Labour, identity, class and winning

Andrew Little’s speech to conference has had great feedback, topping off a pretty good weekend for the party. I was there when he delivered it, and the response in the hall was thunderous.

A few people who covered the conference have put their own framing onto it. Bryce Edwards declared “Andrew Little is killing Labour’s identity politics”. Martyn Bradbury pronounced “identity politics put on the naughty step for some time out”.

Perhaps we were at different conferences. Believe me, plenty of “identity politics” was discussed, openly, happily and constructively. The reason there’s no headlines about it is the people having those discussions did it away from the spotlight – for obvious reasons.

It’s the same old misunderstanding about identity politics and class politics: that identity isn’t a real thing, but class is an objective, clear determinant of someone’s place in society.

But it’s rubbish. One of the biggest challenges leftwing parties face these days is that pretty much everyone thinks they’re middle-class. People who are poor don’t want to be told they’re powerless victims, and people who are comparatively well-off just want to think of themselves as “ordinary people”.

To shamelessly steal an idea from Pablo Iglesias:

One can have the best analysis, understand the keys to political developments since the sixteenth century, know that historical materialism is the key to understanding social processes. And what are you going to do — scream that to people? “You are workers and you don’t even know it!”

Class can be a core part of who people are, or not important to their lives, just like any other facet of identity. More so, since the right have spent decades eroding class identities with their bootstraps analogies and framing – happily adopted by the left – of “middle” and “ordinary” New Zealanders.

We can’t reject a class analysis. We wouldn’t be the Labour Party without one. But in 2015 it isn’t the be-all and end-all of political thought.

I took two points from what Maryan Street said at conference. We can do more than one thing at a time, and:

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.

I’ll go one step further. Not only are class, inequality, wealth and work un-distinct from gender, race, ability and all those pesky “identities” – they are the same thing.

How will Labour eradicate poverty in our country without addressing the fact that women are systemically paid less than men and are over-represented in many of the poorest paid industries? When women are still the primary caregivers of children, expected to put careers on hold for parenting?

How will Labour make sure Kiwis get the care they need when they need it and give our doctors and nurses and health workers the funding they need to do their jobs without looking at the infantilising red tape around abortion, or the utter lack of meaningful support for trans health care?

How do we modernise our education system so our kids are better prepared for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet without mentioning children with special needs or the entrenched disparities for Māori and Pasifika kids?

You won’t get very far changing the fundamental inequalities created by modern capitalism if you don’t understand that those inequalities, and the “identities” you want to kick out of the debate, are the same problem.

Why are women treated as a separate class? So we stay at home and have babies create new economic units, and if we wander accidentally into the workforce, we’re paid less to put downward pressure on all workers’ pay and conditions.

Why are gay or lesbian or trans or genderqueer people treated as separate classes and singled out for abuse? Because they mess up the whole heterosexual family structure which has babies creates new economic units.

Colonialism, and the impact it has on indigenous people of colour, is part and parcel of the capitalist need to constantly grow and consume land and resources.

I oversimplify greatly. But if you believe we can take serious action on poverty, on jobs, on the future of work, or on people’ aspirations for a better life without discussing “identity” politics, you don’t understand capitalism. And you certainly don’t get how to fight it.

Andrew said in his speech:

New Zealanders are sick and tired of a politics that’s defined by cynicism and devoid of ambition.

I’m sick and tired of the cynicism which says “women and minorities, go away, no one wants to hear you whining.” I’m sick and tired of the lack of ambition from so many leftwingers who say we can’t do more than one thing at a time, and we can’t care about anyone who isn’t like us.

Take what you like from Andrew’s speech. What I took from it is this.

The experiences I’ve had in my working life have taught me the type of leadership you need if you want to fight and win for progressive causes.

I learnt that it isn’t about making everyone happy or trying to avoid confrontation and disagreement.

Instead it’s about taking a stand because it’s the right thing to do.

The Police Commissioner and the Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect describes when someone’s attempt to cover up or censor something only leads to it getting more attention – the exact opposite result they intended.

Someone should tell Police Commissioner Mike Bush about it.

I tend to unplug from media on the weekends. So I’d missed Bryce Edwards’ column on the Herald website last week which did a fantastic job laying out why the public trust in our police has been rightfully shaken over the past few years – including the overturned convictions of David Bain, Teina Pora and (convicted at retrial) Mark Lundy, the Roastbusters case, and the perceived lack of teeth of the IPCA.

Thankfully, the Police Commissioner decided to submit a retort, which is so terribly overwrought and indignant that it prompted BLiP at The Standard to put together one of their legendary lists – in this case, police abuses and excuses since 2008.

There’s a really disingenuous tone to Bush’s response. Outraged statements like:

Does [Edwards] really think that a 100 per cent resolution rate for murder is just a “box-ticking” way for police to “prove themselves”?

I’d say it is something the public should rightly expect.

… completely ignore the actual point Edwards was making, which is that having a goal of a 100% resolution rate can lead, and has led, to such fantastic examples of policing as planting evidence to convict Arthur Allan Thomas (by an officer whom Bush himself praised for his integrity!) and bullying a confession out of Teina Pora.

Bush accuses Edwards of “need[ing] to get out from behind his desk” and “be[ing] one of the minority who just don’t like police”.

And he makes excuses like:

Space does not allow me to respond point-by-point to his assertions, nor am I in a position to re-litigate the historic cases.

… which handily allows him to not even mention very recent cases like the Roastbusters, while somehow finding the space to laud the Police’s “40-plus Facebook pages” and the number of “incoming social media contacts” they get every week.

The beautiful irony of it all is that Mike Bush waxes lyrical about needing the trust of the community, in what must be copy-pasted from a communications strategy document:

We can only achieve the best outcomes for communities – that they be safe and feel safe – if we have the consent of the public.

This is why our overall vision is to have the trust and confidence of all.

We must earn that trust every day, and be continually focused on achieving it.

Yet the first thing he does when someone raises important points which clearly impact the way the public views the Police is throw his toys from the cot, launch personal attacks against an academic who has backed up his criticism with plenty of evidence, and give the reading public absolutely no reason to trust that he actually understands the seriousness of the issues Edwards is talking about.

Mike Bush has only proven Edwards’ point. He refuses to acknowledge the serious problems in Police culture and training. He refuses to talk about how they will actually improve. The first instinct is to defend, defend, defend, and try to say that the critics are the villains.

And by quoting an anonymous young officer whose first instinct is also to complain about how hard and thankless his job is, he only illustrates that the cultural change we keep getting promised is a long way from happening.

If Mike Bush wants to see a great example of how a man at the top of a conservative institution can really rebuild public trust and show leadership in changing a toxic culture in his ranks, I highly recommend that he watch this video a few dozen times.


Measured, authoritative, careful not to pre-judge the case, but absolutely not taking any shit and giving a strong commitment to actually change. Not mouthing PR bullet points about “trust” and “vision”.

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept, Police Commissioner. Apparently you’re happy to walk past the re-victimisation of sexual assault survivors, the framing of innocent men, and the inappropriate use of force against civilian populations.

And you wonder why more and more people don’t trust you.