Mistake to treat Labor and Liberal the same

JULIA GILLARD’s disastrous election campaign showed that Labor’s lurch to the right is continuing. But it is a mistake to condemn both Labor and Liberal as just as bad as each other, as many on the left did during the election campaign.

The Greens and the left need to come out clearly to say we support a Labor government over a Tony Abbott government.

This is not because we should expect Labor’s policies to be any better—or because it is some kind of “lesser evil”. It is about relating to the mass of working class people who continue to support the party—and understanding the impact a Liberal victory will have on workers’ confidence to struggle.

Those who have already broken with Labor to support The Greens or who are active in campaigns like those to stop the Intervention and for refugee rights rightly feel betrayed by Labor’s performance in government. There is a temptation to brand both Labor and Liberal as just as bad as each other. The Greens often denounce both “the big parties” equally.

But the Labor and Liberal parties are not the same.

The Liberals are the open party of big business. Many Liberal MPs come direct from careers in the corporate world. Joe Hockey worked in banking and finance law; Malcolm Turnbull is a millionaire investment banker. A study of 384 MPs at state and federal level in 1998-99 found that of 75 who identified their previous occupation as “businessperson”, 60 were members of the Liberal-National Coalition and only six of the Labor Party.

Liberal Party members are unashamedly right-wing—and often racists. Anti-Muslim comments led to the dumping of Liberal candidate David Barker in the seat of Chifley this election, and last election in the seat of Lindsay the Liberals were caught distributing fake anti-Muslim leaflets

Labor membership

Labor’s rank-and-file members and supporters are different. Most of them back the party because they see Labor as a vehicle for progressive change or because they fear the alternative of a Liberal government.

Tony Abbott represents a return to Howard’s ultra-conservative politics over workers’ rights, sexism and racism. The hatred of such openly right-wing policies is a sentiment the left should try to connect with, not simply dismiss.

Labor’s members and supporters are people the left has to try to win over. They can be drawn into joint campaigns alongside the left, as the experience of Labor for Refugees and recent campaigns against privatisation in NSW and Queensland demonstrate. Labor for Refugees carried motions to change Labor’s refugee policy at every state Labor conference and have been part of many pro-refugee demonstrations.

Every Labor branch except one in NSW carried motions against power privatisation and the Labor Premier was defeated on the issue on the floor of the NSW Labor conference.

The strong union support for the Labor Party is another factor that makes the party very different to the Liberals. Unions still control 50 per cent of the votes at party conferences. Unionists who are Labor Party members have spoken at and provided crucial support to scores of left demonstrations and events. Many rank-and-file members are unionists.

Labor’s membership and support base is in long-term decline. Party membership was around 45,000 members when the party split in 1955, and had declined to 40,000 in 2006, despite the population more than doubling. Labor’s “rusted on” vote has declined too. According to the ANU’s Australian Election Study only 20 per cent of voters described themselves as lifelong Labor voters in 2007, versus 32 per cent in 1969 and 38 per cent in 1987.

But Labor’s core support continues to be drawn from the working class, and the more unionised and “class conscious” sections of it in particular. The proportion of union members who vote Labor remained at 64 per cent between 1987 and 2004, despite Labor losing office and a further 8 per cent of union members voting Green (and likely giving Labor their second preference). Conversely, a study of 2007 voting data showed that the higher the percentage of managers in an electorate, the lower the Labor vote. The natural home of managers and the rich is the Liberal Party.

A victory for the Liberals also sends a message to activists in the unions and political workers that most people in society are right-wing and racist. This sets back their confidence about the possibilities of changing the world through mass struggle.

It is impossible to build political campaigns or a left with any social weight without relating to the people who continue to support the Labor party.

That’s why the left needs to make it clear we are against a Liberal victory, as the precondition for trying to win Labor supporters into campaigning alongside the left, or ultimately to socialist politics.

By James Supple


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