The fantastic Maryan Street was awarded life membership at the Labour Party annual conference yesterday, and in her speech she said some things which really rang true for me. She rejected the idea that Labour has to prioritise or pick and choose which principles it follows:
We’ve never been the either/or party. We opposed the invasion of Abyssinia AND we built state houses.
And spelled out something I’ve thought for a long time (slightly paraphrased):
Economic equality is not so far away from gender equality. Equity is not so far away from pay equity. The living wage – living with dignity – is not so far away from dying with dignity.
The first point I’d make is one I’ve made a few times: we can do more than one thing at a time. But too frequently, some groups – usually women, or Māori, or young people, etc – are basically told to sit down and hush and “when we get into government we’ll deal with your issues. But right now, they’re a distraction.”
On the other hand, the other side – usually the older, whiter, dudely groups – will argue that we’ve focused too much on precisely those issues. Look at the political credit we burned on anti-smacking legislation (even though it was a Green member’s bill overwhelmingly supported in Parliament) or marriage equality (even though it was a hugely popular, highly successful campaign). Haven’t you lot had enough of the spotlight?
Yet, I’d argue, just look at the bread-and-butter work of the Labour Party. We have a Future of Work commission – not a Future of Women commission. We still treat the Finance portfolio as the single most senior role after the leadership – not Pacific Affairs.
Who’s right? Everyone and no one. Both sides (and it’s a massive oversimplification to talk only of two sides) can field any number of arguments and retorts and examples to justify their sense of unfairness. No one will ever change their minds as long as we hold onto the idea that we’re talking about separate, distinct issues.
That’s where the second point comes in. Being a “both/and party” instead of an “either/or party” isn’t just about multitasking. It can mean recognising that our issues aren’t distinct.
So I flippantly say we don’t have a Future of Women commission. And someone might look at that and say “see, bloody feminists, they just want things for themselves, what about the future of men, huh?” but the fact is that the future of work is indistinguishable from the future of women. Women’s empowerment and economic activity (which we should stop talking about, but indulge me) globally, represent a massive force for change. People’s ability to plan their families, their access to healthcare or education or civic society or legal protections are just as important, if not more, than the increasing progress of technology.
A lot of that might sound like frightening, fringe-issue identity politics which don’t appeal to Middle New Zealand.
But it’s a fundamental principle of the labour movement: when you lift the wages and conditions of workers in one site or one major industry, it ripples out across the whole community. And when you reduce inequality, everyone in society benefits, even the people at the top.
We’re all fighting the same fight. Our issues all fundamentally come down to one: capitalism, an oppressive power structure that impacts everyone differently, but impacts everyone nevertheless.
And if we move out of this either/or frame of thinking, and remember that not only can we do more than one thing at a time, but we are doing more than one thing at a time when we support each other in our struggles, think how much more we could do.