If you are one of those who think that a discussion of women in politics equates to a focus on identity politics, then you should stop reading now.

Or perhaps not.

In recent times, a range of political commentators have bemoaned the conversations that arise about why women’s representation in politics matters. They view it as a distraction from the need to promote the material needs of voters and substantive policy issues.

Labour’s new leadership team may be making these anti ‘identitarians’ squirm (this term is theirs not mine, and don’t even begin to try and spell check it). Jacinda Ardern is female and young(ish) while Kelvin Davis is Māori and from the North. They tick a lot of boxes in terms of challenging what has long since been the descriptive norm in major party politics.

At this point, we have only heard a brief mention of these two signifying something akin to identity politics (via RNZ in a Q and A with Morgan Godfrey and  Māni Dunlop). But if these two leaders don’t pull off the win of the century, you can be sure that part of the blame will be laid at the door of playing ‘identity’ politics.

This would be unfortunate because treating identity and material as an either-or or a zero sum game is problematic. So is assuming the working class is a homogenous group. Irrespective of how we measure class, large numbers of women and Māori are labourers, call centre operators, carers, and manual workers. We know that women’s experience as workers is tangibly and materially different from men’s; women earn less, they are more likely to take breaks to care for family, and work part time, and they end their time as labour market participants with less assets and less in their superfund.

There are a couple of reasons why these gender factors might matter. First, a recent blog post by Josh Van Veen reminds us that the last time Labour’s working class vote was strong was when Helen Clark won government in 1999. Drawing on data from the New Zealand Election Study, he finds that 47 percent of those in manual and semi-skilled occupations voted Labour while only 32 percent of those in middle-class (‘other’) occupations did so. In 2002, Labour increased its share of the middle-class vote to 40 percent but was able to retain its hold on the working class vote. While Clark’s government lost in 2008, Van Veen’s analysis shows 42 percent of manual and semi-skilled workers voted Labour. Since then, Labour has steadily lost its share of that vote.

…a simmering discontent amongst women who are tired of having to wait for male attitudes to catch up with the reality of women’s lives.

Interestingly, over the same period, we also see a significant gender gap in favour of Labour under Clark’s leadership. New Zealand Election Study data reveal that Labour has historically been more successful than National at adapting to the structural changes in labour market participation and the cultural changes associated with that. While women were more likely than their male counterparts to vote National prior to the 1980s, from 1993 a different gender gap emerges, this time in the reverse direction. Women become more likely to support Labour than National and more likely than men to support Labour, creating significant gender gaps.

This trend held from 1999 until 2008 when women voters returned to National, and have stayed there. Anne Else has argued that John Key made a conscious effort to undermine Brash’s ‘bloke-ish’ positions, in order to win over women voters. We also know from the New Zealand Election Study that women were consistently more predisposed to ‘like’ Helen Clark compared to their male counterparts and while Labour did not win in 2008, Clark’s likeability rating amongst respondents of both sexes actually increased on the 2005 rating.

The question arising from this brief historical snapshot then is whether, under the leadership of Jacinda Ardern, Labour can win back the women’s vote, some of which will surely be working women. It seems to be there for the taking. In 2014, the NZES showed women’s support for National as having dropped by around 10 points, to levels not seen since 2005. The questions Ardern has adeptly answered about her motherhood plans and the reaction from women (and some men) as a result indicate a simmering discontent amongst women who are tired of having to wait for male attitudes to catch up with the reality of women’s lives.

Thus, to suggest women’s support for Labour under a women leader equates to identity politics would be short-sighted. Diverse representation in our political system ensures a wider array of voices and lived experiences are reflected than in times past. And for whatever reason, Labour under a female leader has appealed to women voters in the past. Of course, this does not mean that we should ignore the dilemma Labour has with winning back its traditional male base.

But the latter need not come at the cost of the former.

* Jennifer Curtin is co-author, with Jack Vowles and Hilde Coffé, of the forthcoming book, A Bark but No Bite. Inequality and the 2014 New Zealand General Election.

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