Why can’t Labour get back to its roots?

This is a question which gets thrown around every time someone in the Labour Party takes a pot-shot at women, at queer folk, at beneficiaries, and then gets called out for being a judgemental, privileged douchebag.

Why can’t Labour get back to its roots?  Back to being the party of the worker?  As muerk commented on Twitter,

Labour was a party for working class folk, like miners. It doesn’t represent them like it used too.

Well muerk, that might just be because we’re in the 21st fucking century now.

Now, don’t take this wrong.  I’m not saying the priorities of miners are unimportant just because they’re a much smaller part of the population than they used to be (that would just be hilariously ironic); what I am saying is that the privilege of viewing the entire NZ population in terms of:

Rich white dudes | hard-working white dudes | other [chicks | brown dudes]

… is not one anyone with half a brain should be coveting these days.

Yes, welcome to the world of identity politics.  The world wherein people have those horrid “identities”, i.e. have the temerity to be loud and demand that the world recognise the many ways in which we are not just rich white dudes, hard-working white dudes, chicks, or brown.

Identities which were not necessarily chosen, but embraced, because white-dude society used different aspects of our rich and complex human experience to make the world their playground and shut out anyone who was different.

So now we don’t get to just pretend that all politics is an epic struggle between The Upper Classes [white, dudely] and The Working Classes [white, dudely].  Now we have to accept the basic human reality that women, and people of colour, and migrants, and people with disabilities, and queer people, and the non-working poor are actually all around us.  Don’t run, they can only see movement!

And here’s where it gets totally freaky, people longing for The Good Old Days.  Those working-class folk, like miners, who Labour used to represent?

Some of them were probably queer.

Some of them certainly had disabilities, if only through the kind of workplace accidents you get when you’re in a manual labour industry.

Some of them, these days, will be women.  Or Maaori.  Or Muslim.

It is frankly a fucking crime against the amazing diversity of human existence that some people want to pretend that all those nasty “identities” are just exclusive little groups on the fringes, demanding more than their fair share of the political spotlight.

And it is frankly fucking stupid to act like retreating one’s focus and attention back to that once-mainstream group, identified purely by Current Location Relative To Mode Of Production, contains even a milligram of political sense.

Because when Labour people, or people in the non-specific-Labour leftwing zone, attack abortion rights, attack marriage equality, attack beneficiaries, attack Maaori, they’re not saying “let’s get back to focusing on the issues facing all workers”.

They’re saying “let’s get back to focusing on the issues facing all workers which are strictly limited to white, hetero, cisgendered, able-bodied currently-employed dudes.”

And that’s a ridiculously small segment of society these days.  And a lot of them actually support progressive issues which don’t actually affect them individually!  It’s like they understand that society is made up of a lot of people and when we’re all being treated with dignity and respect and given the opportunity to live our lives to the fullest, everyone benefits!

So, really.  When you talk about “Labour getting back to its roots”, all I hear is “waaaaaah, stop talking about issues that don’t affect me personally, I want all the attention!”  Because it’s not even politically rational.

Unless of course these people honestly do believe that a political party can only discuss one issue at a time.  And that thought is simply depressing.


  1. Lew (@LewStoddart)

    He might be a dirty old neocon, but it’s really worth reading the middle section of Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations re this — writing in 1996 he did pretty well at articulating this, in spite of a pretty epic sense of Americentric privilege.


  2. Giovanni

    They’re saying “let’s get back to focusing on the issues facing all workers which are strictly limited to white, hetero, cisgendered, able-bodied currently-employed dudes.”

    Correction: the issues facing all workers which are strictly limited to white, hetero, cisgendered, able-bodied currently-employed dudes who are also bigoted and not really of the Left. It’s a vanishingly small constituency in real terms, but a very fond marketing construct for the likes of John Pagani (that’s what Goff’s Two New Zealands speech was all about). The workers’ movement of course looks nothing like that, and wants nothing to do with that: it comprises as you say queer people and feminists and disabled peopled and so forth. It knows you can’t fight for equity without also fighting for equality. Hell, you’d just have to be at the marriage equality rally in Wellington and take a look around.

  3. Stuart Nash

    Man, what a chip.! You must have massive shoulders to carry that weight around. Being the white, hetero, middle class, university educated, gym-going, rugby-loving, beer-drinking, employed male that I am must mean I can’t be Labour. I feel so guilty. Actually, I am, and I don’t. Sorry.

      • Giovanni

        I feel compelled to try to balance the heroic lack of clue exhibited by Mr Nash with this great post by Dougal McNeill on class, identity and privilege.

        This passage strikes me as particularly apt, and is a much better written version of my muddle comment from last night:

        “I’ve little patience with contemporary leftist critiques of so-called identity politics, whatever previous value that struggle may once have had. They seem now, for the most part, to be dedicated to trying to get other people to quieten down about their identity, all in the name of a (largely mythical) ‘central’ class concern. This isn’t just bad politics. It’s also bad class politics. A left which isn’t – like the working class itself – attuned to, and welcoming of, the varieties of human sexuality and gender identity, and actively anti-racist, is hardly worth the name or the bother.”

        Amen to that.

        • Stuart Nash

          agree – tis well said. If you understood my history (and I don’t expect you to) you would know that I have fought for anyone who is oppressed in name or nature, but it also doesn’t mean that one ignores the great social issues of the day. As I have continuously mentioned, for me 270,000 kiwi kids living in poverty is a national shame that we MUST do something about. This is one of the major areas where i will be putting my focus, but not exclusively. Equality of opportunity is the reason I got into politics – and stick at it – because I really do believe i can make a difference.

          • QoT

            Stuart, you keep pretending we can’t simultaneously give a shit about marriage equality and child poverty. This is either a pathetically desperate derail on your part, or a reflection of your own capacities. Neither is my problem. Nor is your irrelevant history, which, if represented accurately, only makes it worse that you’re dissing Louisa Wall’s amazing achievement.

            If you really “fought for anyone who is oppressed in name or nature” then you probably wouldn’t continue to characterize marriage equality as not being part of the group “issues that matter”. Can’t have it both ways, Stuart.

        • Giovanni

          Yes, Stuart, it’s quite hard to reconcile this statement of your with a) the blog post you wrote on Louisa’s bill and b) the astonishingly timid stance of the party on labour issues and welfare under the new leader, with whom you used to work quite closely. To blame the media interest in marriage equality for Labour’s failure to make inroads on those other issues appears hopelessly disconnected from reality.