Taken at face value, Labor is in a lot of trouble

by · November 21, 2010

It was difficult to know how to approach Paul Howes’ Confessions Of A Faceless Man, his public “diary” of the 2010 election campaign. Was it to be a tell-all insider’s account delivering anecdotes that journalistic efforts would miss? Was it to be a re-evaluation of the problems the first-term federal government got itself into, a thoughtful introspection on how the ALP went from astronomical to disastrous poll ratings in very short order? Or was it to be a meditation on the long-term trajectory of a Labor Party that, as Howes is keen to tell us on his book tour, needs to have some serious debates about “big picture” ideas.

As it turns out, none of the above, and that perhaps explains some of the very critical commentary that has derided Howes for either being one of the vapid apparatchiks who caused this messfor providing little real “insider” insight, and for generally having a really bloody short memory.

But actually there is real strength to this book that, while inadvertent on Howes’ part, is worth picking through. For here is the account of how a national leader of Australia’s longest-surviving trade union sees politics and its relationship to the workers’ movement. By examining Howes as an expression of the union officialdom (albeit one further Right than some others) we can gain more insight than if we review Howes as Howes.

Because if we abstract Paul the person — the clever, ambitious and driven political operator — the picture that emerges is one of ideological and philosophical incoherence, struggling with an impasse for his movement that he cannot fully comprehend. In that sense, the opprobrium served up against him personally is misplaced; the important thing is that he is part of a social grouping that has lost its footing through 30 years of adaptation to neoliberalism.

Subcontracting politics

Howes’ book reads like a rollercoaster ride, as he swings from pessimism to optimism and back again while the ALP campaign lurches about. At one level this is understandable as this is the union bureaucracy’s party that is risking first-term humiliation. Yet woven into this tale are his appearances at workplaces and union meetings, where in the heyday of union power the leadership would have been able to read the public mood much more accurately. Now they too are in thrall to opinion polls and focus groups because of the erosion of their social base. No longer does mobilising the membership guarantee anywhere near as many votes as it used to.

Key to Howes’ emotional ups and downs is what he characterises as an internal problem in the ALP. But this is too often personified in terms of “Labor rats”, with Kevin Rudd, Mark Latham and Dean Mighell singled out for harshest treatment. The question left begging is why some high-level bullying or leaking, the TV shenanigans of a narcissistic former leader, or the backing of the Greens by a Left union official should cause so many problems for Labor. Howes at one point refutes the charge that the election campaign was “boring”, but that was only ever part of greater problem that it was focused on trivia, innuendo, personality, dirty tricks, empty tactical manoeuvres, media stunts and dog-whistling from both major parties. This was because, despite Howes’ visceral hatred for Abbott, there was actually very little policy, let alone programmatic, difference between the ALP and the Liberals in 2010.

While Howes is frank about the way that the ALP has lost touch with sections of its constituency, he is only able to drill down at the level of a handful of policies he thinks need changing, most obviously climate change, immigration and gay marriage. This discomfort with the status quo sits uneasily alongside his unquestioning, and largely unmentioned, acceptance of the ALP’s long drift to the Right on both economic and social issues. Cognitive dissonance leaps off the page, despite Howes’ attempts to repress it. The hopeful, steady as she goes, conclusion of the book contrasts sharply with the scale of Labor’s disaster.

One thing that stands out is how starkly Howes describes the division between the union movement’s industrial and political roles, even though he straddles the divide more obviously than anyone. It is not that he sees unions as outside politics, but rather that politics must be subcontracted to the ALP, within the narrow limits of allowable government action in a market-driven world. At one point he questions the wisdom of a National Broadband Network, not for reasons of waste or inefficiency, but for being built in public hands. Private capital here is the true subject of history, with unions reduced to either securing a fair deal on basic conditions or supporting an ALP that manifestly fails to deliver for them.

Union lineages

This contrasts dramatically with the union lineage that produced the current circumstance. By the late 1960s the long boom had provided space for industrial action to deliver real gains in wages and conditions for most workers. That union officials usually lagged behind their members in taking action was of secondary importance as long as workplace confidence could overcome employer resistance. But this broke down with the economic shocks of the 1970s, followed closely by the epochal political defeat of coup against Whitlam.

Whatever the political impulses of workers — and their involvement in the Moratoriums as well as issues like equal pay for women, the built environment and uranium mining indicates they were very much part of the radical social movements of the times — the conclusion drawn by the officials was to seek direct participation in the running of the economy. In practice this meant closer collaboration rather than confrontation with the capitalist class, especially after their experience of the Fraser years was that industrial confrontation alone was unable to resolve the crisis. The recession of the early 1980s further broke workers’ resolve to resist the effects of the crisis, involving as it did mass sackings in key industries where union organisation had been strongest.

But in exchange for ACTU leaders like Bill Kelty being effective cabinet members in the Hawke and Keating governments, they delivered real wage cuts in the 1980s and then acquiesced to enterprise bargaining in the 1990s, a process which intensified the trading of jobs and conditions for “real” pay rises, driving increased pay inequality. Their final reward was 11 years of Coalition rule where tough laws aimed at hobbling unionisation led to a dramatic collapse in union density (and, eventually, raw membership numbers too).

For all of Howes’ bitterness at Kevin Rudd, the former PM was the product of an ALP regaining office off the back of a significant revival of political unionism in the Your Rights At Work campaign. Yet by then the Party was so politically exhausted that it believed it could only win with a leader whose shtick was his disavowal of union influence. Howes is part of a hesitant rethinking of this long-run strategic orientation among the union leadership, something more clearly pushed by new ACTU president Ged Kearney. Yet his role in Rudd’s destruction reflects not a political shift but a pragmatic attempt to rein in a PM who had bucked the usual structures. Ironically, for all his painting of Rudd as a powerful bully, the assassination was swift and complete, reflecting Rudd’s lack of a base inside the party. Howes’ barely disguised dismay at Gillard’s lurch to the Right reflects the corner union leaders have painted themselves into.

That powerful union leaders feel so disoriented is a marker of the cul-de-sac they have driven down through their inability to construct a coherent alternative to neoliberal hegemony. Yet their growing role in publicly pushing for change, however limited, does reflect a concern that their overarching strategy of subcontracting politics to the ALP has reached its nadir. If there is one theme that emerges clearly from Howes’ book it is that this is an impasse that they can no longer paper over. The debate they are promoting creates the space for alternative interpretations to start to gain a hearing.

Discussion16 Comments

  1. Old Hack says:

    Only problem is – the debate they are prompting (amongst themselves & a few other insider barrackers) is incoherent and internally contradictory.Pushing for change? What kind of change? p and not p it seems.The mantra of "change" is getting a run because they reckon that's what disaffected Labor sympathisers want to hear.I see nothing to convince me that any of the public spruikers (eg Bitar, Howes, Arbib, & – Richo! (for god's sake??!!) are the slightest bit interested in the actual, structural, "root and branch" dismantling, rebuilding & renewal that this great old party so desperatley needs. Howes is just another in conga line of young men who've been jet propelled up the ladder of Union or Party hierarchy despite limited (if any) actual experience of work at the coal-face, and who are canny (or fortunate) enough to make sufficient use of their positions to facilitate their next move – into a cosy little preselection arrangement in a safe seat somewhere.

  2. Dr_Tad says:

    Old Hack, my view is that the ALP has never been and cannot become the formation we need, but that its unravelling is now leading to openings around what a real alternative would be.The kinds of limited changes the Right are proposing will not be enough to even significantly slow down the destabilisation we have seen lately. The problems Labor faces, one of our central themes here at Left Flank, run much, much deeper.

  3. David Jackmanson says:

    Yes, the union bureaucracy might think shouting a bit at the bosses will impress people, but despite their Your Rights At Work posturing I'm sure most workers realise the Labor government and its loyal servants in the unions have no intention of leading a movement for a wave of real wage rises anytime soon.They really are in a bind. Any real debate among people who have to work for a living would quickly come to the conclusion that the current unions are ineffective, and should either be ignored or replaced. I somehow doubt people like Howes intend to kick away the ladder they scrambled up to get where they are today.BTW I appreciate the analytical level of this. I've been publicly critical of Howes this week, but that's merely for refusing to back up his claims that another blogger has his facts wrong. While it's good to call people like Howes on that and refuse to let them get comfortable as insiders as long as they choose to remain on sites like Twitter, this piece goes far deeper into why someone like him is almost inevitable right now.

  4. Dr_Tad says:

    I think the posturing is in response to a genuine shift at the rank-and-file level that these union leaders are trying to deal with. My memories of the AWU were always that it was irredeemably right-wing and anti-militant. Indeed, many on the Left argued people should leave the AWU because it was qualitatively different; a true bosses' union. Yet under Shorten and Howes it has shifted to a more progressive stance on both workplace power and ideological issues.It's that new mood, which Howes reflects in a partial way, that I'm interested in.

  5. Shane H says:

    Nice review. I have enjoyed a number of your posts lately. My only query is why was Howes dismayed by Gilliards 'lurch to the right' I mean wasn't that the point of the Rudd coup or did I miss something?

  6. Dr_Tad says:

    Thanks Shane.Howes has been pretty firm in his line on refugees and population, something he developed under John Robertson at Unions NSW. Indeed, he was a key person from the union Right involved in setting up Labor For Refugees.The problem with Gillard is that while she is much better connected to the ALP machine and unions, ideologically she represents no real change from the Rudd agenda, defined by a professional political class contemptuous of any real grounding in society (as opposed to the state) and carrying out a technocratic-managerial neoliberalisation.But, I suppose, in the view of the Right union leaders she represented someone who *might* listen to their concerns. The 2010 election provided them with a rude shock on that score.It's worth looking at Howes' very good article in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph about Ark Tribe to see how the unions and the government are less than cosy, even if that aspect of the story is left unsaid: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/orwellian-nightmare-becomes-reality/story-fn6bmfwf-1225957236048

  7. Boris Kelly says:

    "It's that new mood, which Howes reflects in a partial way, that I'm interested in."From a tactical perspective, Tad, I can appreciate your qualified optimism re the ALP and the opportunities presented by its current dilemma. On the contrary, I sense a certain disappointment in your tone when you refer to the Greens. I don't know the circumstances of your break with the party but I guess you had good reason. I am inclined to the view that the Greens and the ALP Left are two parts of a whole. It is as if they need each other but have yet to meet on the dance floor. The ALP Left provides the best opportunity for direct engagement with working class voters. The Greens provide a similar opportunity to engage with the progressive professional, managerial class. There is too a section of the regional electorate that both organisations could speak to.My guess is that the relationship will never be consummated but consider for just a moment the impact of such an alliance. Now, I know you are not a reformist so the prospect may not appeal to you as it does to me but it is hard to deny that should those two forces come together the editorial writers at The Australian would be kept very busy indeed. Further to the point, there may be some genuine representation for those voters lost in the bland wilderness of two party sameness.I'd like to see you post on Green economic policy at some point. Your analytic approach is certainly one of the sharpest around and I thank you for the moments.

  8. David Jackmanson says:

    Howes doesn't have much excuse for thinking Gillard would be co-operative on the ABCC and its powers over unionists like Ark Tribe. A link in this article shows Gillard boasted last February about planning to keep those powers.I'm very skeptical of the idea that Howes will lead any sort of struggle needed to force changes to the ABCC. "Campaigning" against it seems to mean petitions and resolutions, not threatening the ALP Government with a loss of money and support at election time.

  9. Dr_Tad says:

    David, I agree that Howes' optimism about Gillard is a victory of hope over realism, but it is the destabilising effect of the tensions between the industrial and political wings of the union bureaucracy that I see as opening a space for an alternative politics (from below). It's not Howes I have faith in, but the social position of the officials will mean they have to respond at some level, and in a climate where rank-and-file action independent of the officials is largely a distant memory that in itself is a step forward.Boris, I guess any disappointment with the Greens came with how quickly electoral success stifled serious strategic debate where a more radical current could develop to both help build the Greens and see beyond the party's self-imposed limits. Politically, it was a Sisyphean labour. I see the main thing as trying to build a new Left, and I felt that I could be more useful outside the party than inside it. This blog wouldn't exist if I was still inside, and there was an annoying aspect of constant self-censorship by the left-wing even internally.On the ALP Left, I'm not sure it's quite the class-conscious body you paint it as. Decades of retreat and the growing middle-class/professional nature of the ALP membership has hollowed out not just Left reformist politics in the ALP but also Left reformist cadre. Cliff & Gluckstein, in their exemplary study of the British Labour Party, point out that reformism doesn't need to deliver reforms to survive as a social force, and doesn't even need a reformist cadre. Rather, it feeds on the fact that reformist consciousness is the "normal" state of affairs for workers under capitalism, a rejection of the effects of the system combined with a passive acceptance that change must occur within that system.On Greens economics, please check my three posts in August-September.

  10. Anonymous says:

    @Dr Tad "Yet under Shorten and Howes [the AWU] has shifted to a more progressive stance on… workplace power…"Is there any evidence of this? The AWU is in such a neoliberal death spiral that makes all the other Australian unions look like they're unreconstructed Marxists.Good piece BTW.

  11. Dr_Tad says:

    Anonymous, the AWU has actually done quite well organising around wages and conditions, with Howes quoting some impressive membership growth figures. In those terms a "death spiral" it sure ain't. The action around the Victorian Desal plant of recent days would have been unthinkable in the early 1990s. And the fact that they want the ABCC abolished would also have shocked people back then.In general I see these moves not as a philosophical break but a pragmatic rethinking to rebuild a base eroded by decades of acquiescence to the bosses, as well as to adapt to a new political mood among workers generally. For me I guess it flows out of seeing union officials as having to be responsive to the rank-and-file at some level, if only to preserve their positions and their organisation. It's quite a sight seeing Howes and Ludwig (!) promoting a change in policy on gay marriage while De Bruyn foams at the mouth opposing it.

  12. still need a revolution says:

    Yes, good someone is giving this some scrutiny, as for Paul the only way is up… I agree with David J that there is this sense of inevitability about his rise as he's just more real than the usual uni-MP staffer types who the public are learning fast not to trustHis awful (but confused) position on Palestine-Israel was captured excellently by Anthony Loewenstein the other day: http://antonyloewenstein.com/2010/11/11/australian-unions-paul-howes-bds-and-loving-israel/Talk about "ideological and philosophical incoherence" all right!I see today Gillard has backtracked on equal pay for the (mostly women) workers in the community services sector, now refusing to follow through to fund the deal – another union (the ASU) kicked in the guts by our most right wing ALP prime minister everIf ever there was a time for union members and officials to forge clear links with The Greens it must be now: who in NSW wants though wants to put their neck out? Either in The Greens or a union official? Left officials typically still see the ALP as their club, no matter how dysfunctional and decrepitI might add that their fear of an Abbott/Bishop victory was absolutely real, terrifying those I know that the few legal protections they have would be torn away and their membership base and members' livelihoods would be permanently damaged. It's not all cynical for union leaders, just strategyless for something better than the awful thing that is the ALP-union game after all these years

  13. Boris Kelly says:

    "On Greens economics, please check my three posts in August-September."Yes, I've read them and commented on some posts, Tad. I should have said I would like to see you return to that theme because it is there that I see the real disconnect between the Greens and a working class constituency. Rather than write the Greens off, I think it is important that the party (and I am not a member, btw) be encouraged to refine its economic policy to align with its current key policy concerns."…reformism doesn't need to deliver reforms to survive as a social force, and doesn't even need a reformist cadre. Rather, it feeds on the fact that reformist consciousness is the "normal" state of affairs for workers under capitalism, a rejection of the effects of the system combined with a passive acceptance that change must occur within that system." This passage underlines your implicit preference for a revolutionary politics and it is where you and I part company. I think it is not only romantic, in the utopian sense, to consider revolutionary politics of the kind you insinuate as an alternative in the Australian context, but also irresponsible. I say that because your analysis, which I and others have consistently and rightly acknowledged as compelling, is also misleading unless it is backed by a clear expression of the means by which your desired outcomes (also largely unstated) can be achieved. Without that part of the vision explained the analysis is compromised. It seems to me that the problem with using any kind of ideological template as a solution for social and economic change is that action is invariably skewed towards fitting that template. That, in my opinion, is dangerous.

  14. Narodnyk says:

    Attempting to "read" the social forces stirring below the surface in Howes' book is a useful exercise no matter how tentative and provisional the conclusions must be. But to a more pressing matter. As a recent joiner of the Greens I'm surprised/concerned by your statement that you could not openly write and publish this blog if you were still a member. If that is true it appears to me a regime that should be contested not deferred to – for the good of The Greens themselves. You seem to be saying that anti-capitalism is a no-no in our ranks when even Mark Latham has written of the clash between nature and capitalism and how the latter must go. You may have good reasons for giving the game away – you talk of a Sisyphean labour. But in the absence of a more convincing case (all revolutionary politics has the Sisyphean element) I'd say quit the comfort of cultivating your garden. Dr Tad, we need you back.

  15. wrong+arithmetic says:

    @Boris Kelly. I'm well aware of Tad's politics. However, I don't think that the conjunction of 'revolutionary politics' and 'an ideological template' is anything but non sequitur. In a way it is better that Tad isn't coming out with a program for revolution, but is instead discussing really apparent politics. There are groups out there that do profess a 'ideological template' that meets the phrase 'revolutionary politics' (they mistakenly call this Marxism), but they are entirely nuts. That they do work from an a priori template, trying to fit reality to Marx's or Lenin's concepts (by 'applying Marxism' – a phrase that thinks practice as the connection of something external to something internal by 'application') rather than inventing new concepts, is proof of their failureThe problem of a politics that takes capitalism as the thing that needs to be changed, rather than 'bad policy', is that there is no collective narrative around this politics. The development of an 'ideological template' around communism was in reality the development of a conservative politics, a politics aimed at maintaining the world communist movement, which bolstered the place of the USSR in world politics; inside the Communist world it was state ideology, and so as meaningless as the Labor Party's 'values'. The lacunae of the present begins in 1968. Michel Foucault says something like, 'we had no words to describe what was happening' or 'we had no words for our new objects'; meaning that the changes taking place in the composition of capitalism exceeded political thought. I think those changes still exceed political thought. And because of this there are many references to an essentially prior mode of politics (Social Democracy, Communism, etc.) but no collective language with which to talk about the continuing problem of capitalism itself. For this reason any attempt to outline one's 'revolutionary' politics, and what the ends of those politics would be, is a mistake. It is a classic failure of thought, where one pretends knowledge of something that is unknowable; something Socrates noted at his trial. Whether this is dangerous or irresponsible is a normative question. It is certainly dangerous and irresponsible for capital; and Tad has noted that the Greens haven't thought past capital, but assume it. For the possibility of moving from apparent to actual politics, I think Tad's developing critique of reformism is helpful.

  16. Stewart J says:

    Okay, so wrong+arithmatic kinda gets where I've been for the past 2 hours – having a discussion first about the absurditity of economics failing to get the basic physical reality of an approaching supply side problem (cost in energy of oil extraction exceeding output of oil in energy) and continuing to assume a cost benefit based on the price of sale, and then having someone describe to me derivatives and hedge funds as risk but not a gamble. The pejorative nature of 'gamble' appeared to be the problem, but accepting that what was being traded with both derivatives and hedge funds was a non-existant thing (a future risk to produce or supply) did not strike as vaguely absurd.So wrong+arithmatic is right to suggest that there is a point where professing knowledge of the unknowable is a failure of thought: however, this appears to be exactly what I've spent the last two hours being told is a reality of capitalism.Bring me another 'sparkling wine' (coz we're not allowed to say 'champers')…