Between Extremes: Rebuilding Mainstream Progressive Politics

Ever since Julia Gillard appeared with Bob Brown to sign off the Labor/Greens Party Parliamentary Agreement on September 1 last year her foes in parliament and the media have sought to paint the junior coalition partner as the real power behind her Labor government’s throne.

Thus when Gillard and Brown appeared together in the PM’s courtyard last month to announce an interim carbon tax, Tony Abbott and a phalanx of right-wing pundits declared that Brown was in fact the ‘real’ PM, implementing his radical social agenda by stealth.

Two points are worth making. First, much of the current criticism is being peddled by commentators whose wish is patently father to their thought. For them any legislation that seeks to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions is anathema, as is the very existence of a Labor government.

Second, those proclaiming the end of Labor as we know it, as the party’s electoral base is assailed from the forces of both Left and Right and, so the story goes, working class battlers foam at the mouth against so-called middle class progressives, display a remarkable level of historical ignorance.

We’ve been here before and if there is any party capable of rising to the challenge of rebuilding mainstream progressive politics and of legislating long-term nation-building reform it is Labor. Today’s rancorous political climate is indeed foreboding, dominated as it is by extremist voices emanating from both Left and Right, but one might also see it as an opportunity for Labor to once again dominate the reforming centre of Australian political life.

History is a handy guide. Labor was the world’s most precocious social democratic party – it was the first party of its type in the world to form a state government (in Queensland during 1899) or national government, whether minority (Chris Watson in 1904) or majority (Andrew Fisher in 1910). Those achievements always entailed something more than a crude vote-winning exercise.

Labor’s success owed much to the plausibility of its political narrative; the building of an economically prosperous yet fair society built upon values of democracy, equality and social justice. Selling that narrative was hard work. Labor’s core constituencies did not somehow arrive gift-wrapped. Labor couldn’t take for granted that workers would be its natural supporters or instinctively social democratic: they had to be won over.

In a similar vein, less ideologically inclined swinging voters, whether hailing from the city or the bush, as well as middle class progressives were always critical to building a mainstream social democratic politics. ‘It’s votes that count’, urged NSW Labor MP W.J. Ferguson in 1897. ‘Two-thirds of the Sydney workers are not prepared to go to the lengths of Trade Unionism, and Socialism is a step beyond.’

The importance of Labor connecting with potential supporters via a compelling mainstream narrative—whether via union-backed labour newspapers, or the efforts of Labor politicians in Parliament and on ‘the hustings’—is difficult to over-emphasise. This is particularly so when we consider the virulence of anti-Labor propaganda produced by its political enemies.

When it emerged as a serious political player in the 1900s Labor faced a barrage of criticism from its foes on the Right. Whereas the likes of Liberal Sophie Mirabella foolishly liken Julia Gillard to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, early Labor leaders such as Chris Watson, a rather straight-laced, moderate man, were equated with wild socialists of Karl Marx’s ilk. Musing on Watson’s world first government, one Tory paper alleged that he was disingenuously presenting as a ‘cautious leader’. In reality, he was ‘prepared to drag the country down with him to socialism and ruin. A Government of self-confessed socialists should not have been tolerated in office an hour’.

Such political bigotry needed to met head-on with equal doses passion and reasoned argument. Watson returned fire: ‘The very people who objected to socialism were immersed in it. They rode in socialistic railways, read in socialistic libraries, and if through studying the advantages of individualism they became insane, they retired to a socialistic asylum.’ Watson’s words remain apt. Indeed, substitute Watson’s ‘socialism’ with ‘environmentalism’ or ‘sustainability’ and an opportunity arises for a similar line as regards Tony Abbott’s hyperbole and relentless negativity on climate change.

Building a mainstream progressive narrative ultimately means that the same logic must apply to the political party to Labor’s Left, the Greens. Although Labor is compelled to work alongside the Greens for the remainder of this parliament, it shouldn’t refrain from criticism nor shy away from defining its mainstream aspirations against the fringe ideas of its ostensible ally. For instance, working Australians cannot be sacrificed like lambs to the slaughter in order to speed the nation’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Instead, securing action on climate change can only be achieved by Labor’s ‘big tent’.

Again the pioneer Laborites can assist. Leaders such as Watson thought of themselves as socialists, in an age when socialism was not yet associated with the evils of Soviet-style Communism. Yet they also defined themselves against the ravings of the anti-Labor far-Left. In 1909, NSW Labor MLA Arthur Griffith lambasted Labor’s Left critics:

We are the sane and commonsense Socialists, who believe in going step by step. [You] seem to think that we have to do nothing for a long time, and then suddenly someone rings a bell, and then a new era would be ushered in—just like the falling of a drop-scene in a theatre.

Griffith went on to allege that they were disloyal abettors of Labor’s enemies: ‘Labor is fighting against the concentrated power of wealth [and] a mighty press. [Yet] these men come round, and instead of helping us knife us in the back.’  Again, replace socialist with environmentalist and a long-term mainstream progressive electoral strategy emerges.

It was no coincidence that a year after Griffith’s intervention federal Labor took office in its own right and his own state party formed its first government. It was an extraordinary development. Whereas the British Labour Party was little more than a parliamentary rump and socialist parties in France and Germany pathetically weak, the planks of Labor’s platform were being made law. No Labor party existed in comparable countries such as New Zealand and the USA.

Today, Labor finds itself in much the same situation as a century ago. Only this time the threat from its Left is more electorally real and like many of the world’s centre-Left parties, Labor is struggling to define itself in a post-Cold War, globalised world where tribal loyalties of class are less relevant. And yet, modern Labor’s task is much the same: building a more prosperous, egalitarian society albeit one which prioritises environmental sustainability.

Labor’s narrative ought to be much the same. On its Right are American Tea Party-style Conservatives who refuse to acknowledge the threat of climate change much as they refused to tackle the widespread poverty and inequality that arose courtesy of industrial capitalism. On its Left, there are those who believe in smashing up society in order to satisfy their utopian cravings, no matter the human cost.

It may seem implausible at present, but Labor has a unique opportunity to rebuild mainstream progressive politics. A compelling narrative is essential. And yet though Labor can draw many lessons from its history, it cannot fetish that past. Rather, it must believe that its greatest progressive achievements are yet to come.

Sydney University’s Dr Nick Dyrenfurth is the editor or author of several books on Australian history and politics including All That’s Left: What Labor Should Stand For (New South, 2010), Heroes and Villains: The Rise and Fall of the Early Australian Labor Party (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011) and the forthcoming publication (A Little History of the Australian Labor Party (New South in conjunction with the Chifley Research Centre, 2011, with Frank Bongiorno).



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