Mixed Messages: Labour promises the woman of the 1940s (and her children) a "place in the sun". That message, updated for the twenty-first century, embraced full equality of representation for women in the Labour Party - right up until Labour's 2013 parliamentary caucus insisted that it didn't.
NO! NO! NO! Not like that! Is there no one in Labour’s caucus who retains even the slightest vestige of political finesse?
To deal successfully with a blunder like the “Man Ban”, one needs to invert the old maxim about justice. For justice to be done, they say, it must be seen to be done. But, for problems arising out of the fraught relationship between the organisational and parliamentary wings of the Labour Party, the opposite is true. Whatever (or whoever) gets ‘done’ to re-make the peace, it (or they) must never be seen being ‘done’.
Besides, the Caucus can’t just demand that the New Zealand Council “withdraw” a proposed amendment to the Party’s constitution. Why? Because as every bush lawyer in the Labour Party (and there are many!) will tell you (usually at great length) such a move would be absolutely and positively unconstitutional.
It was the Labour Party Conference of 2012 which asked a working party to turn the raw proposals for ensuring gender equality into a workable proposition for the 2013 Conference to debate. This is the document that was e-mailed – with the weighty imprimatur of Labour’s New Zealand Council – to party members in early July.
As a proposed amendment to the Labour Party Constitution, the Man Ban’s fate can only be determined this November, in Christchurch, at the 2013 Annual Conference. Rightly or wrongly, the decision to withdraw, ratify or reject the amendment belongs to Conference – not Caucus.
Of course, a caucus made up of MPs who understood and respected their party would never have asked it to break its own rules. Just as no genuine Labour Leader would ever dream of publicly forcing his party, its president and its governing body into performing such a humiliating and unconstitutional back-down.
In fact, the last time a Caucus member behaved with such naked aggression towards the organisational wing of the Labour Party was in 1988 when Richard Prebble injuncted the entire New Zealand Council to prevent it from ruling that his Auckland Central Labour Electorate Committee had not been elected in accordance with the rules.
But then, a genuine Labour Leader would never have been caught off-guard by something like the Man Ban in the first place. Drawing up the rules by which parliamentary candidates are selected is not the sort of task a genuine Labour Leader would delegate to just anybody. He or she would make sure that a trusted lieutenant was in at the drafting stage. Any potentially controversial or embarrassing proposals would be communicated to the Leader’s Office long before they ended up in the hands of National Party bloggers.
The problem so cruelly exposed by the Man Ban blunder is that David Shearer isn’t any kind of Labour Leader at all. Two hours in a Kingsland pub with the guy, way back in February 2012, was enough to convince me that this man with the brilliant back-story knew next-to-nothing about his party’s history, it’s values, it’s members, or even its policies.
Now, thanks to his own and his right-wing parliamentary colleagues’ contemptuous treatment of the party organisation, the whole country can see how little understanding David Shearer has of Labour and everything it stands for.
Unable to calm the media storm with a few well-chosen words about Labour’s proud history of pushing out the boundaries of progressive politics, and the importance of encouraging democratic debate, he has, instead, allowed his ideological opponents to drive him towards a “solution” that shames both himself and the political movement he purports to lead.
Appallingly advised by people who know as little about the Labour Party as he does, he concluded that macho bombast and the public humiliation of female colleagues was preferable to having a quiet word with the right people at Conference, so that, stoically, and with unobserved degrees of reluctance, delegates could reject the Man Ban.
As things now stand, the Labour Party must either ratify the Man Ban or surrender unconditionally to David Shearer.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 July 2013.