Beyond Preoccupations

In the historic context of early unions coming up against harsh workplace laws (and recently facing down WorkChoices), it’s easy to see why this view is so ingrained within Labor.

Immediately after the attempted leadership ballot of March 21, 2013, I felt like I was walking in a daze, feeling despondent and slightly alarmed. Labor’s dire situation federally, and the moral as well as political defeats in Queensland and New South Wales are profound. If you believe the reporting about Labor, you would be forgiven for thinking that this great party is exhibiting the morbid symptoms of a terrible cyclical decline.

Despite this, after an initial period of gloom, I am energised by what has happened. Partly because I believe it is an opportunity and partly because I believe it will hopefully force serious people within Labor to think long-term about the future.

Two contributions to this long-term thinking are from Tim Watts and Dr Andrew Leigh MP, who argue very distinct positions. Tim Watts’ recent article for Chifley makes the case for “progressive” electoralism and consensus-driven leadership, exemplified by former Labor Queensland premier T.J. Ryan. In contrast to Watts, Leigh calls for Deakinite progressive liberalism. Both make the case for the ‘renewal’ of Labor.

For as many years as I can remember, left-wing and Labor intellectuals have spent time analysing the failings or short comings of Labor. In times of opposition or electoral difficulties, the analysis extends to trying to understand the popular support enjoyed by the conservatives.

This focus needs to shift. The endless and repetitive focus and scrutiny of Labor more often than not leads to pessimism and the detachment of Labor’s supporters and activists. Debate extends to the fine-tuning of this policy or that, or the specific historical meanings of past Labor policies like the Accord. Inevitably, the different sections of the Labor party and labour movement select which argument most suits them in apportioning blame. If we are to act constructively we must understand that the past is important, but that this kind of analysis does not itself constitute a coherent political programme for Labor.

The greatest challenge facing Labor today is how to turn its historic preoccupations into a new, relevant set of ideas for modern Australia. This does not mean that Labor should jettison its traditions, but we should take no assumptions for granted when arguing for them.

In addressing the question of Labor’s future and its values, the party’s historic mission must be clearly articulated. Without much doubt, Labor as a social democratic party, has had the historic role of “civilising” capital. As a party, it unapologetically does not seek revolution or drastic social change, but rather accommodations between the working classes that form its historic base, and other social classes.

Because of this mediating role, Labor’s mission cannot be narrow. It must build consent from a range of groups and classes: the technicians of capital (e.g.  judges, lawyers, teachers, academics, public servants), small business people and owners, and working people. While Labor had its origins in the industrial concerns of unions, it has always sought to represent social justice issues, the environment, women’s rights and a multitude of other particular interests.

Labor has always aimed to govern for the majority, and to build a social consensus. This is in stark contrast to the conservatives in Australian politics, who have governed by dividing social groups; the protests surrounding the funeral of Thatcher demonstrate the divisive nature of her ideology.

The animus for building social consensus is because of Labor’s firm belief that reform and change can best come through the power of the state. Parliament has been seen as the chief way to organise, educate and mobilise working people. In the historic context of early unions coming up against harsh workplace laws, it’s easy to see why this view is so ingrained within Labor .

If the polls are right and Labor is facing defeat in September, I believe a strong case can be made for Labor to actively re-engage with extra-parliamentary struggles. The trade union movement remains the most participatory and resilient social movement in Australia, especially around dignity at work and a social safety-net, but Labor’s parliamentary and party leadership should also participate with campaigns initiated by the women’s movement, peace movements, indigenous groups, disability organisations and environmental groups.

The hurdle to this has been twofold: Firstly the bureaucratic barriers erected by the office and trappings of government itself. Advisors and public servants act to shield ministers from grassroots activity. Policy reform and new ideas are filtered through the policy development process, and only the very largest civil society organisations can make it through the maze.

Secondly, the dichotomy between real grassroots activity and the “nasty media”. This is especially the case when Labor in government has done something which has been roundly criticised by civil society groups. In the past, the reaction by the Party leadership has been to view participation or engagement with the grassroots as undermining Labor’s respectability and credibility. To date, Labor’s focus has been to relentlessly focus on building high media credibility and profile, at the expense of deep engagement with grassroots community groups.

In his 1993 True Believers speech, Keating summed up what the true believers believed in: “a cooperative, decent, nice place to live where people have regard for one another.” At its heart, this is a pragmatic call – intimately tied to the goal of governing, of wielding the levers of power to promote inclusion, access and equity – and a modern restating of the Light on the Hill. Chifley, in that famous speech defined the movement as one “that has been built up to bring better conditions to the people”, a supremely modest ambition to be sure.

In 2010, Gillard’s call for Labor was:

To build consensus in the community, and majorities in the Parliament, for the “betterment of the people”… Equity and opportunity for all is at the heart of the Labor faith.

Labor’s values and beliefs must necessarily be broad, its ambitions wide, its programs specific, and its goals pragmatic.

Labor’s future exists both within the party itself, and within the galaxy of progressive grassroots civil society organisations that need legislative change to help achieve their own missions. Both internal reform and external engagement are equally important and essential. A simple but profound internal reform for Labor could be to adopt the college electoral system for parliamentary leader currently used by UK Labour.

These reforms are important because internally, the political labour movement alone will not be able to resist a potential Abbott government and reform Labor simultaneously. And important externally because it is only by winning over those large numbers of groups for whom the traditional structures and traditions of labourism have no appeal, that Labor can be imaginatively developed as a real force for the future.

About Alex White

Alex White

Alex White is a national marketing advisor working in the labour movement with a decade of policy, campaigns and public relations experience. His background is complemented by professional and leadership roles in the trade union movement, charities, environmental and political organisations. He blogs at and tweets @alexanderwhite.

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