The hard labour of rebuilding progressive politics

The community’s distaste right now for politicians and the political process is really something. Labor is suffering the brunt of that disenchantment – and we’ve done our fair share to contribute to it. Yet maybe the firestorm of state electoral losses and public disillusionment can open seeds of renewal. The massive scale of the NSW defeat – and the sullen mood of voters across the country – suggest we need to think beyond short-term tactics to larger questions about rebuilding progressive politics.

One of the most important structural challenges is to rebuild our community base. Around the world, a steep decline in mass party membership is by default making social democratic parties professional, managerialist organisations – easier to run than democratic organisations, but culturally disconnected from the people they seek to represent. In place of strong organic community links they become bloodless public relations organisations – managing a political brand, researching and testing political messages, raising funds and executing election campaigns. Values like fairness, social justice, compassion, community and sustainability get reduced to mere ‘brand attributes’, instead of deep-seated convictions that shape the policies and culture of the organisation.

Labor has not yet become that kind of organisation, but our community links have atrophied. Once, a strong union membership base gave us deep connections to local communities. Communities were more localised, and members were often involved in many voluntary and social activities – like sports, schools, churches and service organisations. Party members were the eyes and ears of their communities and they kept caucus members in touch. We truly were a labour movement, and our local networks helped thousands of people with practical things like adult education and emergency relief.

Today, things have changed. Community life is less localised, and while there’s still local community champions among our membership, most are greying and fewer are taking their place. Yet we have barely changed our formal party structures. We are left with the formal relics of a past era – like the obligation of attendance at dull, procedural branch meetings. This simply isn’t a relevant or authentic way for people to channel their political energies, so people go elsewhere.

You find similar trends in churches, which remain among the strongest community organisations in Australia. Smaller local churches that stuck with old patterns and formal styles have declined, while the well-organised, high-energy Pentecostal megachurches have enjoyed explosive growth. Faith is alive and strong in Australia, but its expression is changing.  So too in politics, groups like GetUp! have become the megachurches of our political landscape mobilising tens of thousands for every campaign they run – while in our depleted ALP branches, the poor branch secretary faithfully  carries on, like a church organist playing to a row of empty pews.

Politics is about power, and progressive politics can never be just about exercising the power of government while we are in office. It must always be about distributing power more evenly in society – which means reducing the power of elites and empowering communities. In the words of the father of community organising, Saul Alinsky, in 1971: “Change comes from power, and power comes from organisation. In order to act people must get together.” This is not about the formalities of membership – it is about actually organising people on the ground to work together.

In the modern Labor Party, we rarely think of politics in terms of building power by building movements – we are so preoccupied with the immediate tactics of electoral politics and a state-centred model of achieving change. We need to broaden our approach. Our strategies need to engage people in our political battles, instead of operating only at elite levels – a lesson particularly highlighted by climate change policy in our first term in office. The way we operate now, we don’t even ask the question how we might mobilise a movement around big reform challenges, because we’re so accustomed to thinking that change comes from the top down. After the defeat of British Labour in 1931, R. H.Tawney argued in his essay The Choice Before the Labour Party that Labour, “when it ought to have called people to a long and arduous struggle, it too often did the opposite. It courted them with hopes of cheaply won benefits… It demanded too little and offered too much.” Perhaps that is true of Australian Labor, 80 years later.

As the party’s 2010 election review recommended, we should look closely at what we can learn from community organising about how we might engage and mobilise people for change. Saul Alinsky’s efforts in Chicago in the 1930s began America’s rich history of organising, and it continues across the US today. In the last ten years, Britain has seen the success of London Citizens and groups in northern England. British Labour is engaging with this model – Ed Miliband recently brought on board Britain’s champion of organising, Maurice Glasman, to advance the agenda in response to the UK Conservatives’ Big Society initiative. A new Australian initiative, the Sydney Alliance, is also in its early stages.

Community organising is not merely a tactic – it involves a patient, long-term process of developing local leaders and acting on priorities chosen by local communities, to advance the common good. It means helping local communities rebuild their community life and seeking to overcome the alienation and disconnectedness of modern life. Combine strong community networks with the rapid mobilisation potential of online technologies, and you could begin to restore people’s faith in the capacity of politics to deliver real change. It is happening elsewhere – witness the success of popular movements that have successfully mobilised mass public support for anti-corruption laws in Brazil and India during the past year.

Rebuilding our community base is part of the larger challenge of rebuilding Australia’s progressive infrastructure with a plurality of organisations and institutions. Just as the dominance of big department stores has been diluted by a much more diffuse and competitive retail sector, the centrality of major political parties is being diluted by a more diverse political landscape. The Labor Party can no longer embody all the progressive aspirations of Australians. Many people will feel a stronger attachment to the Greens, to progressive campaigning groups like GetUp! and to single issue groups. Especially when Labor is on the nose with the public, we need to reach out to this broader progressive base that may do a better job than us in mobilising people and making the case for change.

In thinking of how we strengthen Australia’s progressive infrastructure, we could learn from the way American progressives have built up their infrastructure during the past decade – with progressive media, think tanks, advocacy organisations, research capacity, strategic analysis and leadership development. Better communications strategy has been a priority, based on the recognition that since the Reagan era conservatives had reframed many debates through a disciplined, energetic communications strategy. At the leading progressive think-tank, the Center for American Progress, half the organisation’s resources are devoted to its communications capability. CAP drives the daily rapid response from progressive organisations to the hugely powerful conservative media, and it sets the benchmark for effective campaigning by Democrat candidates.

A progressive Australian future relies a stronger progressive infrastructure than what we have today, and it requires more than just renewal of the Labor Party. We must scale up the nascent think-tank infrastructure. We need to generate greater diversity in the media to counter the growing dominance of conservative voices, just as we did with Labor newspapers a century ago. We need to invest in leadership development programs. We need to continue the renewal of the union movement. And we must improve collaboration across the different parts of the progressive movement. These are all components in winning future elections – and just as importantly, ensuring that we can achieve change when we win.

Tim Dixon is Senior Fellow at in New York, a home for 21st century movement-building. From 2005 to 2010 he was speechwriter and senior economic adviser to Prime Ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley.




About Tim Dixon

Tim Dixon

Tim Dixon is the chief political strategist at in New York, where he works across Purpose’s US and international projects, building new movements for progressive change. Tim worked as senior economic adviser and chief speechwriter to Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and to Labor Leader Kim Beazley, between 2005 and 2010. Tim is also a former lawyer and co-author of Australia’s leading economics textbook. @dixontim

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