By MARC NEWMAN
This article continues the analysis of Labor’s crisis — especially in terms of its meaning for trade unions and social movements — begun here.
Despite the defeat of the ALP, the election was not a crushing victory for the conservatives. Fewer seats fell than expected, and some of the LNP gains in the lower house were at the expense of independents. In addition the LNP lost two seats, one to independent Cathy McGowan, the other to anti-politician at large Clive Palmer. Labor lost the election, Abbott did not resoundingly win it. Soaring informal votes in Western Sydney, higher than average informal votes generally, another low turnout, and rising non-registration — particularly among young people — all contributed to an election characterised by hostility to the political elite. This also found expression in the rise of Palmer and the micro-parties, the loss of votes by Labor and the Greens (the latter now seen as part of that elite) and only very modest gains (1.7 percent) for the Conservatives.
This was true politically as much as it was on the seats. Abbott played to his base in the campaign. But this did not win large swathes of votes. The note of his that rang truest was when attacking Labor on division and chaos. Rudd — despite early signs he would draw a decisive line under the past and run against what people opposed in the ALP — retreated from a full blown battle with the old guard that would have given his resurgence some meaning to the electorate. Instead, voters were left with the mere fact of the division between Rudd and Gillard, and no way to understand it as rational and defensible.
The Greens tied themselves to Gillard, and through that to Labor’s crisis. They could not avoid the backlash. Instead of providing minimum guarantees but remaining apart from Labor’s agenda, the Greens supported and defended a raft of compromise legislation that was, as the name suggests, hopelessly compromised. This was the price of being a “responsible” part of the process. And when you are a responsible part of a process that the voting public hates, it’s going to have electoral consequences.
The real winner was Palmer, who stood for hostility to the existing political class and a couple of “killer fix” tax prescriptions, in the long tradition of Australian populism. His PUP became a parking spot for voters for whom no compelling positive alternative was presented. As Tad Tietze put it in Overland, “It is telling that a party whose sole reason for existence seemed to be to troll the political system has won 5.6 per cent of the vote at its first attempt, including more than 11 per cent in Queensland.”
By failing to systematically relate to the anti-political mood, Rudd passed up the opportunity to at least tactically arrest Labor’s decline more than he did (although it seems pretty clear that his return did prevent a complete ALP annihilation). Not only did this allow Abbott to “win” the election, it facilitated the growth of the micro-parties. As Jeff Sparrow has argued, there is something profoundly antidemocratic in the interest in “Senate reform” since the election, since most discussion centres on how to restrict micro-parties. This effort is best seen as the initiative of a discredited political class seeking to mask the declining purchase it has on the popular mind, and police admission to its ranks.
Laborism after the election
The specific problem facing Labor now is this: The ALP is a party whose real decisions are made by a few hundred people, a few hundred people moreover who are committed to the political approach that landed us all here. They have selected, in the manner of European royalty, from within their number for so many political generations that they exhibit a similar inability to look reality in the face. At the same time it is a party whose existence is threatened by its support for that political approach. The factions have become a self-perpetuating, almost hermetically sealed body, and one in which ever fewer members of society have any faith. How could it forge a new direction?
Such a new direction would have to include at least jettisoning neoliberalism, major internal reform, and repositioning the party to recapture the ground that it has taken for granted, and which is deserting it.
All indications to date are that it is simply not capable of doing so. Leaving aside the Rudd-bashing, unity mongering and Senate reform discussion which has functioned to date as a substitute for genuine reflection on the defeat, there are reasons to suspect that the factions are simply incapable of formulating either a serious analysis of the defeat, or a strategy to take the ALP forward.
The inane discussion of whether or not to ballot the ALP membership is instructive. Shorten is right to support a membership ballot, but if party reform begins and ends at a membership plebiscite over whether or not to sanction a decision made by the parliamentary caucus, there will be one result: the kind of ongoing reluctance of the factional politicians to yield any decision making to a forum they cannot control, expressing itself as a desire to stitch up the leadership unchallenged, so as to avoid any ballot. The noises made by several members of caucus along these lines this week are only the tip of the iceberg of that kind of thinking.
Do any of the suspected leadership aspirants plan to press forward with the kind of changes inside the ALP that might allow the party a new lease of life with the voting public? Possibly, but there is no sign as yet of a more political rethinking that would be needed to go with it. Labor’s base is not interested in a democratic neoliberal party — as the growth of the Greens in the shadow of Labor’s crisis has showed. It expects Labor to, at a minimum, give it some hope that things could be better — hopes that have been systematically suppressed by Labor for three decades.
The picture might then be expected to be the continued shifting of deckchairs as the good ship Labor continues towards the iceberg, complete with an ever-changing cast of ineffectual captains at the helm. And the primary vote continues to drift downward.
Except for one thing — Labor is now exiting the “sweet spot”. Whereas once its stable primary vote meant that even in opposition the ALP sat within striking distance of victory at almost any election, given opportune circumstances. Today it is almost beyond credulity that Labor will return inside two terms in Queensland or New South Wales. We can already observe the atrophy of organisational networks that had come to depend on the staffs available to a well-resourced party of Government.
But this if anything understates the scale of the political defeats, as the party has become politically invisible in both the Queensland and NSW state political spheres. (It has reached the absurd point, if you can believe it, of Labor being completely absent from a recent mass rally of public sector workers against the LNP’s Campbell Newman in Brisbane, while it was strongly supported by a vocal contingent from the Katter’s Australian Party.) The ALP faces similar devastation in the upcoming Tasmanian election. With the defeat on 7 September 2013, we have little reason to believe they will be much more effective in the Federal sphere. Even the Senate situation is a mixed blessing, as the Greens and Labor will be squeezed from the limelight by the cross benches, and will need to be very clear to cut through, which will make life very difficult for Labor in its current state. This is also part of why Abbott has stepped up his attacks on the Greens — Labor is already in disarray.
Labor has only rarely based its appeal on deep ideological conviction. It has more normally been about its notional ability to get things done. While we can question how much really got done, when judged from an authentically working class perspective, it must be emphasised that electoral success, the ability to point to party members governing the state or the country could create a credible illusion that a lot gone done. Whatever ideals you had, once you were serious about getting anything done, you joined the ALP. Success begat success.
Now however, with Labor’s recent political defeats, together with the receding prospect of that changing any time soon, the reverse begins to become true, both for voters and unionists, whether rank and file or official. If it cannot begin to reverse its political and electoral fortunes, it will begin to lose the “hostage” voters at an ever-faster rate in a vicious circle. It even faces the possibility of collapse in the face of a difficult political situation, as the fates of its counterparts PSOE in Spain, and PASOK in Greece, have shown. Labor therefore faces a situation where over the coming years its ability to continue as more than a shadow of itself, like the DLP, or the Australian Democrats is in question.
Whether Labor gradually declines, collapses in crisis, or is able to effect some sort of reversal is a practical question which can only be resolved over the coming months and years. However, there is every reason to think that the situation in the ALP will only get worse. This doesn’t mean there won’t be attempts to change Labor in the direction that would be needed. For example in the short term, the fortunes of rank-and-file elements interested in changing the direction of the ALP will be buoyed by Rudd’s public backing and the evident public sympathy for such a project. However, the sheer entrenchment of the existing setup and modus operandi within Labor’s factional hierarchy suggests their chances are not good, without at least some signs of cracks within the hierarchy itself, of which there are remarkably few at this point.
The unions and the Left after the election
If we take the left broadly to mean the self identifying activist left, the Labor Party, the Greens, the unions, the social movements, and the broad support base of each of these groups and layers. The Left in this broad sense is confronted with a situation that is unique in our modern history. The primary way in which a pro-worker and left-of-centre politic was projected into official politics was the ALP. It did so imperfectly, for a range of reasons. Yet it was always there. Today, not merely its effectiveness as such a vehicle — but also its viability — is coming into question.
What we do about this is our collective problem. For example, Labor turned its guns on the “extremist” Greens before the last election, and will be tempted to do so again from opposition as a “brand differentiation” exercise. Yet every time this sectarianism yields a political victory to the conservatives, the political position of the whole left is weakened, Labor included. The reality of taking hits to our collective agenda from Labor in its crisis-ridden agony is only going to become more frequent.
The situation we are faced with presents us with basically three alternatives. (1) Continue as things are, with the probable result that Labor’s decline will continue. (2) Lapse into a kind of conservative syndicalism in which we collectively abstain from mounting any kind of political challenge to Abbott and the Right. Or (3) substantially revise how we approach politics.
Given what the media rather annoyingly refer to as the “damage to Labor’s brand”, the question is soon going to have to be posed whether more might be achieved politically another way, particularly for the unions and social movements. While I don’t expect to see mass disaffiliations in the short term, the existing loss of interest in Labor in the union movement will only get more and more pronounced. This will create a sharper and sharper tension between the political attitudes of the unions’ top leaders and the rank-and-file on the one hand, and between those leaders and a growing proportion of the union bureaucracy itself.
It therefore questionable how much longer it will be tenable for embattled unions to continue passing large amounts of financial and other resources to a political project increasingly unable to deliver, enjoying the support of ever fewer of those unions members, and increasingly a liability in terms of advancing a pro worker political agenda. Whether you see that development as a “bad thing” or a “good thing”, it’s going to become a financial and political reality for unions sooner or later.
More importantly, if Labor’s decline continues, at some point backing progressive candidates not under the ALP banner is going to make more rational sense. This is already occurring tactically, with union backing going to both in a limited way to the Greens and to independents like McGowan. The question of broader continuous support for the Greens is already being posed in some unions.
Yet as the Greens’ fortunes from 2010 to 2013 have shown us, without some significant steps forward, this may not present the general alternative that we might think. Firstly, Greens structures will make sustained engagement difficult. Second, while the Greens may offer a way to throw weight behind an already established formation, the party’s grasp of parliament’s function and role, and its weak political and theoretical analysis all make it prone to major mistakes and setbacks. Finally, the Greens still have an ambivalent attitude to whether they are in the social democratic tradition or not. It is still a question for a significant minority of Greens activists whether unions are part of the problem or part of the solution, which mitigates against any kind of stable alliance.
Recognising the reality of these organisations is not to simplistically “write them off”. Both have real social weight. I think it is highly likely that the main body of union support will remain with Labor for some time yet, despite its waning fortunes. I do not at all rule out the possibility that the Greens could shift, or that the unions could expand their backing of the Greens for a time yet despite those weaknesses.
But what it points to is the need for a thoroughgoing discussion about what went wrong at the last election and before, one including activists from all sides. The real issue facing us as unionists and as a Left is what kind of politics we need? Is it enough to replace the Labor brand with another Green one? Is it really possible for the Greens to supplant Labor as the primary vehicle for Left political intervention? Or is a more fundamental rethink required of how the working class, its organisations and its allies intervene in politics and try to carve out the space for a better world.
The answers in an immediate practical sense are not obvious, but its clear that the starting point must be an acknowledgement that Labor is in a profound crisis, and Australia’s political business as usual is destabilised. Whether the workers movement and the Left can use that destabilisation to increase its political weight will depend in the first instance on our preparedness to boldly set aside Labor as the assumed central element of our political strategy, and have a no holds barred, rational discussion about our options.