In the first of two posts on the modern crisis of Australian Laborism, MARC NEWMAN looks at the roots of the ALP’s problems in its embrace of neoliberalism in the 1980s.
Labor’s voter base remained stable for the bulk of the 20th century, through numerous changes in political circumstances. It only dipped below a 40 percent primary on three occasions between 1910 and 1990. This was the core base of Labor’s support.
The exceptions are interesting, because when taken in context, they actually reinforce that picture. The first two occasions were when the entire NSW Labor Party ran on separate Lang Labor tickets. The first of those was at the first election after the Great Crash, and the 1929 Labor Government broke, with the Labor Party splitting. Under those rare circumstances, the combined official Labor and Lang Labor tickets polled only 37.67 percent. On the second occasion, they combined to 41.16 percent. The third occasion was in 1966 at the height of the DLP’s power. There is no doubt that the DLP functioned to funnel votes away from the ALP yet — despite this factor, with the DLP achieving 7.31 percent — the ALP still won 39.98 percent of the primary.
Labor was in the process of forming nationally when it contested the 1901, 1903 and 1906 elections. By 1910 it registered 49.97 percent of the vote, and had decisively established itself as the pivot against which the post-federation ruling class reorganised itself to try to run the Commonwealth. From that point its primary remained 45+/-5 percent until 1990, with only episodic anomalies.
This core base had held firm in victory and in defeat. In the nine losing elections in 1949-69, Labor registered an average primary of 45.7 percent. Yet by contrast, in its winning election of 2007 it registered only 43.8 percent primary support; by 2010 that had dropped to 37.99 percent. Its stable core vote held through the DLP split, through the vicissitudes of the Whitlam and Fraser eras, only to be broken in the more recent period. On Saturday 7 September 2013 it stood at 33.84 percent. Its 2PP was below 47 percent. Labor won a significantly higher primary (38.75 percent) when it was smashed by Howard in 1996.
The trend vote has dropped by more than 10 percent since 1969. More than a quarter of its traditional voter base has deserted it. Together with the fact that a growing proportion of its residual base must more be characterised as hostages, feeling they need to vote Labor as a bulwark against the even more offensive Coalition, we are seeing not just some episodic but a significant, long term collapse in Labor’s base.
Taking the long view, then, we have to ask, when did this stability in its voter base first break? Going off the numbers, the electoral turning point is 1983 and the Hawke-Keating Governments. After achieving one of its strongest ever primaries in 1983 (49.48 percent), over 13 years of ALP Government, the ALP registered a declining primary at every election, save the 1993 “Fightback” election. The downward trend was restored in 1996, and most significantly, continued during the years of opposition. Only slightly arrested by the 2007 “Workchoices” election, Labor’s primary continues to fall. At best we can say Labor’s defeats are deeper, and electoral recoveries shallower, than for the bulk of the 20th Century, more likely there is a persistent underlying cause at play.
This structural decline, with its origins in the Accord period, is the central reason for Labor’s defeat in 2013. While Labor could have won this election on the basis of tactically relating to “anti-politics”, they could never have won the election solely on the back of their core support, even allowing for a measure of support from the Greens. So while we can criticise the campaign for its failure to relate to the disenchantment with mainstream politics, to “anti-politics” in even the limited way Palmer did, it is clear the main reasons run much deeper.
Various “explanations” have been advanced centring on the personality of the leader, or worst of all “disunity” are symptomatic at best, misleading at worst. These are either episodic — and so cannot explain the historic nature of the decline — or timeless, and so cannot locate the decline and its causes historically. These problems predate Kevin and Julia, a clash that is merely a symptom of the crisis.
Explaining the decline
We have to understand that Labor faces a fundamental crisis, not merely a cosmetic one. As I argued before the election:
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.
The erosion of Labor’s broad support base, and the decline in the strength of its remaining support, cannot but have its effect on the networks and machinery that make up Labor as an actual thing, and not merely a theoretical construct. This is true on three levels.
At the macro level, there is simply no way with a union movement having density around 18 percent, that its political arm will be as effective as it was when it had 50 percent density. Nor, with a vastly smaller active membership (or even branch membership) can its electoral machine be as efficient. Its social weight has been reduced, and with it its organic capacity to project ideas and carry the wider population.
At a micro level it has narrowed the base of discussions, debates, critiques and decision making to a degree that is quite profound. Where once thousands of organised participants clashed over the future of Labor, now, I would estimate, fewer than 1000 people nationally are directly engaged in the networks that are connected with meaningful decision-making about the future of the ALP. This is composed of the most important figures in the parliamentary caucus, the factional leaders, the staffers attached to those MPs, senior union officials and political officers. To these are added a handful of mid- and junior-level union officials and party elders. When we consider that half of this group is employed by the other half, the number of effective decision makers becomes tiny indeed.
Politically, the factions are composed of a demographically very homogenous population who have been selected for adherence to the political status quo inside Labor. What is more, the unanimity between the factions has disrupted any ability for the factions to represent strategic or tactical alternatives for the party as a whole. Shorn of any political function, the factions have increasingly become mere tribal patronage networks, with all the propensity to political and financial corruption that goes with them. Yet these networks retain their effective control of union block votes and influence.
The factions are thus at the same time both the guarantors of the union bureaucracy’s influence within Labor, and the greatest single block to a move away from the politics that have underpinned Labor’s decline.
The political decision by the union movement as a whole, supported by all factions and political trends of any weight, to enter into the Accord in 1983 has turned out to be fateful. Every trend bar Labor was effectively wiped out. Labor went into decline. Whatever one’s political analysis, or attitude to the Accord as such, it must be acknowledged that its period of centralised wage “restraint” and suppression of strikes was a completely disastrous policy for the workers’ movement. It oversaw the collapse in union membership, the gutting of our activist networks, the creation of unwieldy, legalistic and narrow structures, and the near total destruction of any kind of working class public sphere. This dynamic had its counterparts inside the ALP, with the withering of branch activism and the final death of conferences as any kind of meaningful decision-making forum.
The organised self-destruction of the union movement through the Accord process was paralleled by a political retreat of the greatest significance. While Labor has never had any kind of coherent anti-capitalist economic program, it once had a more varied ideological make-up that included strands that were strongly in favour of — and could intellectually defend — at least some notion of state intervention for the purpose of progressive reform. Given that the premise of Labor was electoral success to use the state to deliver reforms, these trends were critical to Labor’s ability to, from time to time, buck capitalist common sense and pursue serious reforms.
The period of the Hawke-Keating governments saw the enshrinement of neoliberal economic orthodoxy at the heart of the movement’s political thinking about the economy. This was most true within Labor’s Left, which had proceeded to bury anti-capitalist economics of any sort, and with it the ideological basis for internal renewal.
Today, the Labor factions unanimously support neoliberalism, though of course there are variations in emphasis. While the Right actively embraces it, the Left sentimentally excuses it on the basis that “there is no alternative”. But there is little difference at the level of their political behaviour.
Even the notionally “Keynesian” interventions to stimulate demand during the GFC were saturated with uncritical worship of the market, which gave us the disastrous private sector implementation of the pink batts scheme and another own goal for the ALP. That pattern is repeated on issue after issue. The NSW Labor Government’s privatisation agenda was a significant contributor to its political weakening, as were the repeat failures of major “Public Private Partnership” infrastructure projects. The relentless ideological chipping away at any kind of alternative economic approach has left the ALP standing for little more than neoliberalism with a human face, and at times, not even that — as its persistently racist refugee policies show most clearly. But this is also evident in the attacks on welfare recipients and numerous other policy fronts.
More fundamentally, managing capitalism in neoliberal terms means resisting anything other than symbolic pro-worker reforms. Most national unions have confronted the late Labor Government’s extreme reluctance to grant reforms, usually on fiscal grounds. The sum total of advice coming from within the Labor factions and think tanks, the public service, the mainstream media, and the opposition, is all singing from the same songsheet — fiscal responsibility, productivity, labour market flexibility, public sector “efficiency”, rationalisation. No section of the Labor factions contains a meaningful challenge to the central assumptions of neoliberalism at a theoretical, political or practical level. It is important to see that these modern examples are the continuation of the economic and political approach which saw the “social dividend” that was to come to workers under the Accord, keep shrinking or being postponed until finally Keating put an end to the farce in 1993 with Enterprise Bargaining.
And its not hard to see where that takes us: A voter base, forged over decades in the spirit of supporting the ones that were for a better world, not only finds that the better world looks pretty much like the other one, but that “their own” politicians are the ones delivering the kickings. The roster of sections of the community who have been attacked over the years in one way or another by Labor in Government from 1983 to 2013 reads like a who’s who of its traditional support base. And this course of action progressively ejects ever greater numbers of Labor’s voters from the ranks of the true believers.
So the defeat must primarily seen in light of Labor’s continuing commitment to neoliberalism. It is the logical consequence of a fundamental economic approach, which sees the role of Labor in government to manage capitalism not merely in the interests of capital in general, but according to a particularly narrow set of neoliberal prescriptions about economic management. This places Labor in its basic economic approach to Government at odds with the workers’ movement which, in its political demands, is placing demands on the state that it act to constrain the market in ways favourable to workers. Labor in Government remains predisposed to support the opposite course. This is in part why unions have had to turn to various forms of community and leverage campaigning to twist the arms of their factional allies in order to deliver even partial reforms for their members.
How neoliberalism stopped being tenable
Labor’s strategic premise is notionally the achievement of electoral success in order to enact some sort of change. Yet neoliberalism has proven to undermine the first term of this equation –— electoral success — in a fundamental way.
A kind of economic realpolitik might still be offered to excuse Labor’s self-destructive addiction to neoliberalism. Even if, for the sake of argument, we concede the central thesis here, that neoliberalism had some value in understanding and managing the economy, it is of limited value now. In 1983, however objectively anti-working class, neoliberalism offered a coherent package of structural reforms. Labor could combine this with a particular way of delivering social peace at the same time, through the Prices and Incomes Accord, which the Liberals could not.
As a consequence of Labor’s and the union movement’s decline, Labor is no longer needed to guarantee social peace, and it is doubtful it would have the political credibility or material weight to do so if it were. So the crisis of Laborism itself means that the winning strategy of the 1980s cannot be replicated.
There is a more basic problem. By 1996, the major structural reforms prescribed by neoliberalism had been accomplished under Hawke and Keating. Neoliberalism after that time has ceased to be a compelling strategy for capital accumulation. Today, its ideological commitments positively get in the way of dealing with infrastructure bottlenecks and labour supply issues, not to mention that financial chaos resulting from neoliberal prescriptions across Europe and the world.
Moreover, no matter its practical achievements, Labor cannot win the argument about being technocratically superior managers of the capitalist economy in more than a momentary sense. In the last analysis, the intrinsic closeness between the LNP and its big business backers will always give the lie to any claims Labor makes on this score. Rudd and Gillard’s incapacity to get any traction on this front, despite an impressive record of avoiding the worst of the GFC, speaks to the truth of that underlying social logic.
Thus neoliberalism fails to yield a viable strategy for Labor today, even if it could be argued that it did from 1983 to 1990, and even if we ignore its consequences for the working class. Neoliberalism has undermined Labor’s ability to conceive and execute enough serious reforms to energise its base and arrest its organisational and electoral decline. It has therefore become inextricably tied to the institutional and electoral decline of the ALP. Neoliberalism is the concrete political form of the crisis of Laborism in Australia. There can be no sustained resurgence for Labor without a fundamental reckoning with neoliberalism, a project now entering a global period of crisis.