The National MP’s leadership bid has put his broad Kiwi accent back in the spotlight. Henderson-Massey local board chair and ‘proud Westie’ Shane Henderson thinks we should all lay off the jokes.
I can empathise a little with Simon Bridges. Not with his politics, but with his accent.
Last week Bridges announced his intention to stand for election as leader of the National party, and the social media world was abuzz. The issue? The left in particular seemed to fixate on how he turns his i’s into u’s when he speaks. This was used as evidence he couldn’t possibly win an election.
Like Bridges, I grew up in a working class environment in a working class community in West Auckland. Bridges may have long left behind his roots but, like me, he retains what many describe as a “working class” accent.
Full disclosure, I am a typical West Auckland leftie and proudly represent my community in local government. I’ve long been a fan of dropping the odd “bro” and “mate” into conversation, and my thick accent was under the pump during a recent trip overseas when even my friends had a bit of an issue. But in my community, I dare say, it has been more of a help than a hindrance.
So when people heard the Bridges announcement, and hit back with a “Soimun Brudges! Oim so uckcited!”, I didn’t really understand the joke. Is it on us suburbanites, us regular salt-of-the-earth folk? Is a supposed weakness of enunciation enough to disqualify someone from high public office? Is it a presumed lack of sophistication?
The thing that struck me most is that the jibes seem to be coming more from my fellow lefties, and I hope you don’t mind if I give you a gentle chiding for it. Remember, a “working class accent” is a common trope across the globe, and often used by conservatives in other countries to exclude the workers from a feeling of belonging at the top tables.
The plummy sounding aristocratic conservative is so deeply rooted in other nations that a cottage industry revolves around elocution for young leaders. Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher both made conscious efforts to change their accents, to make them sound more or less regional and fit the stereotype expected of them – more posh in the case of Thatcher, less so for Blair. Last year British Labour MP Angela Rayner received abusive emails telling her she sounded “thick” because of her northern working class accent. I can’t quite figure out how sounding like a Londoner makes an MP better at their job.
Perhaps I am taking the teasing of Bridges a bit too seriously, but I would rather focus on what he uses his voice to do than how it sounds. He used those dulcet tones to record a vote against marriage equality. He used his voice to vote for oil exploration off the west coast, threatening the Maui dolphin’s habitat and our pristine beaches alike. And there are of course the 10 Northland bridges to discuss, if not drive on. We can assess his politics, and his character, and that will be enough for us to debate for a long time.
So, fellow comrades, is this really where we want politics to go? And if we’re talking voices, do we actually want our leaders to all sound like the champagne-swilling class?
A good friend of mine made the point that perhaps it is the mismatch of it all that’s causing such a fuss. A person who sounds like an everyday bloke, but with an image and voting record that doesn’t fit. But Simon Bridges does sound like many in my community – perhaps we should be using our own voices to hold him to account.