Friday 18 September 2009

The Whiff of Testosterone

A Word in Your Ear, Nanny: The new language of masculinity which Phil Goff introduced at Labour's annual conference in Rotorua is absolutely crucial to regaining the attention, and then the loyalty, of the working-class male.

LABOUR’S 93rd ANNUAL CONFERENCE was about Phil Goff and the working-class male. After the stern, fifteen-year reign of Queen Helen I, how could it possibly have been about anything else?

And the whiff of testosterone that lingered over the Conference wasn’t simply the after-effects of Phil’s arrival outside Rotorua’s Energy Event Centre on Rick Barker’s Triumph. For the first time in a long time, the concerns, priorities and aspirations of working-class men were at the front of the policy queue. For these blokes, Labour’s 2008 defeat has been a sort of vindication: final proof that privileging a political discourse that either renders men invisible – or casts them as villains – comes with a very high electoral price-tag.

This new language of masculinity was clearly visible in the genuine and long-standing mateship between Phil Goff and the South Australian Labor Premier, Mike Rann. It was there in the blokey bonhomie of the Opposition leader’s new ideas man, the relentlessly positive John Pagani. You could read it in the solid union double-act of Andrew Little and Chris Flatt at the top-table. And you could hear it, at full-volume, in the deafening masculine roars unleashed by Phil and his retinue as they watched the Springboks hammer the All-Blacks, live, on an outsize TV screen at the Conference Dinner on Saturday night.

Most of all it was there in Phil’s keynote address to the Conference. His description of his widowed grandmother, a woman quite literally brought to her knees by the Great Depression, was telling: "She scrubbed floors for others to make ends meet for the family."

In that line we can still hear the caustic mixture of shame and rage experienced by working-class men and boys who could not rescue their wives and mothers from the humiliation of scrubbing the floors of their "betters".

In Phil’s words we also catch a glimpse of the Labour Party his grandparent’s generation voted for. It wasn’t a feminine construct. Blokes like Mickey Savage and Peter Fraser didn’t hazard their liberty for something as insufferably bourgeois as a "nanny".

No, the Labour Party of the 1930s and 40s was very much a masculine concept. In the eyes of its members and supporters, Labour was the working-class Leviathan: an unconquerable proletarian super-hero – sworn to secure the rights of the poor and downtrodden.

When Phil related how the Labour Party had "stood beside [his grandmother] when she needed it, and she never forgot that", the masculine symbolism was unmistakable. He’d presented the Party as defender and protector – the decent working-man who steps between the bully and his prey.

And the bullies of the 1930s were by no means exclusively male.

We are all familiar with the socialist caricatures of the oppressive boss and the rack-renting landlord, but few now remember that before the coming of the welfare state the "care of the poor" was routinely entrusted to organisations made up overwhelmingly of middle- and upper-class women.

All too often the wives of working men had to stand before the wives of their husbands’ employers and beg for assistance. Condescended to by the ladies of the hill, the women of the gullies had every reason to think of "charity" as something cold and judgmental.

Was the hostility directed against Labour’s "Nanny State" reforms by the party’s estranged working-class supporters a subconscious manifestation of these bitter class memories? Had Labour’s politicians become the "ladies on the hill" – talking down to their inferiors?

Flora Thompson, the British author whose books became the hit BBC television series Larkrise to Candleford, has her hero declare: "A man’s role is to conquer the world." To which her heroine archly responds: "Oh? And what is a woman’s role?" His instant (and grievously politically incorrect) reply is: "To love him for it."

In the 1930s – and again in the late-1960s and early 1970s – that became the dream of thousands of young and idealistic working-men. To conquer, if not the world, then at least the social evils which disfigure it. To protect and defend the weak and the oppressed – and to earn the love and respect of their female comrades in the process.

Can Phil Goff, who began his career as an hirsute red knight, astride a Norton Commando charger, persuade Labour to re-claim this heroic and very masculine tradition?

Can Labour, once again, become a party with balls?

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 18 September 2009.


Anonymous said...

I think you are right Chris, that Labour needs to reconnect with those positive aspects of masculinity. But, I think they need to be really careful how they frame it.

I like Phil Goff's reference to his grandmother, for instance, but they need to broaden that message from personal to social: e.g. "we don't just look after our own grandmothers (even Tories do that) we will help you look after yours."

I also think they need to be very careful to convey a masculinity that listens to those who need their help and protection, i.e. will sit down and talk to Nana.

Fatal Paradox said...

Much as I share your aversion to the middle class liberal control-freak take-over of the Labour Party Chris, I have to say that Goff´s new shtick of trying to appeal to red-blooded masculinity is even more cringe-inducing than Maryan Street et al on the stage at the last (2008) LP conference singing their version of "The Gambler".

I'll settle for plain old genderless socialism if you don't mind, without all the patronising gender stereotypes!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Fatal Paradox, although I'd rather have genderless Social Democracy.

The important things in politics aren't balls or (for that matter) vaginas but brains and guts, attributes reasonably well distributed between both genders.

Goff has shown he's got the first of these but he's yet to show that he's got the latter.

I'll be more impressed when he stands up to the media bullies and stops apologising

Meanwhile, leave the hearty, bogan faux machismo to the Tories


Anonymous said...

Great post, Chris.

(Signed: conservative, working-class Maori boy)

peterquixote said...

heres cross Chris Trotter on

"Phil Goff, who began his career as an hirsute red knight, astride a Norton Commando charger, persuade Labour to re-claim this heroic and very masculine tradition?

Can Labour, once again, become a party with balls?

No Chris No, Labour is absolutely dead.
smell it ,

Anonymous said...

I recall National being 'absoultely dead' in 2002. Wishing it so doesn't make it so.

Anonymous said...

Well throwing off the heavy influence of the special interest groups may help. For too long has the Labour party been captured and diverted from economic issues.
Though I dont fancy the party's chances of reducing this entrenched power now. Labour created the monster, now they have to live with it.

Anonymous said...

Labour certainly isn't 'absolutely dead'. But it's a long time since it had a natural constituency of any substance.

That's one of the reasons why it allowed itself to be captured by neo-liberal accountants in the 1980s and middle class feminists in the 1990s. Repositioning itself as the political arm of 'blokes in sheds' doesn't really get us very far either. If it keeps swapping one minoroty identity for another, it will just end up like a (slightly)larger version of United Future.

What's urgently needed is for the party to articulate a different way of running the economy (social democratic, well-regulated, Keynsian and orientated towards skills, investment, real growth, export opportunities, high wages and lower property prices) rather than the current cost-accounting, cheese-paring neo-liberal drift.

It also needs to explain that such a change would be in the interests of virtually the entire population, including the economically excluded.

It's not rocket science. But after 30 years of New Right brain washing, much of the public just doesn't understand the argument any more.

Kauri said...

Well, that's me told. I'm sure I'll be much happier in the testicular world you are hoping to bring back. Guess I'll go find myself a good man to love as he takes over the world, and get back in the kitchen. I'll rely on men to protect me from rape and domestic violence, just as my fore-mothers did prior to feminism. It worked so much better than the rape crisis centres, refuges and educational programs started by feminists. Without women running things, I wonder if the police will revert to their old ways of helping women victims of crime? I guess I'd better stay indoors, now I think of it, not go out without a man and some figure-disguising garments. If at some point in my life it is sadly necessary for me to earn some money, I'll rely on the goodwill of men to see what I can bring to the workplace, because history shows that robust testicularly-driven men are so good at noticing and valuing women as equals in the workplace. Or I'll just do the work men disdain to do, like cleaning and childcare and serving. I'll gladly give up the vote because just by loving my man I'll make enough of a contribution. I'll certainly take a back seat in party politics, after all, those very important conversations and decisions that happen can't happen without me making the tea and biscuits to keep everyone going. Oh, and cleaning up the hall afterwards is important too. Not quite sure what to do about my girlfriend though. Can I keep her? Or will gay rights also be beaten back in this world you are hoping for?

Honestly, is there nothing on this earth that women can't be blamed for?

I am only glad I know some working class men who are willing to engage in solidarity with women. But then I live in the UK now. I guess New Zealand women are going to have to pay the price for their audacity in getting further with women's rights than virtually any country on earth. I used to be proud to be a Kiwi, anywhere in the world. New Zealand used to have some great lessons to teach, but perhaps now the lesson is going to become: don't go too far ladies, or the backlash will be commensurate with what you think you have gained.

Chris Trotter said...

Steady on, Kauri, it's not quite as bad as all that!

Why on earth are you assuming that bringing working-class men back into the picture automatically involves moving all women out of it?

It was men, after all, who voted women's suffrage into existence. And male only institutions that voted to open their doors to their sisters. And, if I remember rightly, it was the overwhelmingly male Federation of Labour that endorsed the Working Women's Charter. And a male-dominated NZ Parliament that relaxed the law on abortion.

Men aren't you enemies, Kauri. Given half a chance most of them have been - and will willingly become again - your allies.

All that they ask is that you do, every now and again, acknowledge that they constitute half the human species.

Anonymous said...

A political discourse that renders men invisible? Do you have any evidence or discourse analysis that does this Mr Trotter? As far as I can see men haven't been invisible in the Party or the Parliamentary wing of the Labour Party. Even with the labour leader as a female the President and Gen Sec were still men. The Labour female MPs in parliament hasn't risen above 38 percent of the caucus in the whole time Clark was PM. Just because for once women were seen AND heard doesn't mean men were invisible nor that the policy agenda alienated them. Perhaps the problem is the neo-con discourse of 'nanny state' and 'politically correct', to describe anything the right dislikes, that has been shamefully picked up by commenatators like yourself.

Anonymous said...


I think the perception of Labour as a narrow-based feminist party and of New Zealand society as weighted against men and their needs is at least ten years out of date.

I think the characterisation was true of Labour during its last term in opposition (particularly under the presidency of Maryanne Street) but considerably less so during its time in government. You may have noticed that Michael Cullen was a bloke, and so was Mike Williams.

If it seemed otherwise, it was merely a reflection of the fact that women were less unequally represented in the caucus than was previously the norm and these women were all of the feminist generation.

As to the broader currents within society, I think you have to remember just how male dominated a society New Zealand was 25 years ago and how far behind it was as compared to other western societies.

I remember my shock, when I first arrived here with my returning expat wife in 1985 , to discover that men would shake hands with me and not with her, that (despite her obviously greater knowledge on certain topics ) they would talk past her to me and that she was meant to disappear into the kitchen as part of a girly club at social gatherings.

It was gross and, frankly, disgusting. And I write as a fairly old-fashioned bloke who had never before had much sympathy for feminists.

Perhaps the prolonged (and extremely annoying) shrillness of New Zealand feminism had something to do with the situation they were confronting.

But wake up and smell the coffee! New Zealand is now full of 20, 30 and 40 something women in highly responsible jobs who have lost the shrillness, who take the achievments of feminism for granted and who have no need for sharp edges . This is a far pleasanter and more civilized country as a result of them.

The last thing we need is a return to the boorish machismo of the past.