Some observations on the election and politics

by · September 5, 2013

ACTU leader Ged Kearney with Gillard earlier this year

ACTU leader Ged Kearney with Gillard earlier this year


Reflecting on the campaign so far, its possible to advance a few ideas about current events, likely trends, and Left strategy.

The Age/Nielsen poll published on Monday (see graphic at the end) showed some very interesting things about Queensland. Fully 16 percent of the voting public are intending to vote for right-wing populists. Another 8 percent plan to vote for the Greens. Twenty-four percent, almost a quarter of the population, are hostile to the major parties and ostensibly planning to vote for their minor party critics. While there are reasons to expect these numbers may be squeezed on election day, and may somewhat overstate the support the minor parties have attained, it is clear that this represents a significant shift in Queensland in the direction of active disengagement from the historic “two party” arrangement.

In might be tempting to write this off as a unique phenomenon of the Deep North, yet the picture emerging from that poll is merely a sharper example of national trends, only underscored by widespread expectations of a rise in informal votes, and the acknowledgement this week from the AEC that fully one-in-five 18-24 year olds, or 400,000 people, are not registered and so will not vote. These figures are up — and can only be read as a part of the increasingly hostility to the political class.

The common thread running across all of this is the crisis of official politics — the attitude of a rising proportion of the population towards the political elite can be described as increasingly bitter contempt. It is also fairly obvious that the Katter and Palmer forces have done much better in this election at relating to this anti-political mood than either the Greens, or for that matter Rudd, despite the fact that he at least has previously shown himself to be capable of doing so.

With the absence of a major anti-political push by Rudd, it seems virtually certain that Abbott will win on Saturday. Rudd, whose position within the ALP was premised on his ability to relate to the popular anti-political mood will, in the event of an Abbott victory, be politically destroyed. As a figure relying on the tension between the inability of the factions to lead Labor to victory, and the desire of the party as a whole to win, Rudd could rule over the factions while he appeared to deliver what the factions could not: electoral viability. Once the prospect of Rudd delivering victory recedes, there is no reason for the still institutionally powerful remnants of the factions to tolerate him.

Yet a short term victory for the remnants of the factions over Rudd will not allow them to take things forward: all of the same limitations that existed before and were brought to a head in the Rudd resurgence remain in place and, if anything, have been strengthened. To understand this, we need to consider the changes that have occurred within Laborism.

Laborism in its emergent period rested on a trade union bureaucracy that was engaged in an active political relationship with i) the layers of active workers within the unions and ii) the layers of more passive but politically engaged workers who identified with the ALP and were its stable voter base. Both of these relations have now been profoundly eroded, and in the same period the factions have become displaced to resting only on a particular subsection of the union bureaucracy. This has narrowed the social basis of actually existing Laborism to the point where its regenerative capacity has been profoundly undermined. It is doubtful, even in a period of opposition, whether forces that narrow can generate a modern edition of Laborism with some life in it.

Given the extent of Labor’s disintegration as a cohesive and active organisation in both Queensland and New South Wales in the wake of electoral devastation, it is increasingly doubtful whether the ALP can maintain organisational cohesion on the east coast without at least the prospect of a short-term electoral comeback. There is, however, little evidence that this can be seen as on the horizon in any state if left to the ALP itself.

Regardless of the probable decline of Rudd, the death of Laborism therefore seems on the cards. What Rudd’s decline signals is not so much an arrest in the declining fortunes of Laborism, but merely a reduction in the likelihood of a short-term pragmatic reconstitution of the ALP on a non-Laborist basis.

Yet far from scoring a crushing political victory, an Abbott government will face a symmetrical situation to that faced by Gillard between 2010-2013. Whether technically dependent on the small right-wing parties or not, he will feel a pull from them politically, not least because of their intersection with his own lunatic base inside the LNP. This will not be a strong conservative government, but one riven by fractures that are ultimately the consequence of the inability of the pro-capitalist political networks to formulate a coherent plan for national capital accumulation.

This means that ideologically motivated but socially isolated wings of the LNP will contend with each other, each seeking to emphasise their particular shibboleths, yet all lacking the active backing of capital as a class. There is no doubt that capital would happily take any benefits that accrued to them from a successful push by the ideological neoliberals, and may even join in the odd skirmish or two. But there is little evidence that capital is convinced that it constitutes a strategy any more, and their response is likely to be characterised more as “wait-and-see”. There is evidence that mining capital is partially breaking with the LNP over its sectional interests, and that there are growing concerns in a number of sectors about the neoliberal reluctance to address infrastructure and labour supply bottlenecks. With the backbone of neoliberal restructuring having already been accomplished under the 1983-1996 Labor Governments, capital does not see the need to risk setting spark to the powder keg of anti-politics and setting off a more destabilising response from Left or Right, as has been observed overseas.

In the face of this major decline of Laborism not merely as the central axis of Australian politics, but as a viable political project in its own right, the fragmentary pressures on the LNP can also be expected to come more to the fore. Indeed, the partial break of mining capital from the LNP to the PUP is a taste of things to come.

Anti-politics, ignored by the far Left, neglected by the centre Left, is becoming more and more the preserve of Rightist variations. At the same time, however, there is relatively little evidence at this stage of a Golden Dawn style radicalisation at street level as has been observed in Greece and many other European countries, including the UK. And there is little sign that these parties will be able to continue to cohere themselves on an ongoing basis. These developments mainly point to the existence of a substantial space characterised by contempt for mainstream politics and politicians and the inability of the Left at present to systematically relate to it.

In that sense, the situation holds both danger and opportunity. Danger in that anti-politics is in one sense a void begging to be filled by a political account that appears to offer both a critique of and a challenge to the established political setup. There is no guarantee that such a politics will be left-wing. Yet it is also an opportunity for the Left to provide precisely such a challenge.

For the moment, profound political confusion and a struggle to adapt some way of doing politics is going to be at its sharpest in two places: the union movement and the Greens. These are the two sectors of the Left that have actually sought to intervene in politics, while others can miss it or ignore the crisis because they don’t regard mainstream politics as “true politics”.

Other Left Flank writers have commented extensively on the Greens, and have in particular noted how the Greens’ strategic approach to Labor in minority Government has tied the Greens to the crisis of Laborism, and has seen the partial transition of their position from being “outsiders”, to being seen as just another part of the rotting carcass on Parliament Hill. Only the PNG ‘solution’ gave the Greens a significant way to differentiate, but this has also been in part a trap that drove the Greens to new heights of moral outrage that could only impede their ability to relate to people with mixed ideas but who are pulled by anti-politics. These two factors crucially explain why the Greens vote will not move forward, and may even recede, on Saturday. There has yet to be a reckoning on the Greens-Gillard relationship, and it is sorely needed.

The trade union movement, on the other hand, faces the much more immediate death of its explicit political modus operandi. In a very real sense, Laborism as an internally coherent political approach imploded spectacularly when the factions broke and allowed Rudd to return from exile. So much of the movement’s fortunes have been implicitly or explicitly attached to favours from Labor in Government that with the breakdown of the factions as any kind of creative force, together with the prospect of another extended period out of office, the dislocation of the movement’s business-as-usual has been brutal and traumatic. Sections of the union bureaucracy have started to panic.

A struggle is already breaking out within the bureaucracy. The senior officials remain wedded to the Laborist strategy, which is failing to yield any discernible results either for the unions or for Labor on any front. They continue, by and large, to fiddle while Rome burns, or else engage in discussions about “values” one step removed from the cut and thrust of politics. Yet those officials involved more directly in the work of organising and campaigning with workers for more tangible gains are being forced by the nature of their function to begin evolving ways, even if at first “apolitical” ways, of gaining purchase on a political environment in flux.

Whatever the particular shapes that emerge from these dynamics, what is clear is that the material weight of Laborism has receded, and will continue to recede. There will certainly be at least a rump ALP at the end of this process, however, it is far from clear that Laborism in anything like the form we have previously experienced it will survive. This means the days of the Left being able to exist in the shadow of, or mainly in relation to, Labor, are numbered. We must as a Left work through that “complicated bereavement”.

This is a new situation. This degree of flux in the networks of political rule has not existed for a century in Australia, since the emergence of Laborism and the reconfiguration of politics away from the free-trade v protection axis to the Labor v conservative axis. Mainstream politics is profoundly destabilised across the spectrum (though you wouldn’t know it from reading the output of the commentariat, or the Left for that matter).

Moreover this political destabilisation is taking place against a backdrop of international radicalisation and economic instability, making the situation even more potentially volatile. It is becoming increasingly clear that what is missing is the subjective element, a working class subjectivity that can give anti-politics a concrete and radical left-wing form.

The strategy of trying to seek relevance by capitulating to the rot in Canberra and adapting to parliamentary cretinism so as to be “responsible part” of the horse-trading, has been shown to be a complete failure by the Greens’ present problems. Yet so too has the “standing on the outside, looking in” approach which sees “true politics” existing outside mainstream politics. A new Left challenge must stand on the ground of the crisis of official politics, and be attempting to reshape it. And that requires a serious rethink of large portions of our approach.


Discussion1 Comment

  1. […] have to understand that Labor faces a fundamental crisis, not merely a cosmetic one. As I argued before the […]