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What I learned in Class: Should Labour go after the "Bogan Vote"?

by Dave Snell

On July 20 Chris Trotter raised a very poignant (for Labour anyway) issue: “Should Labour go after the Bogan Vote?”

Because I’m on everyone’s rolodex whenever the dreaded ‘B-word’ is uttered, the message was passed along, and I was encouraged to provide a response. I do not have the political experience of Chris but there is one thing I know and that’s Bogans. I am one myself.

I am also one of those who grew up in the 80s and 90s. Dad voted Labour and Mum voted Labour. That was until Douglas eventuated. Now, neither disclose who they vote for, but I have a firm suspicion that it’s Winston Peters. But I’ll get to that. Overall, I want to thank Chris for his column, as it’s been very thought-provoking and sparked further thinking in an area I’ve been meaning to get to.

First and foremost, there is some initial clarification needed. Being a Bogan is not based on deficit. Perhaps it is due to academic thinking on subcultural groups such as Bogans, typified by the work of academics in the Birmingham tradition such as Hall in Resistance through Rituals, which conceptualised youth cultures as a way for young people to support each other due to class subordination. Their so-called deviant behaviour was viewed as a reaction of working-class youth to structural changes in post-war Britain.

The Birmingham tradition of sub-cultural research is hugely influential to this day, including further research in the 1970s concerning subcultures such as Mods, Rockers, and Skinheads. Chris’s column is reminiscent of this thinking, in his suggestions that Bogans are a response of sorts to Labour’s economic changes in the 1980s, vis-a-vis Roger Douglas.

I am not a political scientist. While more research would be needed in the area before a definitive statement could be made, I will say that working class is not a dirty term. The working class have marketable skills; they build your houses, they fix your car, and they replace that o-ring in the tap in your kitchen sink which you really should have done yourself.

They rent a room and not a house because it means more money to buy that gearbox they wanted. They lack tertiary qualifications not because of a lack of intelligence, but because you don’t need a doctorate to get a job as a mechanic when a certificate will do – a job that they enjoy and gives access to a decent work space.

The problem with the Birmingham tradition was that it portrayed subcultural groups as unwitting dupes or victims who banded together due to a lack of voice. While the Birmingham tradition provides a useful base for research into such groups, to apply such thinking to more modern communities silences those the research purports to give voice to. The Bogan, and by extension the working class, are not victims in a modern sense.

Instead Bogans choose this identity. Mateship is not due to a lack of social connections elsewhere. Social connections are due to their sharing a way of being and associated interests with others. Breaking from the Birmingham mould, they aren’t formed out of a lack of, or as a replacement of something, but as a social process that other groups share.

Bogans value friendships because they are a way of sharing their interest with others. Be that Heavy Metal music, cars, drinking, violent action movies or other working class pursuits that are typically frowned upon by a significant proportion of traditional psychologists. Loyalty is important to a Bogan because those social connections are a strong, positive force in themselves. They are not a replacement that brings us up to functional standards but are instead an addition.

A Bogan never struggles to make social connections. They make them easily, and these connections last for life. Loyalty is an enviable quality that Bogans possess. It’s also important to note that the Bogan is not necessarily a man. The Bogan woman has already read what I’ve previously written and made a mental note to tell me to make proper reference to their gender next time.

All this means that to be a Bogan is not to be on the downward skids of life. It is to be comfortable in your surroundings, to be able to provide for loved ones, and to still have money left over for a new gearbox or a new beer box. Their skills are much needed, but sadly go unrecognised.

And this leads me to the point of the column which is whether Labour should chase the Bogan vote. The answer is, frustratingly, ‘perhaps’. But it’s going to be a very hard sell, and not for the reasons people might think.

It’s not that the Bogans don’t trust Labour due to Douglas. The reason is because Bogans don’t trust politicians at all. They are sort of apolitical. This isn’t due to a lack of awareness or responsibility or an envy of social mobility. A Bogan can quite happily discuss political issues and comment on topics presented in the media. If a voting ballot had a “No Confidence” box, a Bogan would prefer to tick that box.

In a turning of the tables, instead of being the one without transferable skills, a Bogan sees a politician as having no redeeming value to society. A Bogan’s strong sense of loyalty and mateship means that to betray that loyalty or to be self-serving and prone to rhetoric is to be rejected. A Bogan is good with their hands and is very practical-minded, so talking in abstraction leads to rejection.

This would indeed seem to lend itself to a party or politician with working class roots, but would extend beyond a union background. To have a working class background is not enough, as the voice of the Bogans would have to be someone without any form of political background. Toeing the party line is not in our vocabulary, and any voice’s first responsibility would be to the Bogans they represent. Not to the political party. A Bogan politician would then be an oxymoron, and could only really ever be an independent. Politicians are viewed as having their party’s interests at heart first, not the people’s.

The mainstream news media only confirm this belief of the worthlessness of politicians, with stories of who is wearing what scarf or pulling whose ponytail. Political pundits are guilty too, using labels or groups that are in vogue, to try and make opinion columns more relevant and entertaining. But in the process they quickly forget that they are talking about real people and not theoretical abstractions.

The Bogan leaves the political circus to the clowns. This could explain the resurgence of the previously mentioned Winston Peters. Bogans respect a person who attacks politicians. A slogan like “Keeping them Honest” resonates strongly with a Bogan’s values. Beyond that, a Bogan’s political views are their own.

So good luck to Labour, or to any other political party, but before you chase the Bogan vote you have to prove the worth of politicians in general first. And that’s a steep uphill battle that will not be achieved prior to the next election.

So thanks Chris for the column, I thoroughly enjoyed it. But, and this may be your point, the system is not set up in a way that Bogans can make use of easily. So we’ll continue to sit on the fringes, using what voices we have to keep saying “No,” regardless of which party comes a courtin’.

And please, never compare us to Juggalos again.

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 Dr Dave Snell has a PhD in Boganology from Waikato University, and he and his Bogan cohort feature in the new TV show Bogans, coming soon to TV2.

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