Carol Johnson
Thursday, 5 December 2019

Does Labor need to choose between class and identity politics?

Two recent books, by Adrian Pabst and Nick Dyrenfurth, have suggested that Labor partly lost the 2019 election because it privileged so-called progressive  “identity politics” over class and lost traditional Labor voters as a result. Labor MP Clare O’Neil has made similar arguments.  All three contributions make some excellent points regarding worsening class inequality and the impacts of economic uncertainty. 

However, history suggests that Labor supporters need to be cautious about unintentionally reinforcing the conservative framing of issues. After all, while the specific economic (and technological) context may be new, such observations are not. Decades ago, conservatives ranging from the National Civic Council’s B.A. Santamaria to the Liberal’s John Howard advocated fostering a split between workers and progressive middle class members of the Labor Party. After Howard defeated Paul Keating in 1996, some right-wing Labor Party figures also suggested that socially progressive views had alienated traditional working class voters. 

Yet, former Labor MP and President of the ACTU Jennie George criticised such views, arguing that it was actually Labor’s market-oriented, economic rationalist policies that were to blame for losing workers’ support. Significantly, both ALP federal and NSW branch reports into Keating’s 1996 election loss identified workers’ disillusion with the government’s industrial relations policies as a contributing factor. 

Those old analyses may help to explain a conundrum of the 2019 election campaign. That campaign did highlight class issues!  Labor argued that there needed to be greater economic equality and an end to wage stagnation. Labor was backed up by the ACTU’s “Change the Rules” campaign.

Yet Labor still had trouble convincing some workers that their economic interests lay in electing a Labor government  — though this factor should not be overestimated.  Adani  was only part of the reason, as  was Scott Morrison’s relative success in arguing that a big-taxing and big-spending Labor government would damage the Australian economy and put jobs at risk. Another reason was that, as I have argued elsewhere,  Labor’s own industrial relations policy, from Keating’s enterprise bargaining to Rudd and Gillard’s measures against pattern bargaining, had themselves contributed to the poor wage outcomes. Consequently, as Geoffrey Robinson points out,  Labor had reduced some workers’ faith in the ability of government to improve wages and conditions. No wonder the “Change the Rules” campaign was accused of having vague demands — it would have had to specify that some of the key rules that needed changing were introduced by past Labor governments!

So  Labor’s problem in the 2019 election was not that it neglected class but that it needed to  convince voters that a Labor government could actually improve people’s standards of living and provide economic security in anxious times. 

What about the related accusation that Labor placed too much focus on progressive identity politics? Labor could have handled some issues better, including in countering disinformation. For example, it was widely suggested that Shorten had dismissed many Christians’ concerns over Israel Folau’s treatment. Actually Shorten expressed his own unease over penalising someone for their religious views (however hurtful they were) and opposed sacking Folau. 

Once again Labor supporters should be cautious about unintentionally reinforcing the right’s framing of the issues. While most political struggles have an identity component (including a sense of class solidarity), Labor has largely constructed issues as equality rather than identity ones.  I have argued in a recent book that Labor’s  expansion of equality issues post-Whitlam  correctly recognises that inequality takes diverse, and intersecting,  forms. It is also a necessary rejection of social democracy’s previous historical role in reinforcing forms of gendered, racial and sexual inequality.  Same-sex marriage is an equality issue. Groups ranging from women to Aboriginal people are economically as well as socially disadvantaged and those disadvantages are likely to increase with geo-economic  and technological change.  

Furthermore, as key  Labor politicians have argued, framing the issue as one of class versus identity politics wrongly suggests that the working class is e.g. exclusively white, male and heterosexual, or suggests that workers  lack empathy for other disadvantaged groups in society. So why would Labor benefit from reinforcing the conservatives’ faming of such issues? 

After all, part of the reason Labor lost the 2019 election was because Morrison successfully reframed the key election issues to the ones he wanted to fight on. As Penny Wong recently argued:  “let’s not walk into the trap Scott Morrison wants us to walk into. It is the same trap John Howard set many years ago and that is to position as opposing forces, working people and progressive voters. Labor wins when we bring people together.”  It is a trap set by radical right-wing populists as well.

The ongoing challenge for Labor is to forge a successful narrative that does bring its various constituencies together and gains a majority of votes from a diverse electorate in the process.

About Carol Johnson:

Professor Carol Johnson - Carol is an Adjunct Professor of Politics at the University of Adelaide and has written extensively on the ALP, Australian elections and issues of populism with a focus on inequality and the impacts of technological disruption. Carol’s books include: Social Democracy and the Crisis of Equality: Australian Social Democracy in a Changing World (2019); Governing Change: From Keating to Howard (2007, and The Labor Legacy: Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke (1989).