons and the armour for competitive combat. Masculine weapons. Masculine armour.
It was seldom a comfortable fit. Certainly not for women, and not for an encouragingly large number of men. New Zealand’s most successful woman politician, Helen Clark, reported being physically sick after some meetings of the Labour caucus – so toxic were the tactics of her male colleagues. By the time she became Prime Minister, however, her armour was as hard as dragon’s hide and her swords and stilettoes honed exceptionally sharp.
The great danger, of course, is that those who develop such an impenetrable outer-skin leave less and less space for the things it was supposed to protect. Likewise, those who master the skills of the sociopath too often forget that they were ever anything else.
I was lucky to escape that fate.
What disquiets me is not how few women make it through candidate selection – it is the number who succeed.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 July 2013.