Here’s Dennis Glover’s go at articulating his dismay at the kinds of things I expressed dismay about here. I’ve always been amazed at the extent of antagonism that Labor holds towards the Greens. It seems so obvious that the right relationship between them is as occasionally uncomfortable fellow travellers. It’s a monument to the small-mindedness of all players that they can’t manage this except in extremis. And a stark contrast with the right which has precisely the uncomfortable relationship with those of broadly like mind, which has managed a coalition for decades.
In addition to the childishness of the ALP’s discomfort with its Green fellow travellers which reminds one of nothing more than student politics, comes its spin-doctor driven approach to eating its own ideology and intellectual framework. To speak very broadly the left’s role in the political and ideological eco-system is to speak on behalf of collective values and of the value of collective institutions (which is not necessarily government) against the right’s championing of self-interest (along with a kind of insistence that collective institutions other than government – like the family, and the institutions of civil society – have a kind of unproblematic organic existence). Of course a healthy society, any healthy human institution, comprehends a balance of these perspectives. Of course neither side is ‘right’.
If it had any conception of its own role in this scheme of things, it might at least have considered whether to build the NBN as a public good (in which case it would proudly subsidise the establishment of the national network with economics textbooks to back up its decision) rather than a private good. It might have named MySchools and MyHospitals websites OurSchools and OurHospitals. It might have jumped on the HALE index which reveals that its efforts in education are not just good for equity but, at least according to our methodology which wasn’t developed to put it in a good light, worth a couple of decades of micro-economic reform. And so on.
The irony in all this is that ultimately this doesn’t just lead to badly designed right of centre policy, it has been an integral part of Labor’s disastrous inability to politically connect with anyone much – including laughably enough the traditional working class base of the party.
Anyway, enjoy Dennis’s piece:
Two stories in 10 days caused me to double-take. The first was the Prime Minister’s widely reported speech to the Australian Workers’ Union national conference in which she rhetorically riffed off the fact that the party she leads isn’t called the social democratic party or the progressive party or the moderate party, but the Labor Party. The second was the less-reported but just as dispiriting revelation that after Greens leader Christine Milne officially broke the alliance with Labor, high-fives were shared in the PM’s office.
In a literal sense of course the PM’s speech was right – her party is called the Australian Labor Party, and it can be social democratic and progressive without changing its name. And it was the Greens who formally broke the alliance. But why does this still sadden me?
It’s because of the implicit message. Perhaps her speechwriters just got carried away with their schemes and tropes, constructing a rousing concluding sound bite for the brothers, and perhaps one of the office grey-beards told the high-fiving woodchucks to chill; but there seems to be a lack of deep thought over the wider implication: for now at least the big left project seems over.
Think about it. Today unionism covers about 18 per cent of the workforce, while 37 per cent of Australians have university degrees. The global financial crisis makes social-democratic state intervention in the economy more needed than ever. Global warming is the emerging issue of the new progressive generation. And yet Labor’s leader picks now to narrow the party’s potential appeal.
Taken alone, neither organised labour nor believers in the social-democratic state nor educated progressives can deliver the left the majority it needs to influence the direction of the country.
But together they can. Three out of three of these constituencies means potential government. Two out of three means certain opposition. One out of three means existential crisis.
This narrowing of appeal makes no sense, especially when you consider what the government is actually doing.
What could symbolise the social-democratic project with greater moral clarity than the recommendations of the Gonski review of school funding? What could symbolise the progressive project better than a carbon price?
So why use this as the moment to kick out the intellectual underpinnings of the wider cause? Why choose now to advertise your contempt for the progressive voters who supply half your daily political oxygen? Why make a speech that makes you sound like a Reagan Democrat?
I guess we know why: the need to simultaneously please the Green-hating leaders of the AWU and the (supposedly) elite-hating voters of western Sydney. The question is, how long can rusted-on Labor supporters be expected to be forgiving of this sort of tactical electoral manoeuvring before they start questioning whether Labor actually remains at its heart a social-democratic and progressive party?
A few days ago, a lifelong Labor member told me his partner had had enough and had decided to vote Green. I’m even having trouble keeping my own partner in line, and her grandparents met at a Labor Party election rally during the Great Depression, her family staunchly Labor ever since.
How many such people can Labor’s tacticians afford to alienate before their movement simply dies?
This can’t go on. Instead of casting doubt on its own philosophies and setting its traditions against each other, Labor heavyweights should be making speeches drawing those philosophies and traditions together and defending them.
It’s not that difficult. The choice isn’t between the unions, social democracy and progressivism. All three are part of Labor’s history and soul, and Labor has to find a way of uniting them in an appealing program for office if it is to succeed again. It’s the necessary formula for political success on the left, proven time and again by names such as Hawke, Clinton, Blair, Obama, Rudd and Julia Gillard herself.
This isn’t just a task for Labor. It requires give and take from all sides. Aggressive unionists must realise that pressuring vulnerable Labor leaders to cut ties with middle-class moderates, progressives and environmentalists is selfish and stupid. Progressives and Greens must occasionally cut Labor some slack over electorally diabolical issues.
There are times when unions, social democrats and progressives will necessarily be in competition, but fights can be quarantined and accommodations made. Hang together comrades, or hang separately.