Little at stake in Labor leadership battle

The Labor leadership contest between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese has been put forward as a major step to rejuvenate Labor, by giving members a say in the party. But it will be meaningless without a fight to change Labor’s right-wing policies and political outlook.

For the first time in a number of years, a representative of the Left faction, Albanese, is standing for the leadership. Shorten has been anointed as the candidate of the Right.

Once upon a time, this would have meant a fight between left and right policy platforms. Now, far from any contest over politics, overwhelmingly the leadership race has been fought over personalities.
Both candidates have voiced regret over Labor’s cuts to single parents’ payments. This is the only significant policy shift so far. Neither would argue for a binding vote for Labor MPs on same-sex marriage, even after right-wing union leader Paul Howes publicly called for it.

The Left could be arguing to tax big business through increasing the mining tax, reversing the cuts to universities, increasing the level of NewStart payments, restoring union rights, ditching the “PNG solution” and ending offshore processing of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. Yet Albanese, as well as Shorten, restated their commitment to offshore processing and mandatory detention in response to a Labor for Refugees survey.

Getting to grips

Any chance of reconnecting Labor with its working class base requires getting to grips with the failure of the last six years of Labor government. Labor’s record low primary vote at the election, the lowest since the Second World War, cannot simply be blamed on in-fighting over the leadership between Gillard and Rudd.

There is a strong desire for the kind of social democratic policies that Labor once advocated. Essential polling shows over 60 per cent think big business, mining companies and the rich should pay more tax.

There is also strong support for more spending on services like health and eduction. But Labor squandered this mood for change by continuing the neo-liberal policies begun under the Hawke and Keating governments, through cutbacks in search of a budget surplus and the cave-in to business over the mining tax.

Labor under Rudd and Gillard delivered little to improve working class people’s lives. The big ticket items talked up before the election, the Gonski schools spending and the disability insurance scheme, were still just promises for the future after six years in government.

Albanese has openly asserted that there are no policy differences between him and Shorten. Instead he recommends himself simply as the candidate with more experience and the best able to end divisions. Prominent Albanese supporters are selling him on the basis of being raised by a single parent on a disability pension.

Albanese has listed four key points to show what he stands for—a strong economy in order to deliver jobs, investing in opportunities like education and training, tackling climate change and ensuring a sustainable Australia, and a fair go for all through combating discrimination. These are the same kind of meaningless slogans that Rudd put forward.

Shorten just says he is for “party, policy and people” and talks vaguely about empowering the powerless.

Party reform

The essential problem in Labor is not that the rank-and-file does not have a say in electing the parliamentary leadership. It is that the leadership does not actually represent the views of the rank and file (or Labor voters for that matter). The parliamentary leadership is free to ignore party policy decisions and rank-and-file members have little say over policy in any case.

The democracy of the new leadership ballot is extremely limited. The vote of 53 politicians will be equal to the 40,000 rank and file votes.

The thrust of the organisational reform proposals put forward by people like Kevin Rudd and Chris Bowen are about breaking Labor’s historic link with the trade unions and entrenching the party’s right-wing direction. They want to implement a version of Third Way politics and take Labor even further away from representing working class interests.

But it is the left unions in particular that will be crucial to any fight over policy change. The unions’ institutional weight inside the party, their closer proximity to rank and file workers, and their willingness to fight over their influence in the party have historically been important for shifting Labor to the left and winning social change.

A fight against the party’s right-wing politics is what Labor really needs. Without this, in the longer run any effort at “party reform” will simply cement rank-and-file disillusionment with a party unable to halt its political decline.


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