Requiem for a dream: Labor’s self-destruction

Labor’s attacks on The Greens shows they can’t comprehend their own crisis or take the fight up to Abbott, argues Paddy Gibson

The orchestrated attack on The Greens by the NSW Labor Right represents the death throes of a desperate party, incapable of escaping from the crisis it has created for itself and incapable of understanding the reasons for its calamity.

The Gillard government has done virtually nothing to reverse the savage attacks of the Howard era, a bitter disappointment for the union and activist base of the party. And Labor’s attempt to out-flank the Liberals from the right on refugees has conceded massive ideological ground to Abbott.

The attacks are completely contrary to the views of Labor voters. Recent AC Neilson polling shows that two-thirds of Labor supporters believe the Greens should get Labor preferences, and that their relationship is “about right, or not close enough”. In contrast, only 23 per cent agree that The Greens should be put last.

Both the strategy and assumptions underlying the attack on The Greens are clearly illustrated in two major feature articles in the latest addition of Voice, the official journal of the NSW Labor Right faction. The publication was timed for release on the opening day of the NSW Labor conference. It attempts to set out a theoretical justification for the full frontal assault on the Greens, arguing that the only way to improve its polling is for Labor to move even further to the right.

Both The End of the Party? by Tim Watts and The Decline of Social Democracy by Daniel Mookhey attempt to situate Labor’s current slump in an historical context, drawing lessons from the failures and alleged successes of the past to chart the rightward forward march. But just as Labor detaches itself even further from its base, so too these articles are detached from historical realities. All sorts of factors are blamed for Labor’s woes both now and in times gone by—from “ideologically-driven” left wing forces that “split the progressive movement”, through to a failure to effectively “sell” their policies with suitably inspiring rhetoric.

Labor's attack on The Greens shows they are incapable of understanding their own crisis or doing anything to win back their supporters

Neither essay will face the fact that, throughout history, the fundamental reason Labor loses the support of it’s working class base is that its determination to run the system means it ends up attacking its own supporters.

The end?

Tim Watts’ essay makes an explicit case for breaking the parliamentary alliance with The Greens that Gillard has relied on to maintain government. He rejects assertions that disastrous opinion polls facing Gillard pose an “existential crisis” for Labor. Watts reminds the Labor faithful that there have been parallels in history when the support has been equally low, and Labor has recovered.

In particular, Watts draws a strong parallel with the catastrophic collapse of support for the Scullin Labor government at the time of the Great Depression. The 1931 federal election saw Labor turfed from power with an unprecedented 22 per cent swing against Scullin. The federal party’s support fell even further, to a now familiar 26 per cent, in the 1934 election.

According to Watts, these extraordinary swings had nothing whatsoever to do with bitter disappointment in the performance of the Scullin government. In fact, Scullin’s policies going into the 1931 election don’t even warrant a mention.

It is important to set the record straight. In his efforts to manage Australian capitalism in a time of economic meltdown, Scullin savaged his working class support base, forcing them to pay for the crisis. He coordinated the infamous Premiers Plan, which cut public spending by 20 per cent. He stood by while employers slashed wages, sacked thousands of workers and landlords evicted them from their homes. Striking mining workers in New South Wales had gone hungry to help raise money for Scullin’s election campaign. But, despite calls from his own Labor MPs for nationalisation of the mines in the face of employer intransigence, Sullin did nothing. A striking miner was killed on the picket line at Rothbury. And the workers were forced back to work with reduced wages.

While contemporary Labor-led attacks on workers are nowhere near as stark, there are important parallels which can be drawn and lessons learned (more on this below). But Watts argues, in entirely similar terms to the current attack on The Greens, that Scullin’s massive electoral defeat was thanks to an “opportunistic Left wing challenger” with an “extreme policy agenda”. Watts is referring to the NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang and his supporters, who were expelled from the federal party following a sharp dispute with Scullin over the Premier’s Plan: “On one side is an insurgent minority group supported by 10-15 per cent of voters and advocating an extreme policy agenda to which the majority of the electorate is hostile. On the other side is the bulk of the progressive movement, weakened by internal conflict and external vicissitudes, fighting a war on two fronts and losing the vital middle ground necessary to form government.”

Comparisons between Lang Labor and the Greens are simply absurd. Lang came from the right-wing of the Labor party and had a mass support in the trade union movement. He was the elected premier of NSW. Lang’s refusal to implement Scullin’s Premiers Plan was enormously popular. In 1932, when the NSW governor sacked the Lang government, 400,000 people rallied in Sydney in his defence out of a population of one million at the time.

Watt’s ridiculous thesis cannot explain why Lang Labor remained popular while federal Labor was thrown out of office. Nor can the Watts argument explain the massive votes against Labor in the recent state elections in New South Wales or Queensland.

The death of social democracy

Daniel Mookhey’s essay, The death of social democracy? shows a similar disregard for historical fact. The essay argues that the period from the election of Gough Whitlam, until the close of the twentieth century, Labor led a profound period of “social democratic” advance.

The Hawke and Keating government in particular are credited with being global pioneers of a form of social democracy which, while “discarding useless orthodoxies”, carried forward the “historic mission” of Labor to “create an active State—to use its taxation and welfare powers to redistribute wealth, to have it bear responsibility for equal societies, to guarantee individual opportunity”.

In reality, Hawke and Keating initiated a period of “economic rationalist” reform that has made Australia a profoundly more unequal society and greatly undermined the position of Labor’s working-class base. The Accord saw union leaders preside over no strike and no extra claims agreements, which paved the way for gutting of rank-and-file organisation on the job. The introduction of enterprise bargaining in 1991 imposed an industrial relations regime built around productivity gains for the corporate sector, not the cost of living.

Mookhey acknowledges the scourge of mass casualisation of the workforce and the feelings of intense insecurity this engenders, but fails to acknowledge its roots in the labour deregulation process initiated by Labor.

Privatisation and corporatisation of public services, a process begun by Hawke and Keating and continued mercilessly by Howard, has increased the cost paid by working class people for access to education, healthcare, child care and utilities.

Profit share as a percentage of GDP has risen dramatically, from 17 per cent when Hawke took office, to 29 per cent in 2009. The top 1 per cent of Australians now receive 10 per cent of household income, up from 5 per cent in 1980. And the redistribution of wealth has been even more dramatic than income. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that the richest 20 per cent of households now own 62 per cent of household wealth—including 90 per cent of equities—while the poorest hold just 1 per cent.

Keating neatly summarised the impact of his government’s reforms in an address to the Australian Mining Industry Council (AMIC) annual dinner in 1993: “If anyone at an AMIC seminar in the 1970s had said… ‘we will get real wages down and profits up, we will radically change our industrial relations scene, we will remove the double tax on dividends’, I am sure everyone would have fainted at the tables”.

The fate of Labor’s primary vote bears a remarkable resemblance to this decline in equality. Labor has never repeated its high-point of 50 per cent of the primary vote with the election of Hawke in 1983. Since then there has been a general trend downward, save two spikes to 45 per cent and 43 per cent with the elections of Keating in 1993 and Rudd in 2007 respectively. In both of those elections, Labor was able to momentarily recuperate support by positioning itself on the correct side of sharp posed questions of inequality—the GST and WorkChoices respectively.

A right turn

Both essays argue strongly that the key consideration for Labor should be how to win government, how to gain the “power of the state”. Gaining power unashamedly comes before all else, including principles, or the interests of those you purport to represent. And both authors regard winning as a purely electoral question. Labor values are completely subordinated to electoral expediency and whatever it takes to get the votes or curry favour with the rich and powerful.

The assumption of both essays is that the one and only concern is to win government. To dress this up as somehow representing the will of the voting public is sheer fantasy and reveals Labor’s willingness to be the servants of the capitalist class.

It is the capitalist class that control the economic levers of society. And the state is their state, existing to protect their property rights and promote the smooth functioning of their system. Witness the way Alan Joyce was unilaterally able to ground Qantas in late 2011 and pressure the Gillard government to intervene to support a Fair Work order to prevent unions striking and thus shore up Joyce’s advantage. Witness how the mining bosses’ campaign could drive the government into crisis in 2010 to stop a paltry tax. There are even starker examples from history, like the sacking of Gough Whitlam by the unelected Governor General in 1975, or the sacking of  Lang in 1932 by the NSW Governor.

Labor’s commitment to running the system requires a commitment to consistently deliver for the Australian capitalist class. So while Labor in 2007 was elected on the back of a mass campaign against Howard’s WorkChoices legislation, their new Fair Work laws are more pro-employer than the industrial relations regime of the early Howard years. While they have increased spending on education, most of this money has gone to building contractors rather than better wages for teachers and smaller class sizes in public schools.

The interests of the ordinary workers and unionists they are supposed to represent are completely missing from the pages of Voice. Ordinary people are regarded as passive voters, hostile to any ideas of “radical change”.

It is true, a Watts points out, that for every one Labor voter who has gone to the Greens, there are ten who say they will vote Liberal. Bizarrely, Watts seems to think there is something positive in that. That he could argue that is better for ex-Labor supporters to vote Liberal than Green says everything about what’s wrong with Labor’s outlook.

A further lemming-like shift to the right by Labor won’t shift their electoral fortunes. It will only further hasten their demise and further legitimise the destructive, anti-worker agenda of Tony Abbott, all the better to deliver the Liberals an even more crushing victory.

Both of these essays reveal the scale of delusion that now infects the Labor Party. The fact that the Labor Left has positively adopted the same approach is just the most recent indication of their political degeneration.

Build an alternative

Understanding the politics of Labor’s demise is essential if we are to learn the lessons. Some Labor members have already taken the hint from Labor’s most recent lurch to the right and have left to join The Greens.

As Labor progressively vacates the social democratic space it traditionally occupied, there is a huge opportunity for The Greens. They have rightly condemned Labor’s attack on them as an “own goal” and “a gift to Tony Abbott”. Against the abuse heaped on them for refusing to compromise to allow offshore processing of refugees, The Greens have stood their ground. Leader Christine Milne has also rightly responded that a humanitarian asylum seeker policy “won’t cost votes”.

But The Greens remain conflicted about what sort of party they want to be. They are inclined to stress their responsible role in a minority government with Labor, brokering legislation like the carbon tax.

Labor dismisses The Greens for being a ”protest party”. But a genuine protest party is what is really needed. If there is one lesson in Labor’s degeneration it is that electoralism is a dead end.

While representation in parliament can be a platform for campaigns for social change, real change does not come through parliament.

It is the struggles against the Intervention, for refugee and union rights, the fight for same-sex marriage, and in the fight against the cuts being pushed by the Liberal state governments that hold the possibility of building an alternative to Labor that is committed to fighting the system itself.


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