The modern crisis of Australian Laborism (Part 2)

by · September 23, 2013

What happens now?

What happens now?


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.

Discussion25 Comments

  1. faustusnotes says:

    I think there are a couple of problems with some of your premises.

    1. the Greens did very well in this election, retaining a lower house seat and increasing their seats in the senate by 1
    2. Tony Abbott probably should have won control of the senate and it is just a fluke that he didn’t – the LDP 5% vote did not arise from a sudden shift to libertarianism, but because 4% of the population who wanted to vote liberal voted for LDP by mistake. The 9% PUP polled in Queensland were probably also otherwise aiming for Liberal.
    3. without considering Rudd’s roll in destabilizing the party, you can’t consider what it needs to rebuild from or why it lost. Was it policies or the perception of chaos? And who was responsible for the latter?

    Given this, it’s hard to say that the electorate was particularly concerned with left-wing ideals, that the Greens suffered from Labor sniping (vs. Liberal preferencing) or that this was a skin-of-the-teeth vindication of Rudd, and thus by extension a repudiation of the politics and personality of Gillard rather than the ALP’s policy goals as a whole.

    • Marc Newman says:

      1. The Greens suffered a swing *away* from them in both the upper (-4.4%) and lower house (-3.4%). I agree that Bandt’s campaign did very well, however this clearly runs counter to the national trend. I do not see how, particularly in light of the strong performance in 2010 (11.76%), we can describe the Greens as ‘doing well’ in this election. *Even the Greens are not arguing this*.

      2. I agree the LDP was a ‘fluke’ of sorts, however, your blithe dismissal of the Palmer vote in similar terms is wrong. The idea such a large swing is people who were ‘aiming for Liberal’ but didn’t manage to hit the target is delusional. The LDP not only pulled Group A on the Senate paper (and hence both the donkey vote and easy visibility), but their name looks like the LNP. The Piping Shrike and Tad Tietze have written extensively on anti-politics, I’d encourage you to take a look.

      3. Rudd’s ascension to the leadership post-dates the beginning of Labor’s electoral decline by several decades. Unless someone has developed time travel, I fail to see how his role can be significantly causal in the underlying decline. I looked at the roots of this extensively in part 1.

      If you think I’m make an argument primarily about ‘left wing ideals’, I think you’ve missed my point entirely. I’m presenting an analysis of left wing forces, as they actually exist in society. Labor is in crisis. The Greens made an alliance with Labor in terms that tied them to that crisis. We need to reconsider the strategic propositions that resulted in the electoral result – even Greens Leader Christine Milne has acknowledged the link between the insider strategy pursued over the last few years and the weakening of the Greens vote.

      • Faustusnotes says:

        Your response to 1 relies on the assumption that green gains in 2010 represented a structural shift towards them, not random variation + strategic voting. This seems unlikely to me, and if you accept the possibility it was a temporary aberration then you need to accept a swing was inevitable in 2013. Their vote share now is higher than 2007 and consistent with their long term trend. 2010 was voters from the major parties protesting against the dropping of the ets. They got what they wanted so they went back to the majors.

        Your point 2 is confusing. Did you mistype? You seem to be presenting the LDPs name and ballot position as evidence that they are not a mistake. Is this what you think? That 4% is a swing to the liberals that got ambushed. It is not a protest vote.

        Labor’s electoral slide is long term, yes, but you need to add green and alp (plus Xenophon and Wilkie, probably) together to make a judgment about the long term left slide. And this elections terrible primary was below the trend because of Rudd. If you don’t handle that you don’t have the proper fundamentals for the analysis you are making.

        As a counter factual, imagine the ALP had a decent leader not being undermined from within and not beset by misogyny from without, up against Abbott. Would we be having this discussion or would we be talking about a left wing renaissance?

  2. Simon says:

    I think you may be defining ‘the left’ too broadly.

    There are many in the ALP and the unions who are perfectly comfortable with contemporary neoliberalism. And this is not only a ‘leadership’ versus ‘rank and file’ matter.

    Approximately 40 per cent of union members vote for the Coalition. Many ALP members, while critical of the party leadership on issues such as climate change and refugees, either have no strong views about the deepening financialisation of Australian society, or think it is a rather good thing (especially if you are a long-standing home owner).

    So the problem is that the left is deeply divided in complex ways. The logics and ideologies of neoliberalism are firmly embedded among us. This explains why much of the mainstream left is so inert, timid and (frankly) spineless.

    There are some good people inside the ALP. But their ‘heart in the right place’ politics is completely overwhelmed by the taut electoralism of the broader party – which continues to regard delivering higher living standards via productivity, labour market flexibility and tax competition as the only game in town. In the present conjucture competing for national government can only mean more neoliberalism, not less.

    So I agree. The ALP must be set aside. The problem for the anti-capitalist left is that the next 3 years is very likely to see unions and other progressive groups and individuals rally to the ALP as the only way of getting rid of Abbott.

    We need a circuit-breaker – an event or series of events that causes many more workers than hitherto to question the fundamentals of Australian politics.

    The left is too weak and marginal to bring such events into being. To some extent, we have to wait. But it also means being in a position to take advantage of those events when they arise. And that requires organisation.

    My own preference is to build a socialist left within The Greens. But others will no doubt disagree.

    • Marc Newman says:

      Hi Simon,

      Thanks for the comments.

      There is no doubt that there are working class tories, and that some of them are even in unions – I deal with them every day at work. But its also the case that people who voted tory can still act and even think in progressive ways at other times – and workers still face the realities of capitalism in the workplace.

      The political fragmentation of the rank-and-file of the union movement is a function of the fact that Labor is not effectively articulating the expectations of unionists in politics, and the rest of the left is not presenting a sufficiently compelling alternative.

      The other thing is that this stuff is not simply one-dimensional. Most people don’t think politics through systematically – particularly when politics is as repellent as it often is in Australia, there is a temptation to think about politics as little as possible for a lot of people. I know former One Nation voters who now vote Greens *on a left wing basis* – people’s opinions change based on their experiences, the arguments they are exposed to, the apparent credibility of those making the arguments and a whole host of other factors.

      Which brings me back to the question of the ‘left’. I have Labor mates who argue the Greens are right wing because of its positions on trade unions (c.f. the Greens NSW donations policy), and they’re at least half right on that point. I have other mates in the Greens who argue that the better people in Labor are just a kind of fig-leaf for the worst neo-liberal ministers, and they’re half right about that. But where does that take us?

      The vast majority of people who join Labor and the Greens do so because they have some notion of a better or fairer society and for whatever combination of reasons think that organisation is the best way they can contribute to that project. The vast majority of unionists join unions because they want to make their lives and the lives of those around them better. This basic impulse to progressive social change, to collective and cooperative solutions, is what defines the left, not the shibboleths of one or another tribe. Its what places us on the same side of the struggle.

      If we are all, in a general sense, on the same side, then it makes sense for us to have some discussions about strategy and tactics. It makes sense to discuss how we can most effectively fight. And it will ultimately make sense, if we find that the best parts of the left (in all its organisational vehicles), can find some common ground in terms of understanding what is happening, on strategy, and on tactics, for us to figure out a way of bringing all of those forces together in a more effective vehicle. But in the first instance, recognising the breadth of the left is essential, as is a matter of fact approach to looking at the weaknesses in each tendency – by all means build a left in the Greens. But don’t forget that some of your comrades remain in Labor, and outside both.

      The crisis of Australian politics means many of us have to rethink our allegiances. Lets use that opportunity to have a discussion about what needs to be done, not simply which organisation to join.


  3. Richard Bailey says:

    hmmm… less specifically to say about this part. My main concern is that the much more important question for me is whether we go for option 2 or 3 and how and why etc. Your analysis so far is at best very preliminary in terms of beginning a more strategic/tactical discussion. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the distinction between radical critique and simple reformism. I’m interested in the possibility of a middle approach that doesn’t collapse into abstract critique or apolitical reformism. In that context this all feels too much like critique or to put it differently, it’s framed too much as what the ALP should do rather than what we should or shouldn’t do to the ALP (or the Greens or whatever). But I do like the general intent of your intervention, I just think we need to go deeper. We also need to work out who “we” are.

    In response to the comment above, it seems like the idea of a socialist left within the greens has receded as a genuine possibility (although as a non-Greens member that is just a feeling based on limited info). What I think would be very interesting is what would happen if the NSW Greens led a split and formed a new explicitly social democratic party in alliance with the best left unions…

    • Marc Newman says:

      The main purpose of the article is to stake out i) the structural and severe nature of Labor’s decline, ii) the link between that and politics (neoliberalism etc) and iii) canvass the reasons I think none of the existing organisations or tendencies can credibly claim to be ‘the solution’. Yet a solution is needed. And because of the depths of the crisis of politics in Australia, the number of people who are asking or open to discussing those questions is greater than I have ever experienced.

      This is *one article*. It is intended as a contribution, to spark a discussion. To stake out some key features of the situation, canvass some problems with the more obvious reactions from different groups, and invite broader participation in a debate about what we do about the crisis.

      I am getting a little frustrated, I will say, with the seeming expectation of the far left that a full and finished plan from here to the socialism be published on Left Flank *before* any of the more elementary observations will be seriously entertained or discussed.

      This is almost the direct opposite of everybody else on the left who has provided feedback or comment (and I’ve had a surprising amount). The left broadly defined is hungry for a serious discussion about what went wrong, and parts at least are interested in laying down some rationally defensible parameters for how we approach an alternative.

      To leap over that discussion, straight to an organisational or tactical formula, is to repeat one of the classic self-isolating errors of the far left. A genuine movement of the working class is worth a thousand of the most correct programmes. Moving straight to the differences (allegiances to Labor, the Greens, this or that far left sect) is a recipe for aborting the healthy discussion that is starting to emerge.

  4. Ben Courtice says:

    This has been a very good 2-part series, part 1 in particular is a very lucid account of the neoliberal ascendancy in Labor. But given that neoliberalism has been virtually unquestioned in public life by almost all in Labor (including those in the Left, for the most part) it is jarring to finish with the implication that Labor is, or recently was, “the primary vehicle for Left political intervention”. The fact that there isn’t much to the left (other than the Greens, with the caveats mentioned here) doesn’t mean that Labor retains the position by default. Certainly there are still lefties, particularly in the unions, who intervene *in Labor* as their primary activity, that is very different from having Labor actually performing as a *vehicle for intervention* which implies (if I have it right) left intervention into the public debate. Any “left interventions” in Labor are so well buried they never see the light of day.

    Calling Labor part of the left, on an intra-left discussion, is misleading. Perhaps this argument is aimed at Labor Left? I think a third part in the series, surveying what and who actually remains (meaningfully, not just formally) in Labor’s Left would be needed to justify that. The far left outside Labor, such as it is, may not be very inspiring, and maybe the Greens aren’t either, but the left really need to be honest about what we actually have to work with if we’re going to move forward.

    • Marc Newman says:

      Ben, I’m a little bemused that you liked my articles given that you seem to have missed the point so dramatically. The left in society is an objectively given fact (see comment to Simon above), not something we define at our convenience. Whether you like it or not, Labor is part of society’s left, and it has been the dominant way in which left activism has oriented politically for over a century.

      I can say with absolute certainty that I’m more interested in a discussion with people in Labor than I am with people who simply want to define the left to mean them and their friends. In order for the working class to move forward, we do need to work with people who are currently in Labor and the Greens – they are part of the solution, even if we disagree on some questions right now. Purist isolation is anathema to the kind of political approach I’m proposing. But good luck with it.

  5. Byon says:

    The fate of the [German] Green Party should be of interest to the left, in that it underlines how there is nothing like the lure of office to undermine both the principles and supporter base of a petty bourgeois party. It may have taken Joschka Fischer, former leading Green Party parliamentarian, just over 30 years to be transformed from a leather-jacket-sporting ‘68er’ clashing with police into the foreign minister overseeing the bombing of Kosova, but the Green Party’s fate was sealed much more quickly. The Greens’ claim to uphold environmentalism, peace, social justice and other nice things evaporated into thin air when they first sat on a ministerial chair.

    They may be the most successful Green Party in Europe, but their credibility as a force for any kind of serious change has been irreparably damaged. As Joachim Jachnow argues in New Left Review, “The Greens may still play king (or queen)-maker in Berlin. There was a time when that prospect might have caused anxiety in Washington, but the Greens are the American embassy’s favourite German party nowadays. And why not? The Green Party has reduced the struggle for radical reform to the small change of ‘organic’ and ‘fair trade’ consumerism. The harmless memory of a dissident past now serves as a inexhaustible source of legitimacy, not just for their own actions, but for German power and the state apparatus itself”.1

    Plagued by the ‘veggie scandal’ and now by accusations of paedophilia against its leader, Jürgen Trittin,2 the party is losing more and more support – so much so that it is now polling between one and two points below the left party, Die Linke. Its predicted 10% share of the vote could, in circumstances where both the preferred coalitions of the SPD and the CDU proves to be arithmetically impossible, and where government pretenders are looking for help onto the throne, turn out to be an important player.


  6. Simon says:

    Hi all

    Some points

    Marc wants a discussion within a broadly defined progressive left. If I understand him correctly, he wants to avoid discussing differences within the left because that will erect barriers.

    I get the impression that Marc wants a no-holes-barred exploratory discussion that is open to considering all views and possible ways forward – a sort of ‘blank sheet’ / ‘blue sky thinking’ approach to what went wrong and what is to be done.

    While I sympathise with the sentiment (wouldn’t it be great if all progressives could suspend their existing loyalties, ties and priorities and instead engage in a free-form discussion about what to do next), I think this is unrealistic.

    There are many lefts inside the broad left – and most have strong political and organisational loyalties and views that are not going to change anytime soon.

    Bob Carr (a member of the progressive left?) wants a Labor govt in 2016 and will make any compromise and abandon any principle to get that. Within the ALP he is not alone. I have nothing to say to people like Carr, and there is little point in pretending otherwise.

    Once you start including people like Carr in ‘the left’ you risk rendering the term meaningless.

    Sometimes in politics you have to draw lines and make distinctions. Otherwise you end up in an ideological mush, trying to pretend you are on the same side as people who you in fact have nothing in common with (as the British SWP found when they were involved with Respect).

    The recent history of the British Labour Party is useful. The left in the Party began to grow and exert influence after the 1970 election defeat.

    The left didn’t say ‘Let’s get everyone together in a big room and have a chat about what went wrong’. They drew the conclusion that the Wilson govt was a disaster partly because the parliamentary party and the main policy making bodies within the Party were dominated by the right.

    To counter the right meant a number of concrete things had to be done. Certain MPs had to be de-selected and replaced with left wing MPs. The left needed to develop a policy capacity to counter the influence of right-wing think tanks. So an internal research dept was formed. Links with left wing academics and journalists were formed. In the local parties the right wing came under sustained pressure to either follow party policy or risk losing their council and parliamentary seats.

    This is real politics. It means getting your hands dirty. It means understanding who is with you and who is against you – and working hard to ensure you win and those who oppose you lose.

    Real politics is not a hobby or an opportunity for therapy. You either organise to win – or give up and do something else.


  7. Speedy says:

    I seem to remember it was the ‘all progressives together’ approach to politics that led the CPA to support The Accord.

    After all, the CPA argued, while we disagree with Hawke and Keating here and there on some issues, they are part of the progressive left (broadly defined) so they must be part of the solution.

    Good grief.

    • Marc Newman says:

      There is a world of difference between recognising Labor is part of society’s left, and being prepared to go along with wrong strategic positions or anti-worker attacks. By your logic, we should simply never talk to people in the single largest political current within the trade unions and broader social change movements. Good luck changing the world that way, Speedy.

      • Speedy says:

        I look forward to hearing the results of your talks with Stephen Conroy and Bill Shorten about how to build a socialist movement in Australia.

        Good luck with that.

        • lizhumphrys says:

          It is not particularly accurate to say that the reason that CPA unions agreed to the Accord was because they thought ‘the left’ should simply be all together. It came on the back of particular political economic circumstances, including the exhaustion of the trade union strategy in the early 1980s where neither Fraser nor the militant Left unions had a decisive victory – followed by a significant recession. This is not to say it was the only choice in the circumstances, but they were motivated by factors other than we don’t disagree with Hawke and Keating much. However naively, the AMWU and others saw the Accord as a Left alternative to neoliberalism occurring elsewhere. The more important question is not why they signed up to the Accord, but why they did not break with the Accord when the original agreement was not implemented and when the ACTU and ALP moved against various unions acting outside the Accord.

  8. Speedy says:

    I defer to your greater knowledge of the period. However, I do recall internal debates within the CPA (involving Taft and others) that revolved around the importance of being less critical of the ALP and instead seeing Labor as part of a broad democratic progressive alliance. While such arguments may not have been decisive re The Accord, they seem likely to have helped prepare the ground for the subsequent subordination of class to technocratic labourism. But I am working from memory.

    • lizhumphrys says:

      Point taken – and I think you are right about it being part of a sales pitch within the AMWU based on what I’ve read/seen in archive work. Although I wonder if the current technocratic labourism is partly a result of other consequences of the Accord as well (such as the chasm that grew between the rank and file and the officials, the ‘professionalisation’ and centralisation of the unions, etc).

    • Byon says:

      Speedy writes: I do recall internal debates within the CPA (involving Taft and others) that revolved around the importance of being less critical of the ALP and instead seeing Labor as part of a broad democratic progressive alliance

      Byon replies: In short, this was a manifestation the politically bankrupt and corrupt CP strategy of popular frontism that, in the end, subordinates the all political work of the organisation to the objectives of right wing and bourgeois forces.

      Today it recurs in the farcical unrequited love of the CPUSA for the Democratic Party and Barack Obama, or whichever aspiring war criminal, er … transformative candidate, happens to front for that bourgeois party at the next election. Coincidentally, the next election always happens to be marketed by the popular frontists as the most important in a generation.

  9. shiggyshiggy says:

    When you say “left” and “unions” together, do you mean this kind of union:

    This is just one issue and one union leader. Climate change policy, the mining tax, immigration policy, all have seen union leaders come out in opposition of such progressive policies. I don’t really care about workers rights when I can’t marry my partner, the world is melting, and mining plutocrats get richer while the poor get poorer. What’s the point of supporting a union apparatus which is dominated by such thinking?

  10. Speedy says:

    Some union leaders and members have deeply conservative and reactionary views.

    But it is simply inaccurate to claim that unions are ‘dominated by such thinking’.

    It is not an either/or choice between supporting workers rights and the right of gay people to marry. You will not find the struggle for gay marriage any easier by treating unions as one homogenous and reactionary mass.

    • shiggyshiggy says:

      How do these union leaders with “deeply conservative and reactionary views” survive and even flourish in these organisations? If this is a left-wing and progressive movement, how is this possible? These are leaders you’re talking about, movers and shakers. People who decide the policy direction of these organisations. You cant just sweep them under the rug.

      Also this sentence:

      “You will not find the struggle for gay marriage any easier by treating unions as one homogenous and reactionary mass.”

      ….is so incredibly patronising. Especially considering that De Bruyn has been using the power and influence of his position within the union movement to advocate against gay marriage, both in the ALP and on unionised work sites. Funnelling union funds into furthering his right wing agenda.

      The previous ALP anti-gay marriage shenanigans (the Gillard years) were supported and furthered by unionists like De Bruyn, and the union dominated right factions within the ALP.

      From my perspective this does not look like a progressive movement advocating for a left of centre Australia. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  11. Nathan says:

    I’ve come to oppose the use of the term neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism is just the latest stage in the trajectory capitalism has been taking us. When the left says neo-liberalism, it’s like they’re avoiding saying capitalism because they believe that to do so would be too divisive or they genuinely believe there’s nothing wrong with capitalism, it’s just greed that is killing it. We’re not living in a neo-liberal era, we’re living an era of advanced stage capitalism, with massive concentration of wealth (to the point of corporate oligarchy) and the complete co-option of politics, culture, sport, etc with the ideology of the ruling class. Good news for the left is that at this stage its becoming evident that capitalism is close to having run its course as an agent of change. This current era of capitalism (that some dub neo-liberalism) is the era of the elites protecting their own position, rather than of innovation (which was an important part of 20th century capitalism). In such a vacuum, it’s tempting for one to think it’s only a matter of time…

    * To say that the ALP should jettison neo-liberalism is like saying it should jettison capitalism, which impossible because it is so entrenched in it.

  12. lizhumphrys says:

    I think you are right in one sense Nathan, that many people do use it in that way – and shy away from saying capitalism. Also for some on the Left ‘neoliberalism’ is a slur word, meaning nothing more than ‘things we hate’. I think though, that there is a serious discussion to be had as to the nature of the period of capitalism post the 1970s economic crisis – how it is similar and different to what preceded it. For me, I think we should see neoliberalism as the building of a new hegemonic political project to restore accumulation. I think it also helps us understand the particular political-economic processes in Australia, and why Fraser was unable to introduce ‘neoliberalism’ and Hawke and Keating were (i.e. Fraser was not able to cohere the hegemonic political project like Thatcher and Reagan were, yet Labor parties in Australia and NZ could).

    I disagree with you on the question of innovation in the current period though. Financialisation is an innovation that resolved the accumulation problem temporarily (even though it created other problems for capitalism). But all solves for crisis are only temporary in the end, and this does distinguish the current period. And I don’t think it is automatic that the end of capitalism will arrive simply because economic crisis occurs, even of the magnitude of 2008 or the Great Depression. Just because the system is very sick does not mean other innovations will not be possible (even with all the problems they will create).

    • Nathan says:

      Sorry, I meant innovation in a technological sense. Innovation that ultimately increases productive capacity and/or the standard of living. Financial innovations are simply rearranging the squares on the roulette table, no?

      Perhaps I should have put it like this. Often I have heard the prediction that this will be the first generation in modern times that won’t live as long or have a higher standard of living than the generation preceding it.

      For all capitalism’s faults, the increase to the standard of living has been something that’s been hard to argue against (within industrialised countries, anyhow). Well, if those reports are to believed, it looks like that selling point is becoming increasingly invalid.

      The capitalist model ceases to have any kind of mass benefit (quite the opposite in fact when one considers climate change) and simply becomes about the ruling class maintaining power. Perhaps it’s too optimistic to hope for it to implode by itself, but no doubt it should be fertile ground for the left.