Andrew Giles & Ryan Batchelor
Friday, 14 February 2020

Renewing Labor in the 2020s

The parallels between Labor’s twin elections losses of 2019 in the UK and at home can’t be ignored, and nor can the challenges both defeats present to social democracy.

How can we get people whose lives – at first look – might appear so different to vote for the same party?

Finding the right answer to this question requires a considered and strategic response, focused on the future, not a knee-jerk reaction.

However, reaction not reflection that has characterised the debate to date. Worryingly, to a great extent this has been founded on the false and dangerous premise that we have to choose between the groups we want to continue to represent.

That the interests of our working-class constituency – trades based, lower income, often ethnically diverse – is fundamentally at odds with the interests of professional, tertiary educated and higher income groups with more post-material concerns.

With the underlying, and equally false, assumption that their interests can’t be reconciled within, and through, Labor’s political project.

This simplistic answer to a very complicated question denies the power of our politics, and also the capacity of Australians to see ourselves in each other.

But we have to recognise the scale of the challenge and be clear about how we would respond to it in government. This means thinking clearly about how changes in the economy have been reshaping people’s lives and relationships, and about how a government that is on their side can be seen as making a meaningful difference. These matter so much more than decisions made in the 2019 election campaigns to our future prospects.

Fundamentally, we’ve underestimated the consequences of the powerful economic forces that separate and sort people in a globalised economy.

Too often, this has been a failing of the left, more so than of politics generally.

The result of these changes has seen a disconnection of people from institutions close to them who could harness power. The sale of state-owned utilities and enterprises, the decline of large scale manufacturing, constraints on the ability of unions to organise to support workers, and the prevalence of company owners who reside anywhere or nowhere, have all compounded this effect.

Those who have maintained their connection to power – through profession, occupation, or education – are increasingly uncontested in how they exercise it. Concentration of, and alienation from, the exercise of power through the state has reduced the opportunity for more people to see the benefits of what government can achieve.

We’ve underestimated the capacity of populist politicians to work with this material, to accelerate division, notably through social and cultural means as well as through harnessing economic resentment. This is Trump, this is Viktor Orban and authoritarian reactionaries everywhere.

It’s Boris Johnson and it is Scott Morrison – both, opportunistically, not through any conviction.

This is again a failure on our part to appreciate the continuing transformative power of politics, not a failure of politics per se.

Our opponents have been building new coalitions, through pitting Australians against one another.

Too often, our response has assumed this can be countered with a broad and diffuse suite of policies, targeting the particular interests of these groups and neglect the wider social compact. At best, we fail to articulate it clearly – leaving the whole of our approach less than the sum of its parts. At worst, anything meaningful we have to say about improving people’s lives gets lost in a blizzard of announcements.

More broadly, how we talk about what we are about has fallen short of the mark. This isn’t a question of our ambition to secure change; rather of clarity and credibility of intent.

In how we have spoken inequality we may have missed the woods for the trees. The political hurdle of people not feeling meaningfully connected to their fellow citizens is a big one for a party of government to jump over – and something we have blithely assumed wasn’t the case. We are all in this together, but it’s incredibly dangerous for progressives to take this as a given, or for granted.

Our opponents are stitching together a diverse electoral coalition using the threads of culture and the exploitation of difference. They are repudiating long held political beliefs – in austerity, or against the post-War social compact – saying whatever they can to win. We can’t simply wait and hope that their internal contradictions undo their gains.

To make change we need to rebuild trust in politics and political institutions but there’s a precondition that can’t be passed over: a sense of a society that works as a society.

A shared understanding about what it means to be Australian that’s about how we relate to each other, and to our government.

A sense that we do have interests in common, which can be advanced by government. By the Albanese Labor government that Australia, and Australians, so desperately need right now

So we need to ensure our efforts in repairing the trust deficit don’t neglect that most critical political institution – the nation state.

Especially at a time of resurgent big-state conservatism, with its mix of exclusionary symbolism of identity and expansionary reach into society to further separate the deserving and undeserving with rewards and restrictions, respectively.

The answer here won’t be found in a reheated third way, nor in adopting a communitarian version of this reactionary model.

We have to focus on power, and how it can improve our lives.

So that our Australian nation state can unify us, not divide us. Through what it does, and a sense of what it might do. On the left, our foundations are solidarity, and hope – the promise that working together, giving everyone a chance and a stake, we can all do better. This promise underwrote our social compact from Ben Chifley on, but it’s been under siege from neoliberal economics and reactionary politics.

In uncertain times, our belief in each other as Australians matters more than ever – in the Australian Labor Party we have to make this more explicit and more tangible.

When crisis and disaster strike – as it did so terribly this summer – we witness our collective capacity shine through. Our challenge is to grasp this in other settings, and at other times.

In a low-trust environment, which has seen the gaps between haves and have-nots increase – in income, wealth and how they see the world around them. Where the political consensus of the near past said that there was no alternative to neoliberal prescriptions.

With work changing in its nature, becoming less secure, as well as delivering little in the way of earnings growth for too many.

And austerity having done so much damage, to individual lives but also to hope and a belief in government as a force for positive change, denying people space to come together, while compounding unequal and unjust market outcomes.

In these circumstances voters have placed a premium on credibility. Understandably so.

This of course matters more when we ask them not simply to reject a reactionary agenda, but to believe in an alternative approach.

Labor must chart a path that rejects neoliberalism, appreciates its consequences and which shows everyone that national government can materially improve their lives and that of their family. Now, more than ever.

To rebuild trust that government can make a difference. And then actually deliver that difference.

As our election review has recognised and the UK election demonstrated, the present political environment in nations like Australia and the UK makes a complicated reshaping of the present a hard sell.

Especially when we skip to what, before properly addressing the why, and the how. This year we have to explain what needs to improve in our country, that this matters to all Australians and that we can, together, do something about this – through changing the government, we can change people’s lives.

The state of the economy and the state of the climate can’t lead us down the path of despair – that’s a dead end.

Nor to focus on the rear-view mirror. We must pay attention to the past not to yearn for it – this risks playing into the reactionary politics of division, and denies the real possibility of change, for the better – but to learn from it.

The defeats in 2019 didn’t occur in a vacuum. We’ve argued that they should be reviewed in the context of structural changes in the economy, and society.

The political history around this is important too.

The cradle to grave welfare state that Attlee delivered in the UK after World War II, and the similar process of reconstruction and rebuilding here from Chifley to Whitlam (largely unchallenged through 23 years of conservative government in between) offered security in a broad sense, anchored by strong trade unions and a clear sense of the role of the state.

A political project that continued to use these anchors through Hawke and Keating’s securing of universal health care through Medicare, expanding access to education and security for retirement through superannuation. To these government the state was a powerful force for good, and they showed how it could deliver support to the people, and the people returned that support for these institutions, and these Labor governments at the ballot box.

Labor’s challenges were in how it addressed the modernisation and renewal issues inherent in running large state systems, and how it responded to an increasingly globalised economy that undermined a sense of security in what any one nation could achieve on its own.

The point in both cases is the relationship between the policies and the politics. The support for, or acceptance of a program because it secured an end that mattered to most: a widely supported Australian social compact.

At various stages over the past few years – particularly on election day in 2016 and 2017 – we thought we’d glimpsed the future of social democracy in the UK and in Australia, as well as elsewhere in the developed economies.

Subsequent elections on December 12 and May 18 have shown that future is yet to be written, and that the combination of growing inequality and slowing growth of itself will not secure electoral victory for the left. Moreover, that our opponents have recognised that a sense of national identity anchored in a social compact is an electoral imperative- witness Johnson’s spending commitments on the NHS, and the Liberal determination to neutralise Medicare as the most obvious examples of this.

This year we have to answer a big question: how can we show Australians that politics can improve people’s lives? Today, and for tomorrow.

Remembering that Labor politics is anchored in hope. This means our vision for the future simply has to be more than our past, done better. We can, and must, do more than defend the achievements of Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke-Keating and Rudd-Gillard.

Australia has so much to offer. With our abundant renewable resources, our skilled workers, and our knack for invention we can get our economy moving again and do what needs to be done for our climate. But it will require leadership and a clear sense of what government can do, when done well.

Anthony Albanese’s vision statements demonstrate such an approach, and an appreciation of the challenge before us. This approach is setting a framework through which the Party can answer the question we’ve just posed. Optimistically, embracing our capacity to come together to shape our future.

A framework – not, yet at least – a series of detailed policies. These must fill in the vision, after it is settled.

The ideas these have focused on to date – such as a labour market for the future that works for all workers, a new economic plan for low-growth times, reclaiming aspiration from its conservative stranglehold, squarely rejecting the allegation that action on climate is bad news for jobs and rebuilding confidence in our democratic institutions and political culture – represent a sound foundation.

To make the case for a new social compact that unites Australians, in the face of all the forces pushing the other way, and which gives everyone a greater sense of security and agency in their lives.

A social compact that articulates what our vision of stronger society might look like. More opportunity, less division. An active state driving our economic success, supporting changes that bring work to all of us. Services that meet everyone’s needs. Strength built through supporting self-determination.

To renew Labor’s social democratic project, and our capacity to secure that at the next election through connecting more people to a politics that matters to them. Through reconnecting them to power – at work, in community and, fundamentally, by a government on the side of all Australians.

Of course, this is the start, not the end. The next election is two years away.

But succeeding then depends on making sure we are asking the right questions now, and that we persuade Australians that we, in government, have the right answers.

About Andrew Giles & Ryan Batchelor:

Andrew Giles is the Federal Labor Member for Scullin in Victoria. Ryan Batchelor is a director of the Chifley Research Centre.