Longtime left commentator Martin Jacques has an interesting article in the Guardian about the politics of New Labour’s Third Way, a phrase we’re unlikely to hear anyone in the ALP utter any time soon in the wake of Latham’s departure into the ether. But the similarities between the possible exhaustion of idealism in the British Labour Party and the confusion about what the ALP stands for are uncannily similar. Perhaps that’s not so surprising, as Tony Blair famously modelled aspects of the New Labour agenda on the Hawke/Keating government and with Lynton Crosby’s involvement the Howardisation (of the John not the Michael variety) of the Tories and indeed Labour proceeds apace in the undeclared British election campaign. Controversies over immigration and refugees sound familiar? Increasingly, there’s a common rhetorical and strategic interchange between parties in English speaking countries – a kind of globalisation of the political class, if you like. This is reflected at sub-national level in Australia where Colin Barnett’s Libs in WA have been rehashing lines from Campbell Newman’s winning campaign for Lord Mayor in Brisbane last year. And how many Premiers have followed Blair in promising to be “tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime”?
UPDATE: University of Adelaide Research Fellow Dr Barbara Pocock supports the idea that Labor can’t continue to rely on a shrinking base of workers in The Australian today.
Jacques examines what will happen to the British Labour Party after the Tories finally return to power (as he points out, the British two-party system has proved highly resilient and in Australia we’ve seen no equivalent challenges from parties such as the SDP/Liberals and later the LDP). He suspects that Blairism will be discredited, but that a deracinated party will not have the will or the strength to revive the social democratic tradition. The reason? New Labour in power have ceded far too much ideological ground to the Tories:
New Labour has renounced the notion of left and right as irrelevant to modern political discourse. Alas, neither the Tories nor Bush seems to share that view. On the contrary, both at home and abroad, the Bush regime has signalled a major shift to the right, and it is difficult to imagine that not influencing the Conservatives here. New Labour’s rejection of the old polarity was enshrined in the idea of the third way. Of course, it did not presage what it claimed at the time, namely a new way of looking at, and acting upon, the world: it was far more prosaic than that. In effect, it was a grand term for ducking any kind of ideological engagement with the right: split the difference or, alternatively, look the other way.
The result has been a government that has failed to define or hold any serious ideological ground.
Precisely right. Jacques has his answer in the (in)direction of Australian Labor over the past eight years – casting around for a narrative and a vision to unify Australia, mired in internal sniping and leadership fights, ideologically bereft, and seemingly bereft of new ideas. Labor has run the past few election campaigns effectively promising a kinder, gentler, Howardism and there’s been very little evidence of any revival in social democratic thinking or the sort of long term work that’s needed to rebuild a constituency of both ideas and supporters.
Interestingly, one area that Jacques doesn’t mention, except to allude to spin, is the capture of the language of politics by the Right, surely one of the most significant developments since Nixon invented the “silent majority” and “peace with honour”. But a book newly published in Australia, Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which I’ve not read yet but which I plan to review in due course, has an introduction by Dr Julia Baird (as Troppo readers will know, for my money, the best political columnist in Australia) which touches on very similar themes to Jacques’ discussion of New Labour in respect of the ALP. Here’s Baird on the ALP:
It needs to engage more fiercely in the gladiatorial pit of ideas, instead of jogging around the mortgage belts choking on the dust of the Liberal candidates running miles ahead.
Referring to the post-mortems on the ALP defeat from people like Bill Shorten, Baird takes aim at the dessicated marketing/pop culture language and concepts employed:
The labels are sloppy and patronising – ‘Kath and Kim’ and ‘Mallers’ as Key Constituents? Even allowing people who are strong on social values and cultural identity to be called elites… is sloppy: the ‘cappuccino set’; ‘chardonnay socialists’; ‘chattering classes’; ‘latte drinkers’. Think of some of the other labels that have been attached to the ALP support base: ‘Howard haters’ for those who opposed mandatory detention and were suspicious of our reasons for going to war; ‘anti-American’ for those who marched against the Iraq War. It’s a language created by the right, and now frequently circulated by the left as they hasten to endear themselves to middle Australia by dissociating themselves from the unfashionably socially concerned. They have lost both the moral and material high ground, and are hastening to assure voters that they understand suburban dreams, ‘McMansions’, and the desire to be, as Kim might say, ‘effluent’.
This is perhaps one of the most curious intellectual developments over the past two decades, as we have watched the left concede large areas of thought to the conservatives. In effect, the right has managed to reclaim both God and mammon: claiming both religious superiority, as the purveyors of morality; and the status of good economic managers, as the high priests of prosperity. How did this happen? Did anyone notice?
Baird also writes, as if to echo Jacques:
…it should be noted that it is usually only people from the left who say there is no left and right anymore, that there is just clustering around issues such as environmentalism and globalisation. I’ve never heard someone from the right, who identifies as a conservative, say that.
I think both Jacques and Baird have identified a key problem for social democratic parties – the ceding of ideological and moral ground whether in or out of government (and doing it in government seems likely to lead to a long spell in opposition). I’d also endorse the contention that the Third Way is a dead end in the long run, and can’t agree more with these thoughts by Dr Baird:
…the left needs to learn to talk values and think strategically… They should speak the language of values ‘not policy wonks’, refuse to be defensive, learn how to unite, and co-operate. It may sound a bit like Sesame Street to the cynical Australian – but it’s true not just of various parts of the left-leaning community, but the Labor Party caucus as well.
The fact that the left is still debating ‘elites’ versus ‘blue singlets’ is depressing, and tiring. It is the language of exclusion. Why not talk of something which inspires or interests all groups – lazily defined as they are? When did the defining element of leadership become ‘what the electorate wants’? Where is the vision? What do we dream of?
The Labor Party should be funding think tanks and research institutes, and engaging more vigorously with ideas. It should foster links with business by creating fellowships at universities and hosting forums of young thinkers. Perhaps then we will see a new language emerge.
…the Australian left needs to work out who they are and what they stand for in order to reframe debate in this country. They should stop buying cliches and language that excludes those within their own ranks… Of course, their policies need to be electorally sustainable, but they also need to show courage to gain respect. Maybe some passion and liberty, too. Because it is true – ideas do come first.
I totally agree, and this sort of thing fleshes out nicely what I’ve been arguing here at Troppo that the ALP needs to do for quite some time. I’ll have more to say about language, ideas and progressive politics in due course.