Last rites for the Labor Party? Part Two: An impasse for post-materialist Greens politics

by · April 11, 2011

What's the real problem here?

What’s the real problem here?

If you need any proof that the Greens did reasonably well in last month’s NSW election it would have to be the tide of opinion telling us just how badly they did. Such commentary was almost inevitably accompanied by “advice” for the party to moderate its “hard Left” policies/stick to the environment/disappear altogether. If the Greens really were past their use-by date, why bother with such a frenzied and hysterical campaign?

In particular the attacks have focused on the state party’s support for the BDS, as a handy MacGuffin with which to construct a narrative about its inherent extremism and inability to relate to mainstream voters (whoever they are). More ominously, they have been accompanied by a series of public attacks on state party campaign strategy — waged through the MSM — by leading “moderates” in the party, from Bob Brown to Drew Hutton and even Cate Faehrmann, herself an influential member of the State Election Campaign Committee. One should contrast Brown’s consistent support for the Victorian Greens last year, where their state vote fell below their federal result (from 12.66 to 11.21 percent on primaries) with his repeated public criticisms of the NSW party after a result that was relatively stronger vis-à-vis the federal performance in the state (essentially unchanged from 10.24 to the latest figure of 10.3 percent).

Nevertheless there is an important question that arises from this result, and that is the party’s ability to break larger sections of the ALP’s constituency to itself. The result was partly, as I argued last time, due to the de-politicisation of Labor’s crisis, its framing in terms of morality or competence rather than social interests. The Greens played along with this by not wanting to be associated with a “toxic” ALP brand, even refusing to recommend preferences on this basis. The party would not come out and name the Coalition for the interests it really stood for, and thereby couldn’t name Labor’s failure for what it was — a betrayal of the interests it claimed to stand for (but of course didn’t).

But here I want to argue two other things: Firstly, that the Greens’ lack of a class-based Left perspective hampers its appeal to ALP voters who could otherwise be won to voting for it. And secondly, that this weakness opens a bigger space for Labor to revive electorally in the context of austerity measures carried out by conservative governments, this despite the degeneration of the ALP’s politics, organisation and social base.

Rumours of the death of class voting have been greatly exaggerated

The key narrative taken up by the Right in the days after the NSW election was a re-run of “Howard’s battlers” in 1996 — the idea that the core of Labor’s working class vote had shifted to the Tories. The Howard line was tied up with myths around fundamental changes to class structure, such as Australia turning into a nation of “independent contractors” or “shareholders”. And it was linked to the notion, common in Labor circles, that blue-collar workers are socially reactionary — an idea that seems to form the basis for Julia Gillard’s bizarre Whitlam Oration. Yet in a large swing what really happens is that a party is reduced to little more than its heartland vote, and this was true last month. The combined Labor-Greens vote now includes the bulk of left-wing votes, a sizeable proportion (36 percent of primaries) but little beyond this.

To understand the disorienting nature of such myths, it is helpful to note how carefully Barry O’Farrell projected an image of moderation in the four years between elections. He well understood that to win he could neither play to the shrill demands of the big business lobby groups (with their calls for more privatisation and union-bashing) nor the nasty social conservatism of large sections of Liberal and National party activists (even standing up against them publicly to establish his moderate credentials). O’Farrell had learned from how the unpopular Iemma government portrayed his predecessor, Peter Debnam, as an elite, anti-worker reactionary — and then improbably won the 2007 election.

The Coalition simply could not win by playing to its traditional base (a miniscule capitalist elite and the petty-bourgeois bigots who make up its activist base). One of the changes in voting patterns across Western countries since WWII has been an apparent decline in class voting, a theory popularised within political science by the likes of Seymour Lipset. But a more recent critical reassessment of the same data across multiple Western nations (including Australia) shows that voting for Right or Left parties continues to depend on “economic” class, but is also influenced by what might be termed “cultural” views — how Right or Left one’s views are on non-economic issues. These are shaped by how educated one is, which doesn’t map neatly onto more traditional income-based sociological indicators of class. Social conservatism here is an indicator of minimal or poor education. As Richard Seymour has put it regarding the UK: “The Tories want to win back the sorts of professionals and skilled workers who have been to university and simply aren’t up for deference and social authoritarianism.”

The Greens and progressive politics

It is for this reason that the Greens have a problem. They are very good at articulating a cultural Left politics, but much weaker on relating to “economic” class questions. Even the NSW branch, easily the most left-wing in the country, tends to articulate class questions in terms of malleable and ambiguous concepts like “social justice”. Many Greens are hostile to the deployment of class as a political category and Stewart Jackson’s detailed research on party activists indicates they are at best indifferent and at worst hostile to unions.

In part this approach comes from the emergence of the Greens as a party that sought to pursue politics “beyond Left and Right”, a reaction to the failure of the radical Left to break through in the 1970s and 80s. It is also rooted in their “post-materialist” ideology, believing that distributive (class) questions — debates over state (Left) versus market (Right) within the framework of industrial society — have been superseded by deeper concerns regarding planetary survival and the ethics of social existence. This ideology was tied up with assessments of the Greens voter base as sociologically “post-materialist”: white-collar, educated, economically autonomous enough to argue for a greater good that stood above their personal interests.

Yet as careful analysis of Australian Election Study surveys has shown, what most distinguishes Greens voters is that they closely resemble left-leaning ALP voters, with marginally more left-wing attitudes about “cultural” questions such as personal liberties and marginally less left-wing attitudes on “class” questions like trade unions. More importantly, rather than emanating from some diffuse “post-materialist” demographic cohort, they overwhelmingly come from the ranks of former ALP voters.

It is here that we can see the contradiction facing the Greens in NSW (and elsewhere). For the most part they have grown quite explicitly on the basis of breaking sections of the left-wing of the ALP’s traditional voter base, people who would never vote Liberal. Yet the party’s class-blind, cultural Left ideology and post-materialist sympathies mean it keeps seeking an alternative target audience. This is deeply disorienting for the party, nowhere more so than in NSW where the Greens’ historical roots are much more in Left politics. 

By retailing an ambiguous class message regarding the Tories (and Labor), the Greens actually ceded ground to them. Coalition, Labor and Greens were all projecting a socially progressive face, so there was little to differentiate them. And on “economic” questions the debate was not one about how the ALP had spent 16 years serving capitalist interests but more about technical economic management and the stench of corruption. The Greens, a party with a clearly Left image, couldn’t possibly compete with O’Farrell for centrist swing voters out to punish the ALP. But they also didn’t have a strategy to gain the support of Left ALP voters as both a safe anti-Tory vote and the beginnings of a real alternative to the ALP’s failures. 

Of course there were limits to what they could achieve from a relatively marginal position, but their strategy did not even try to reshape the election’s dominant narrative. Perhaps most naively they talked of running a “positive” campaign (“Real Change For A Change,” FFS!) as if sullying the image of the major parties on a clear political basis would be a bad thing. The crisis of NSW Labor is rooted in its running the state on the basis of pro-business nepotism, the rundown of public services and callous indifference to the social effects of its policies. As I argued last time, it is this that voters rebelled against. But while the Coalition may have benefitted electorally no party — including the Greens — provided any real alternative to the trajectory the ALP has bequeathed us.

Labor revival: Not such a silly idea

The real problem for the Greens is that there is an express train heading our way they are clearly unprepared for. We now live in an age of “austerity politics” where governments will punish ordinary people for the profligacy of the capitalist class with savage cuts to public services and the further extension of market discipline. In Australia, where China’s boom has saved the economy from the fate of the US or parts of Europe, the impact of these politics is being felt in slow motion, but it is there nonetheless.

The deficit-reduction rhetoric of business commentators and the Gillard government has intensified recently, and within days of the state election some pro-capitalist pundits were urging O’Farrell to attack public sector unions (especially teachers) and “to quickly announce that the state’s finances are so bad that” the promise not to sell the electricity industry must be broken. The logic of the crisis is that governments will act to shift the burden onto the working class and poor, no matter what “moderate” image they project.

However it is dressed up, whether in technocratic language about “sovereign debt” or confected fury about “unaccountable” public sector unions, this will be a project driven by capitalist interests, although refracted through existing ideological frameworks intended to win popular consent by continuing to de-politicise politics. But attacks on ordinary people can also rapidly turn the political tide. This has been played out in the UK with the spectacular collapse of support for the Liberal Democrats. It has also seen the revival of the Labour Party’s prospects despite its recent abysmal record in office and its vacillation around whether to support campaigns springing up against the government.

Because reformist consciousness — which dominates among workers in most “normal” times — rests on opposition to the deleterious effects of capitalism combined with the idea that any change must come within the system, resistance to austerity can benefit the ALP electorally. This holds if a reformist party refuses to promise serious reforms. It can even be true if the party has no serious reformist cadre on the ground to spread its message. Yet the ALP continues to have ties (through the union bureaucrats) to large sections of the Australian working class (especially public sector workers likely to be attacked first) that the Greens do not. Its new state leader is able to speak to class interests, even if his language is debased by the ALP’s long trek to the Right. In a situation of class attacks the party may well be able to speak to former voters who have defected to the Greens in terms of the latter party’s splitting of unity against the Tories.

The problem exposed for the Greens at this election was not their “extremism” or support for a BDS. Rather, it is their continued inability to break beyond the logic of “cultural” politics and embrace class issues, to speak a language and sink roots in working class communities that can really replace the ALP with something better (a goal virtually all Greens activists would support). Whatever the result for the Greens, their failure to move past this impasse would be a significant setback for the new Left that has haltingly, somewhat inchoately, emerged over the last decade. Yet the internal logic of the Greens’ politics may already be creating a disconnection between the party and the future of Left politics.

Apologies for the delayed appearance of Part Two, but illness and travel got in the way.