What does Waleed Aly mean when he says Labor has lost the plot?

I enjoyed Waleed Aly’s latest National Times column. But the more I read it, the more I wonder what he means.

"Labor has lost the plot, and the narrative" says the headline in the Age. According to Aly, Governments thrive on narrative and Labor doesn’t have one. It’s a familiar criticism. Asked about the Rudd government in 2008 Paul Keating said that if there was any problem with the government it was the lack of an overarching narrative.

Aly agrees. Labor "doesn’t really mean anything any more," he says, "and probably hasn’t since Keating lost power in 1996."

It might seem like that now, but there was a time when Kevin Rudd was hailed as a master of narrative. In April 2008 Per Capita’s Michael Cooney wrote that the Rudd government "had found its narrative." It was a story about investing in children, about the way this embodied the leader’s values of equity and community and "and the country’s economic problem of falling productivity.

It’s middle Australia that needs to hear a story, said Cooney. Educated urban liberals will make sense of the policy specifics but middle Australia doesn’t pay that much attention. The leader needs to weave this policy detail into a story that showing how it flows from his or her own beliefs and values. A story that outlines the challenges the nation faces and how the government’s policy helps us tackle them.

A narrative implies a narrator and the two aren’t independent. Cooney quotes Aristotle to make the point: "It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses."

This is what scholars of rhetoric call ‘ethos’. People are more likely to trust a leader when they believe that the government’s policies flow from their deeply held beliefs and values. They may even forgive a government for unpopular policies if they trust that the leader’s motivations are good.

The government ‘s problem is that its policies tell an inconsistent story about its motives. While the it makes a compelling argument for leaving the budget in deficit, Aly says this "follows years of saying the opposite".

If Aly was making an argument about how the government’s lack of narrative was hurting it in the polls, it would make sense to focus on the character of the narrators, people like Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan. But Aly isn’t so worried about what individual leaders or ministers stand for as what the Labor Party stands for.

Rudd had a compelling story to tell about his childhood and how it shaped the decisions he made as a politician (it was oddly similar to Bill Clinton’s narrative). But Rudd’s story is personal. What Aly wants is a story narrated by the party about its own role in history:

Once Labor embraced a deregulated, liberal economy, the political landscape was forever changed, leaving a diabolical question for subsequent Labor leaders: what exactly is the point of Labor politics? The compromise has been to talk about Labor’s ”reforming tradition”, but reform is an act, not an ideology. WorkChoices was a reform, too.

Labor has been chasing its base ever since. Often it watched helplessly as workers became small business owners and turned into Howard’s socially conservative battlers. Labor cannot offer them industrial protection, and desperately doesn’t want to offend their cultural sensibilities, which is why it says things like ”tough but humane”.

The result is that Labor cannot compete even on social and cultural politics. Hence the flight to the Greens, the party Gillard so venomously dismissed this week as a ”party of protest”. To which the most devastating reply is surely: ”Fine. But what are you?”

While Cooney sees narrative as a way to reach out to less engaged voters in marginal seats, Aly is worried about more engaged voters moving to the Greens. What Aly wants from Labor is ideology rather than personal stories about childhood hardship and triumph over adversity.

Ideology isn’t the same thing as narrative. An ideology is something abstract. It combines an account of how the world works with a view about how things ought to change. An ideologies account of cause and effect can be a frame for constructing narratives, but it isn’t itself a story.

According to Aly left of centre parties surrendered their ideology in the 80s and 90s. As he wrote in his 2010 Quarterly Essay ‘What’s Right?’ "parties with more collectivist political traditions reinvented themselves in line with the new neo-liberal consensus" after the Cold War. "Politics became a contest between shades of a broadly similar ideology" (p 42).

In the essay Aly gives Rudd credit for attacking the neo-liberal consensus in a 2009 essay for the Monthly, saying that "it was a shock to our political discourse" to have "a prime minister analysing at length what neo-liberal ideas meant in practice, and how they had triggered the near-collapse of the global economy."

So here’s why I’m confused about Aly means. In his recent opinion piece he says Labor is in crisis. If the crisis is about its ability to win the next federal election then it’s not about ideologically starved voters defecting to the Greens, it’s about less engaged voters shifting their support to the Coalition. And in an electorate where fewer and fewer voters see themselves as working class, it’s not obvious that more an ideological attack on free market liberalism is the way to win back the swingers.

But Aly’s crisis could also be about something more significant. In his Quarterly Essay he argued that ideas "are the engine of political history". So Aly could be saying that if there is no ideological rival to neo-liberalism, then regardless of who wins the next several elections, our future looks bleak.

The trouble is, if the problem is about a lack of a distinctive ideology then his complaint applies to Hawke and Keating as much as it does to Gillard. But in his opinion piece he credits both the Hawke and Keating governments with having coherent and compelling stories and contrasts them with the current government which doesn’t.

So which crisis does Aly mean?

Some related stuff on the web …

Political narrative: Michael Duffy interviews Michael Cooney about narrative in politics. Counterpoint, ABC RN.

To please or to do: "A government’s narrative, or the big-picture story senior ministers and prime ministers tell about the state of the nation and the strategy of the government, is important", says Don Russell. The Australian.

Finding a place in the narrative: "And in all this they lost the one thing that all political strategists believe to be essential for success – a narrative. Too bad, one presumes they said; we’ll start one of our own. Nothing happened on that front for ten years or more, unless we count losing to Howard as a narrative." Don Watson, Griffith Review.

Labor adrift without intellectual firepower: "It is telling that many Labor politicians seem to believe that vision merely means having a plan for economic growth. There are constant appeals to the legacy of ”Hawke-Keating reforms”, as though saying the phrase is enough to count as a program. Reform has become an end in itself, and separated from ideological identity. Only rarely does someone pause to ask: reform for what purpose? And for whom?" Tim Soutphommasane, The Age.

The narrative of perfidy – and how it went missing: "In politics you need a narrative about what you stand for, but you also need one – an ugly one – about the perfidy of your political opponents." Nicholas Gruen, Club Troppo.

Forget political narratives, here’s a media narrative: "Kevin Rudd’s address to the National Press Club yesterday (you can read it here) was notable as much for what he didn’t say as for what he did. I’d be very surprised indeed if the expectation that he would spell out a ‘narrative’ wasn’t created by Labor types themselves." Kim, Larvatus Prodeo.

McKew’s book has lessons for Labor: "As she tells it, despite the huge success of Labor’s response to the global financial crisis, Rudd’s narrative ability collapsed. He failed to turn a stunning moral and policy success into ‘a big story about pride in Australian achievement’. At the decisive moment, Rudd failed to connect, bombarding the electorate instead with inane and pessimistic slogans and endless tutorials ‘complete with sideshow presentations of complicated trend graphs’." Dennis Glover, The Australian.

48 thoughts on “What does Waleed Aly mean when he says Labor has lost the plot?

  1. ” So Aly could be saying that if there is ideological rival to neo-liberalism, then regardless of who wins the next several elections, our future looks bleak. ”

    Do you mean

    ” So Aly could be saying that if there is NO ideological rival to neo-liberalism, then regardless of who wins the next several elections, our future looks bleak. ”

    Good piece, btw.

  2. In my experience, any time a commentator mentions a major party has “lost the narrative”, it can be interpreted to mean a major party “is doing poorly in the polls”.

    Of course, the party with perhaps the most defined narrative and/or ideology are the Greens. They’re not doing so well.

  3. I think you are right that Aly is more concerned about ideology. I think that what he really means that Labor is not appealing to him.

    Since he’s still voting for them, I think that means Labor are getting one thing right.

    I’m pretty sure that as a massive Labor fan his non-discussion of ethos was deliberate.

  4. One might also ask what the Libs. stand for. The ideological differences between the Nats. and the Neocons in the Libs is surely just as great as that between the Greens and Labor. But is does not command the attention of the MSM which has its agenda set by News Ltd. and the business lobbies who seem to have an ingrained aversion to anything vaguely progressive. And the ABC trundles along behind it seems to me aping them. So Waleed the challenge is a forensic investigation of what Tony’s team stands for !! But I won’t hold my breath !!

  5. My problem with Aly’s column is that you could have written the same thing 30 years ago. Labor embraced neoliberalism under Keating and Hawke and really hasn’t looked back. Every now and then they make token nods to their blue collar past by appearing at AWU conferences. But their raison d’etre is gone, redundant, superfluous. Well. Actually, you could build a party that represents working class union members, but their constituency is pretty small. They’ve survived in recent years by making a pact between social conservatism and economic liberalism, as Howard did. But the inherent conflicts don’t appear to have dawned on them yet.

    Meanwhile those of us who are economically and socially liberal remain politically homeless.

    • You could have gone even further back in time and written the same thing in 1967 when Gough Whitlam took over the Labor Party. Once Gough was there, it was clear Labor was not going to overthrow traditional capitalism, just reform it. Heck, you could go back to Chifley, Scullin and beyond: small-l liberals all, in their ways.

      I like Aly’s writing but he brings an odd lack of historical perspective to the “standing-for-something” problem.

      The more straightforward analysis is that parties are an efficient (relative to the known alternatives) way of keeping government in line with the broad political and policy consensus. In this view, Labor is the electorate’s instrument for saying “a little more to the left, thanks”, and simply has to “stand for” a slightly more left-wing approach to issues. Boring, but plausible.

      • The odd lack of historical perspective is provably at the heart of all of this … so many have no idea that Deakin was a liberal not a socialist.

  6. Don,

    This is all very well, but what’s your narrative? And who is going to win the election? Really I’m not against artsy fartsy kinds of topics, but we really need to ground this in something real. Please get back to us when you are clearer about your own narrative. We also have a position going here at Troppo for a question time reporter. We want to know – we need to know – who won question time. And we need to know it within a very short time of it concluding – though preferably before. We would appreciate commentary on how each side will be trying to present itself to us, and of course the extent to which it has succeeded. Then we can move to a full analysis of doorstops. By September 14th we will be the forum of choice for all discussion on the election. We will be positioned as such. The foremost site which gets to the very bottom of such questions. Positioned. We’ll drill down. We’ll get granular. Really granular. Grain by grain. For the next election we should not shy away from going sub-granular – yes, we can position ourselves to become the first blog site – or site anywhere to be positioned to really give politics the sub-granular once over. Sub-grain by sub-grain. It can be done. (If we position ourselves correctly). This is the Troppo narrative in any event. (The one we’re positioning ourselves for).

    • Some people have made the mistake of seeing Shunt’s work as a load of rubbish about railway timetables, but clever people like me, who talk loudly in restaurants, see this as a deliberate ambiguity, a plea for understanding in a mechanized world. The points are frozen, the beast is dead. What is the difference? What indeed is the point? The point is frozen, the beast is late out of Paddington. The point is taken. If La Fontaine’s elk would spurn Tom Jones the engine must be our head, the dining car our oesophagus, the guard’s van our left lung, the cattle truck our shins, the first-class compartment the piece of skin at the nape of the neck and the level crossing an electric elk called Simon. The clarity is devastating. But where is the ambiguity? It’s over there in a box. Shunt is saying the 8.15 from Gillingham when in reality he means the 8.13 from Gillingham. The train is the same only the time is altered. Ecce homo, ergo elk. La Fontaine knew his sister and knew her bloody well. The point is taken, the beast is moulting, the fluff gets up your nose. The illusion is complete; it is reality, the reality is illusion and the ambiguity is the only truth. But is the truth, as Hitchcock observes, in the box? No there isn’t room, the ambiguity has put on weight. The point is taken, the elk is dead, the beast stops at Swindon, Chabrol stops at nothing, I’m having treatment and La Fontaine can get knotted.

    • Who “won” question time.
      That’s a subtle slightly hair raising proposition cocooned in unobtrusive language. It follows the tone of the SMH article, who’s motif could be, “the wheels grind exceeding slow”.
      If it’s only about “winning”, it seems dislocated from reality and very USA, which makes me fear for the future with our political animal politicians, given what their internal priorities might be.
      How DO we translate the normative into the norm?
      At this distance, we are detached and share goodwill and a general consensus that it would be good to eliminate poverty, optimise production and so forth, but by the time it reaches Question Time it’s all descended into filibustering and house rules techne.
      In the end none of wants to risk anything (a crude analogy might be asylum seekers), to get caught out on competitive advantage.
      I got the feeling Nick’s SMH piece was in the end neither determinist or free will, the system is there and you have to keep your eyes open and watch as things unfold, if only for self preservation but maybe also for the hope of some thing better, another time another place, as to the world in its current state.
      We are fortunate compared to most of the world and who said life owed us- any of us- a living anyway?

  7. The sort of thread starter that has me coming back to CT.
    You could add incidentals such as Waleed Ali’s likely sense of offence at Labor’s treatment of refugees, not what you like to see from the supposed party of the underdog.
    You could mention the massive propaganda offensive since the calling of the election. All a writer has to do is write something vaguely anti Labor and the cheque will arrive double- quick.
    Also, the move to the right by Labor during de-industrialisation.
    The public wanted to see the Rudd 2007 platform instituted, but the now dominant right faction put the more cautious Gillard in, completing a disillusioning process that has the likes of Waleed Ali, who would have had much hope for an ALP government back in 2007 happily taking the fee from Fairfax.
    The test with Labor was going to be if they could break the strangle hold of the right faction that did such damage in NSW and QLD. But the right faction will happily take both Labor and the public down with them rather than yield to the need for a democratic, progressive ALP.
    And this will happen, should Abbott get in, given the stupidity of Australians anyway.

  8. Right or wrong, NSW labor has become the image of Labor for many: no principles, leaders who are hired front men/women that can be changed at the drop of a poll, controlled by small rump of mysterious types whilst the back room boys take everything they can grab out the back door.

    A most basic requirement of a compelling ‘narrative’ is a functioning coherent syntax that starts somewhere and ends somewhere else , this is something that seems to be beyond federal Labor. The only thing that the seem really good at is constructing is self-reflexive paradoxes .

  9. Didn’t keating sum up the respective narratives about 20 years ago? I think that still stands and you can even hear them say it from time to time. The problem is the attempted trimming (not that I’m against pragmatism, but these guys are crap at it) and the exageration.

    What could be more peurile than the daily recitation of the talking points? I can’t believe anyone thinks that effective communications. Even the true believer must feel sick in the guts when the news report shows the parrot brigade at work.

    So my theory is that their problem is not the lack of a narrative, it’s just they they’re crap at politics.

      • Politicians don’t dream for us any more so we rely on economists to try and define what is a probable outcome and how technically policy will attempt to achieve this outcome.
        Witness the constant reference to economists as the ‘wise’ people in society.All the while they are then confusing us by endlessly being at odds with each other or decrying their ability to actually be successful at predictions.
        The labour movement’s political parties became an anachronism in the 80s. Hawke and Keating in one sense had no choice but the deal they made has been successful and enduringly so.
        The communication revolution since the popularisation of the internet has continued the job globalisation started. I can’t see how a labour movement based party could be significant with the social emergence of our
        ability to access so many experiences which in earlier times were exclusive.
        The players in charge of both parties learnt their politics in the 70s and have been having trouble being relevant ever since.The NSW disease is really just what happens when there is only self interest ruling decisions.

  10. The NBN implementation is getting a bit of air at the moment.

    The author of this long piece is pro NBN in principle and he seems to know his subject.
    He believes the NBN to be
    in practice a “national disaster”, call in “general Cosgrove”.

      • The NBN in a letter to the ACCC feb this year stated “If the base case assumptions [a set of assumptions based on a low customer take-up rate and low ongoing customer base] in the 2012-15 Corporate Plan are modelled, the ICRA [initial cost recovery account] would not be extinguished by 2039-40.”
        The head of NBN Mike Quigley the other day stated that he supports an industry study to determine the best way to build the NBN , NBN started years ago… plan? … targets….?

        • and quigley is perfectly right, the rollout isn’t so far advanced that there couldn’t be a change in the technology used. I disagree with the need for a study since FTTP seems to be by far the best approach but involving the retail ISPs in a broad discussion of the issue isn’t a bad idea. For one thing it would finally drag out into the open a realistic discussion of our rapidly decaying copper network and its growing limitations.

        • Tyler, did you read the article you linked?

          ““If no demand response is factored into the maximum price scenario,” NBN Co wrote, “then a very different outcome emerges; that is, assuming that quantities demanded are the same as in the Corporate Plan, forecast revenue is much higher and this leads to the ICRA being extinguished some years before end of [NBN Co's Special Access Undertaking or SAU] in 2039-40.”

          “Under a scenario in which prices are held flat in nominal terms (and again assuming that quantities are the same as in the Corporate Plan; that is, there is no adverse demand response from higher prices than those projected in the Corporate Plan), the ICRA is also forecast to be extinguished before 2039-40,” NBN Co added.”

          The first quoted scenario is a joke and the second is vague, so is it really so bad to have left out the fluff and gone to the meat?

        • Pedro
          This stuff sounds like it was written by the author of a prospectus for a toll way tunnel, no?

        • Yes, it’s at the toll prospectus level. Reading tyler’s linked article and the comments on it was interesting. There seems a broad lack of understanding of important issues, like whether or not the NBN should be on or off budget. But best of all is still the scenario in which price rises don’t affect demand. NG could have put that one in his column for today.

        • yes it also sounds like the funded arts sector, all supply and no idea about demand at all.

        • Given the forced migration onto the fibre network and the higher than expected take-up of premium plans i don’t think either of those scenarios are particularly unreasonable.

          It’s not basic strategy the NBN rollout plan and process is in place and underway. It’s still a 8-9 year project and there would obviously be some capacity for further discussion/refinements as the rollout progresses.

  11. I was baffled by the praise for the Waleed article, sure it was well written as are most of his articles but there wasn’t anything new there. It’s the same regurgitated ‘labor has lost its way’ News Ltd nonsense that people have been peddling for a decade or two.

    Leaving the lack of original analysis aside i think perhaps the most profoud failing with this article and others like it is the wilful blindless to the bizarre series of contradictions and outright lies that form the liberal party narrative. Neither party has an accurate/effective ‘narrative’, indeed i’d argue the infantile, biased media coverage of politics in this nation prevents them from doing so. The liberal party have only avoided the same sort of inane media speculation because they’re polling well. I’d challenge anyone to make sense out of a program that simultaneously promises to raise taxes/charges on the poor, cut taxes, cut spending, engage in large-scale infrastructure spending in northern australia, spend billions on ill-defined soil sequestration and lower the cost of living. All while ensuring that working/living conditions are maintained yet productivity and workplace flexibility are improved without amending the IR legislation. etc etc etc

    When the media refuses to engage critically with reality and instead pushes a steady stream of nonsense or commercially conflicted propoganda politics can be nothing more than conflicting sound bites attempting to find some narrow purchase in whichever distortion the media decides to run with on any given day.

  12. When I first read Alys piece , I wondered, what does he mean by ‘narrative ‘? I still don’t really know.

    The hint of nostalgia for ideology is spooky ….ideology killed 10s of millions, was/is a field day for the self serving and the mad and bad. The opposite to ideology is not cynical/mindless emptiness.

  13. Pedro is correct.

    They are crap at politics. Swan is typical of this as Mumble always writes about. HE is one of the best treasurers in policy terms but he could sell a beer in a heatwave!

    The ALP are like Catallaxy. Evidence doesn’t matter. They still take advice from people who are incompetent and whose record is appalling.
    It is okay for a group like catallaxy as they are simply a cult. They live in another world.

    The ALP do not. At this stage they do not appear to understand this.
    It is like they all have aspergers.

    • Still putting Swan in the pantheon Homer? I predict that in the years to come, your meetings of the Wayne Swan Appreciation Society are going to be pretty lonely. I’m looking forward to the post-slaughter retrospective on the ABC. My guess is that Swan will get by far the biggest bagging of all, and not just because he is a hopeless political strategist.

  14. As far as fixing the decline who knows. Gillard is so hamstrung by her feigned conservatism on social issues that she never had the chance to break out and define herself outside of implementing Rudd’s broad agenda. We saw a hint of this with the misogyny speech, perhaps the only moment of genuine expression that managed to break through the media narrative of incompetence/decline/crap.

    Perhaps a firmer drive to fund/implement the Gonski reforms in the last budget could’ve done it but she needs but they seem to have let that get bogged down in politically motivated obstructionism by the states.

    One lesson emerges for the future at least, technocratic competence from a nominally left-wing party is no longer enough to assuage the neo-liberal business/media class.

      • I think it’s worst than that. A report about funding strategies has somehow turned into the apparent answer to the declining standards. But what if the real problem is not money? Tyler wouldn’t have read the excellent article by Ben Jensen on Saturday given it was in the hateful Oz, but that article and the Gratten report are sobering reading.

        • It’s a complex issue but the basic problem of middle class flight from the public sector has to be solved and part of the process is improving their funding.

          There is significant debate as to whether the amount of money is an issue, there was an article in The Conversation today dealing with this issue suggesting that a funding boost would be important, particularly at a primary level and that new research had shown substantial benefits flowing from that sort of funding.

          You’re right that people can get too wound up in Gonski but given how rapidly our (non-selective) public schools are being reduced to the level of educational ghettos this sort of emotive response is understandable.

        • I’m only an anecdote, but I can tell you my problems with my kids primary SS are not funding based. It’s the management and the problems with teacher quality and teaching approach.

  15. I was shifted from a public primary school in a nice area of adelaide to one of the expensive independent schools a bit over a decade ago and there were (obviously) significant differences in terms of facilities etc but i personally didn’t see a huge difference in teacher quality. There were certainly bad teachers at both but they were the minority. Obviously i can’t relate an experience with my own children yet.

    There’s probably a lot that can be learned from the asian/finnish systems with their strong focus on teacher training/peer review/support etc. I believe both sides of politics here have made noises in that direction but who knows how much concrete action has been taken

  16. Actually, notrampis, if the ALP all had Aspbergers they might be in a better position than they are now. I have a teenage son with that condition and he is better than anyone I know at cutting through bullshit and exposing the real problem. He is pays no attention to quaint rituals and calls out injustice when he sees it. If he was running the ALP, the NSW Right would have been buried in a deep grave years ago.

  17. the NBN roll out map does not make sense , in my area at least.
    Re my town Braidwood population about 1600 ” Fibre Construction to commence within three years – we will commence construction in your area from Mar 2015*.

    On the other hand re Bungendore – much bigger much closer to Canberra and the joint defense headquarters- the map says ” The NBN is coming to your place; however construction hasn’t commenced in your area as yet.” It also goes on to say ” By the end of the year we will have commenced construction of the NBN on over 750,000 premises…..”

    And then re Tarago – a very small place mostly known as the site of Sydney rubbish tip- the map states ” New Development Fibre Service available – There are now NBN services available in your postcode.”

    PS “New Development Fibre Service ” and ” NBN services available in your postcode” sounds a little… slippery?

    • A little playing with the NBN roll out map for Tarago gives some odd results for example whilst “New Development Fibre Service available – There are now NBN services available in your postcode” is the result for Tarago as a locality, the result for Lot 7 Wallace Street
      Tarago NSW 2580 (next to the Pub) is
      “Not currently available
      The NBN is coming to your place; however construction hasn’t commenced in your area as yet.”

      • Sorry to go on :-)… but the NBN map is fascinating, whilst Tarago is about 50 country road ks from Goulburn it has the same postcode- in Goulburn there is a middling size new housing estate that is being fibered , hence the ‘NBN services available [somewhere] in your postcode.

        On the other hand at 2 Prell Street Goulburn ,directly opposite Goulburn base hospital. NBN is “Not currently available The NBN is coming to your place; however construction hasn’t commenced in your area as yet.”

        • yeah i can imagine the rural rollout is a bit confusing. The map for Adelaide is fairly straight-forward at least, the suburb my parents are in is within three years but the CBD and several northern/southern suburbs are either complete or commencing within the year.

          Hopefully i can find a fibre suburb when i eventually move to melbourne (assuming the liberals butcher the whole project)

        • Actually it is the same in inner Sydney, for example in mascot the only area actually connected is a quite small block – Coward Street Residential and in Waterloo/Green square NBN is :

          “Not currently available
          The NBN is coming to your place; however construction hasn’t commenced in your area as yet.”

          I am not surprised that NBN for remote and thinly populated areas was a bit of election puff , but failure to delver to a big area of commercial and residential growth 5ks from martin place is gob smacking.

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