Rock-bottom redux: Last drinks rites for the Labor Party? Part One

by · March 27, 2011


As a party able to offer itself as a viable government, Labor is not just under existential threat. It is finished. Unless, of course, it can engineer an extraordinary resurgence. Labor’s looming death as a stand-alone political entity is the biggest story in contemporary Australian politics.

—Peter Hartcher, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 2011

How the mighty have fallen.

Last October Left Flank wrote about the miserable state of the NSW Labor Party as it languished on a state Newspoll primary vote of just 23 percent, with even the Greens at 17 percent. At the time, cocky Victorian ALP ministers were publicly sledging the allegedly monolithic “NSW Right” for the disastrous federal election result, among other crimes against humanity. If only those not-so-faceless union bosses could have control of the party wrenched from their grip, peace would return to the land.

Since then, of course, the Victorians have suffered an ignominious defeat and the Gillard government has lurched from misstep to misstep, culminating in an all-time low primary of 30 percent for the ALP. In a remarkable article, the Sydney Morning Herald’s chief political writer Peter Hartcher has argued that the ALP is caught in an impossible bind: simultaneously leaking progressive, white-collar inner-city votes to the Greens on social and cultural issues on one side, and socially conservative “working class” votes to the Coalition on the other.

Most dramatically of all, yesterday the NSW opinion polls turned out to be mostly correct, but with an extra sting in the tail for the Left: The Keneally government was bundled out of power with a historic swing against it of over 16 percent, accompanied by a very small swing to the Greens and their possible failure to pick up a single lower house seat (Balmain remains too tight to call).

As results rolled in the Liberal spokesperson on the ABC News 24 coverage, Gladys Berejiklian, was shifting the party’s message from this being a vote against a rotten government to a vote giving Barry O’Farrell a clear endorsement (and therefore mandate). It was not long before the allegedly modest Tory leader was promising, “We’ll deliver the confident, limitless future we all [want] for ourselves and our children” and immediately invoking memories of John Howard’s mantra of governing “for all of us” when he said he would reject “sectional interests” to “govern for all people”. Already the Liberals are hinting they have supplanted the ALP as the party of the working class — in Sydney’s West and South-West as well as in industrial centres like Newcastle and the Illawarra.

Social conservatism and neoliberal politics

As I stood on a polling booth handing out for the Greens in Keneally’s seat of Heffron, the mood of voters sullen and indicative they were coming to treat the ALP to some “baseball bat” action. One of the Labor campaigners was a Keneally staffer. He told me that the notion the working class is “socially conservative” is hegemonic inside the party.

The mindset inside the ALP was on display from Gillard as she tried to define herself in a recent interview, describing her views on gay marriage, euthanasia and religion (recall she is an atheist) as “conservative”:

HOST: You sound a traditionalist. You sound very much a traditionalist, talking now. A cultural traditionalist.

PM: Well, I think in many ways that’s right, Paul. I had a pro-union, pro-Labor upbringing in a quite conservative family, in the sense of personal values. I mean, we believed in lots of things that are old-fashioned in the modern age. We believed in politeness and thrift and fortitude and doing duty and discipline. These are things that were part of my upbringing. They’re part of who I am today.

Earlier she had been challenged on her apparent capitulation to the Greens:

I know there’s some commentary to suggest I’ve only recently discovered a difference between the Labor Party and the Greens, what a load of old cobblers […]

To our right, we have the Liberal Party. In the modern age, climate change deniers and in denial about the power of markets.

To our left, we have the Greens, who do not have an economic philosophy about reform or about growth.

We drive mainstream change. That will play out in the climate change debate. Look at the CPRS. That didn’t go through the parliament because the Coalition under Tony Abbott didn’t care about climate change and because the Greens didn’t sufficiently care about jobs.

We were there in the mainstream. We’ll continue to drive the change this country needs for its future. That’s Labor heritage, Labor tradition.

The Left/Right definition here is carefully worded. The Right and Left are economic soulmates (both deny the “power of markets” the modern ALP worships); it’s just that Abbott is a climate denier and Bob Brown has contempt for ordinary people’s livelihoods.

At one level this could merely be a cover for the lack of a coherent program held by the ALP, and there is a large element of truth to this proposition. When you’re stuck for a way forward you simply claim you’re offering the safe middle ground. Yet as Left Flank has argued from the day we started, there has been a “flight from the centre” of politics that threatens any such centrist strategy. The polarisation of politics reflects a polarisation not so much along cultural lines demarcated by John Howard and largely accepted by a disoriented ALP (and the Greens), but along class lines produced by 30 years of neoliberalisation.

It is no wonder that the ALP finds itself in such a historically traumatic spot: It sees its version of looking after workers as more neoliberal economic reforms, ostensibly to protect and create jobs. Those very same reforms have delivered rising inequality, privatisation of public goods, cost of living pressures and the growing intrusion of market pressures into every sphere of life, starting from the workplace itself. These processes have hollowed out both Labor’s politics and social base. Yet even ALP and progressive commentators call for “reform”, and still more “reform” along these lines. It speaks to the absolute surrender of the mainstream Left to the neoliberal project that this could be seen as a solution to Labor’s woes.

Whatever happened to class?

Outside the elite echo chamber, things are somewhat more complicated (or perhaps less). In an important 2007 paper (pdf, starting page 401) of the effect of neoliberalism on public policy and popular opinion in Australia, “Neoliberalism, Inequality and Politics: The Changing Face of Australia”, Western et al concluded (among other things):

Alongside a major decline in union membership we see a decline in the view that unions have too much power, accompanied by an increase in the view that private business has too much power. The belief that redistribution of income and wealth should favour ordinary people and that surplus should be spent on social services rather than reducing taxation are two views that have increased in strength over the last two to three decades.

This chimes with the Australian Social Attitudes surveys carried out in the last decade, which also show that on “economic” (i.e. class) questions the public has moved substantially to the Left over the last 20 years, just as their political representatives have moved to the neoliberal Right. This Leftward shift includes questions of service delivery, where the opposition to user-pays, privatisation and cutbacks in health, education and transport runs very high.

It is not by coincidence that Barry O’Farrell ran a campaign that treated economic questions at a technocratic, anti-political level. He even sank the ALP’s power sell-off — despite considerable big business pressure to support it — on the basis that this would not be a “good deal” for NSW, not by ruling out support for privatisation in general. Iemma and Costa’s inability to ram through the sale was the beginning of the end for the government — precisely because the sale was a betrayal of any remaining core social democratic principles the party may have clung to. Into the vacuum O’Farrell could project the idea that his “moderate” politics could not possibly be worse than the ALP’s mess.

In this he was assisted by a mainstream media that depoliticised the class basis of Labor’s crisis, reducing it to issues of party “disunity”, or “Sussex Street games”, or a “toxic brand”, or “incompetence”, or more often a generalised moral critique of its decline as minister after minister exited in less than savoury circumstances. It was reminiscent of the last years of the UK Tory government in the 1990s, when the ruling class and its media machine turned on their favoured party by focusing on its scandals rather than the Thatcherite policies that really drove its electoral disintegration. It allowed Tony Blair to take office riding a wave of anti-Thatcherism only to simply continue her legacy.

Unable to seriously play the “class card” because of its continued obsession with securing some kind of electricity sale, the ALP was powerless to mount a challenge to such attacks on morals and “values”, and in fact Keneally mostly accepted them. Even the last minute attacks on O’Farrell’s hidden right-wing agenda had no teeth because the ALP had been implementing the same right-wing agenda for most of its 16 years in office, although the fear of the Liberals unleashed may have driven some potential Greens voters back to Labor.

This is the great contradiction at the heart of yesterday’s election. It was the Liberal Party that posed (falsely) as the progressive economic alternative to one of the most right-wing, pro-business state governments in living memory. To do this it had to tone down its deep commitment to neoliberal reform and its nasty social conservatism. Already some on the Left are bemoaning the lack of class consciousness among workers who seemingly voted against their material interests. But it was the way that class issues were depoliticised by the elite discourse that no major party (the Greens included) spoke directly to class interests — and even if Labor had wanted to, their record spoke louder than their words.

The voters of NSW have repudiated 16 years of economic rationalism. The problem is that there is no political party speaking for them.

Part 2 will look more closely at the Greens and whether Labor can recover