Here is an edited transcript of the speech I gave at the Secure Jobs in a Green Future Conference. Thanks to the Search Foundation for inviting me along, and to the other speakers on the panel: Sally McManus, Andrew Giles, Cate Faehrmann, Nick Martin and Hall Greenland.
I acknowledge that we are here on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.
Rather than getting depressed about this crisis, I’d suggest that one thing the Left has been good at in the past is to have a material analysis of the crisis, and to understand also the weaknesses of the other side — our opponents.
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
—Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p 276
We are living through a period that Antonio Gramsci described very well, a period of many morbid political symptoms, on all sides. I will talk about three points in this discussion, including some lessons and some ways forward that we can look at.
It is important to understand the ALP’s crisis not just as one of narrative and ideology, but of real material factors in the formation and constitution of the ALP. The trade union base of the ALP has really withered. It was over 40 per cent density between 1914 and 1990. Now it is 18 per cent. This is the real base of the ALP. Strike days are down.
The party organisation is famous for how withered it is compared to even 20 or 30 years ago. The primary vote has collapsed compared with its historic levels. Don’t forget the ALP was out of office during the Menzies years, averaging 45.7 per cent of the primary vote even with the DLP in existence. And look at the last two elections and where we are heading now.
Most significantly, and a really bright spot of the last ten years, there’s actually been a Left formation – whatever its problems – outside the ALP that the Left has been able to draw inspiration from.
The factions of the ALP have also lost their meaning. The higher you go in the party, the government and the politicians, that real connection with the working class is not what it used to be. As Sally McManus described, there are some very unrepresentative fiefdoms, it is more about patronage than about social interests. We have a formally Left Prime Minister who attacks asylum seekers, single parents and so on. What’s going on?
Yes, the party has lost its ideological reason for being. It is really hard to take Wayne Swann seriously when he attacks mining bosses and at the same time as helping design the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, which hits them with a feather. But all those problems of narrative and ideology have to be understood on the basis of something real and material. The Labor Party has had ideological crises in the past but never has it been so deep and dramatic. And it is a crisis of political representation.
I would argue that Labor’s greatest success of the modern era, the Accord period, was its undoing, because its success was a neoliberal success.
If you look at that graph, of the trend of average male wages in Australia, you see that when the economic crisis of the 1970s starts, actually this rising wages situation falls apart. In fact, if we are really honest about it, wages do worse under Hawke and Keating than they do under Howard. I’m not a defender of Howard, but we have to think what the implication of this is; of a progressive reform agenda promised as part of the Accord but which wasn’t actually delivered except for a few things people keep talking about, like Medicare. Even superannuation, given its returns, and the financialised industry it created — you have to wonder how progressive a reform that was for workers.
But neoliberalism is hardly a popular set of policies. Here is polling from Essential Media Communications last year, showing Liberal-National voters saying who did well out of this period of reform.
Gosh, 55 per cent said corporations did. These are Liberal-National voters. You can see across the community that there is a real class sense that this project was not the right thing. Yet then mainstream political parties want to carry on with it, want to celebrate this ‘golden age of reform’.
Labor is going to lose the election this year, possibly horrifically. I’m starting to think 55-45 is not unreasonable. But it is actually the whole official political class that is having these problems.
The ALP’s crisis is currently worse, because it has come off a long period of power in the states and more importantly federally. But actually the Liberal and National parties have a lot of internal problems. Let’s not forget that Campbell Newman was the solution to a dire crisis of the LNP in Queensland. And the Left has forgotten that it won in 2007 because Howard’s agenda was so exhausted he got thrown out of his own seat.
We’ve forgotten the great victory there because we’ve then looked to this government to deliver things. As the crisis has gotten worse, both sides of politics both unpopular, have looked increasingly to scapegoating to cover this up. You can’t correct this by having a few nicer policies to talk to the base. You can’t correct such a deep crisis that way.
And the crazy part is that people don’t think Abbott is going to be great. He is unpopular in all the polling. Essential polling shows that most people expect to be worse off under Abbott than under the existing situation. There is new marginal electorate research showing that even though a majority of voters in marginal electorates are going to vote for the Liberals and Nationals, a majority also want a Labor government.
There are all these kinds of morbid symptoms.
Here is that Essential polling, really excellent stuff, showing people’s expectations of Abbott versus the current situation. In almost every category people expect that things will be worse, including by a factor of nine per cent that they themselves will be worse off financially under Abbott.
You can understand that it is a crisis of official politics, and not necessarily some kind of rational decision about who has the better list of policies.
That is why Abbott is playing the small target strategy. He is holding together a very messy, very diverse constituency, a lot just united by being against this government. He knows he can’t go back to Howard or implement the full Institute of Public Affairs agenda. As he made clear at the IPA dinner the other night, he said, ‘I’m not going to be the Whitlam of the Right’.
If we think he is all powerful, we instantly become demoralized and despairing, and get stuck worrying about that.
Let’s look at LNP governments. We’ve had two leaders overthrown, one of them by phone call while overseas. We have Campbell Newman in a lot of trouble internally. The fact that the Left hasn’t had a political resurgence in any of those places doesn’t tell you anything about the weaknesses of the Right.
Abbott is a thug, but his government will be weak and incoherent, and if you predict an Abbott apocalypse all the time, you just make people passive in the face of it.
Is there a basis for a new WorkChoices? No there’s not. Look at LNP voters opinions on penalty rates – overwhelmingly LNP voters think people should be paid penalty rates.
Contract work – who does it help? The vast majority of LNP voters think it helps employers more than workers.
But the ALP’s morbid symptoms have been made worse by this period in government. It has attacked refugees, watered down the minerals tax, dropped climate action (and then been pushed by the Greens to do something). Then there are welfare crackdowns, the Northern Territory Intervention, gay marriage, 457 visas and nationalism — you name it. This is a government that has played to the Right. It has accepted the primacy of Abbott before he has even won an election.
The current leadership can’t even claim its one true achievement — saving us from the Global Financial Crisis — because that’s apparently when it was most dysfunctional under a psychopathic leader.
What sort of confusion do we get out of this? It attacks Abbott for not being pro-market enough on climate, not pro-market enough on paid parental leave. Is the ALP possibly now having its PASOK moment? This is a serious issue.
The Left, though, has dropped serious political independence from the ALP’s project. The ALP Left is caught up in that. Unions demobilized the Your Rights At Work and accepted a government that gave us WorkChoices lite.
And the Greens — this is a more subtle process. The Greens haven’t collapsed their program in the face of Labor, but they gave ground politically to Labor by entering a political alliance. They exchanged some policy sops and access for muting the kinds of harsh criticisms they used to make of the ALP. They actively demobilized supporters in the climate movement. They’ve thrown away their ability to stand against this crisis of the political class. Even now they talk like, ‘Labor is really terrible’, but on the other hand ‘it was really good that we were in power with them’.
To build a new Left we have to start by recognizing that the Left can’t rebuild while it accepts large parts of the neoliberal agenda. People want to hold on to bits of it as if you can add nice stuff to it. We have to recognise that this is a crisis of political representation but we shouldn’t join in it. We shouldn’t make excuses for bad policies because our side is implementing them. There has been too much of that under this government.
We should develop a Left program that doesn’t subordinate itself to first getting Labor and the Greens into government. Really we have to think about mass political action, the sorts of movements we saw in the early 2000s, the inspiration of Your Rights At Work and the Climate Movement, rather than governmentality.
I don’t think Abbott is the main danger. Are we actually prepared for a global financial crisis actually hitting Australia? Are we prepared for when Abbott goes into crisis? Because the Left in Queensland hasn’t been prepared for Newman going into crisis and hasn’t been able to take advantage.
It is really important that we understand that the ALP’s crisis is so deep that we can’t expect an automatic benefit for the ALP from a crisis of an Abbott government.
Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, this partisanship is bad, but it’s not so bad in terms of the general populace, because most people are not pulled along by it. But there is a hard Right constituency building, and not only is Labor having a PASOK moment, but we could see a Golden Dawn moment down the track as well. And that is a real concern, far and above Abbott.
[The Essential tables are from this Pollytics blog post]