What the Waitakere Myth says about pundits’ attitudes to the working class

I finally found the words, in a comment at The Standard, to explain something I’ve been feeling for years about the Waitakere Man thesis:

I keep thinking about how to express this exact idea: that the whole Waitakere Man myth says way more about Chris Trotter and Josie Pagani’s attitudes towards the working class than it does about the working class.

I’m no avatar of the working class.  I’m from a solidly middle-class family full of university graduates.  I’ve only ever worked retail to get through university.  I’ve never worked in a trade or a factory.  I live in the gentrifying northern suburbs of Wellington and tend to party-vote Green.  So it may be that I myself am in no position to comment on how Labour, or any political party, should appeal to “the working class”, if we assume that such an identity group even exists any more and votes as a group.

But I know and have known many people who absolutely fit that idea.  People who wouldn’t be out of place on Outrageous Fortune – and Chris Trotter himself used a promo photo of Cheryl West to illustrate one of his early posts on the Waitakere Man idea.  People with “real jobs” and a couple of kids, a van, a mortgage, people who still call a smoko a smoko and yes, people who do mutter about “bloody feminists” or “the gays”.  People who, if you just look at the surface shit they talk about around a Christmas barbeque, you might conclude are social conservatives who hate the social-engineering gaggle-of-gays-and-trade-unionists direction of the Labour Party.

So you might produce a political strategy which says “these people are narrow-minded typical rednecks who want to elect a Prime Minister who’s going to burp after meals and wants to shag Liz Hurley.”

I think you’d be wrong.

Absolutely, we’re not talking about people who would be thrilled by the notion of a gay Prime Minister – but without the media constantly talking up Grant Robertson’s sexuality, wouldn’t really have given a toss, because if they really cared about Robertson’s sexuality (or civil unions, or marriage equality, or homosexual law reform) they’d have stopped voting Labour long before 2008.

And absolutely, we’re not talking about people who ever want to get involved in deep discussions of the Bechdel test or the philosophical underpinnings of prochoice feminist philosophy – but if abortion is being discussed, and you put it in terms of “look mate, I don’t like to think about it myself but a chick shouldn’t have to tell the doctor she’s crazy to get one, you know?” they’re not going to freak out and start voting Conservative.

(No, I don’t use such moderate terms myself, but I don’t think it’s a surprise that the primary audience of my blog isn’t Waitakere Man.)

Absolutely, this group of voters is going to feel left out if the only Labour policies they ever hear about are marriage equality, euthanasia, abortion reform and legalising pot (though plenty of people in this group will be occasional pot smokers) – but that’s why Labour needs to cut through the media bullshit around MAN BANS!!!! and present itself as a party which can do more than one thing at a time.

Of course, I could be completely wrong about this – like I said up top, I am not a part of this demographic.  But neither is anyone who’s been whinging about “focusing on the things that matter to people” for the last five years – during which every attempt to appeal to Redneck New Zealand has been a spectacular failure.  Let’s move on in our thinking, and never ever speak of John Tamihere becoming a Labour MP ever again.


  1. Dan

    While you may be out of this demographic, let’s face it, everyone (be they university lefties or right wing Auckland Grammar Fauxgans) are too.

  2. just saying

    I’m at that Christmas BBQ with the (large) whanau every year.
    And guess what? half of that whanau is now unemployed or highly likely to be real soon. (Big hint Labour, if you really want to appeal to these voters) And those sort of comments happen, but so does a lot of pretty sophisticated political discussion, and argument, and nuance actually. And humour and wit, and wisdom and studpidity. And diversity.
    Waitakere man is a really shallow understanding of both the working class and the social conservatism of many of its members. It is a narrow, bigoted caricature, and I find it really bloody insulting. No-one, not even those with the reddest social conservative necks, ever votes according to their predjudices. They don’t really care that much about that sort of shit when it comes down to it. They do care that Labour doesn’t care about people like us, and that is part of the reason for some of the antagonism that is expressed towards those groups that do seem to suddenly matter (particularly galling when the people whose identity used to be so beyond the pale that they had to STFU about themselves seem to have now been elevated above them).

    But there was one exception, and I think this is where a lot of this mythology has arisen. Yes the bloody smacking bill really rattled some cages, and even though almost all of parliament voted for it, the shit stuck to Labour, and was skillfully spun with the whole childless, woman prime-minister, and gay-bashing was thrown in to the mix. But that was a unique case. Many of the whanau felt they were being accused of being bad, abusive parents, and that really mattered to them. Having members like me saying “yeah, the family hitting is/was wrong, but no parent is perfect – did you really think you were? And get over yourselves for fucks sake” probably rubbed salt in that wound because I think its fair to say that the whole thing came across to them as the middle-class telling the peasants that they couldn’t even raise their kids properly.

    • Hopeful

      That’s a fresh take on the anti-smacking bill that I’ve never considered, Just Saying. As it was, I applauded it because I, Pakeha, middle-class, grew up in a family where beatings were common, and I hadn’t even thought that a class/group (?) of people would have thought it was directed at them personally. Although I now also think that maybe some white middle-class folks still don’t recognise that it applied to them, too.