Who was the Left candidate in Labor’s leadership clash yesterday? Who was the candidate of the Right?
Such questions – the customary starting point for any political stoush – no longer even get raised in reference to the ALP. How could they be? Here was a challenge in which, like a scene from Alice in Wonderland, each contender stood to the Right of the other. Remember, the replacement of Rudd by Gillard came about as a rightward lurch, meant to mitigate the effects of an anti-Labor push by mining bosses, while Crean’s misfire was spurred, in part, by concern that Gillard had unwisely picked a fight with media tycoons, an issue on which the new Rudd team would presumably have retreated.
It’s easy to say that the ALP no longer believes in ideas; that if the party’s become a car that only steers rightward, that’s because whoever’s behind the wheel cares only about poll numbers. Certainly, yesterday’s fiasco would not have played out in the absence the obvious disparity between Gillard’s abysmal figures and the supposed popularity of Rudd, just as Gillard’s ascension depended on Labor’s backroom geniuses finding Rudd’s polling intolerable.
Yet the common assertion that modern Labor lacks conviction can’t really be sustained. On the contrary, the ALP, at least at its parliamentary level, stands more philosophically unified than ever before. Three decades ago, the Left of the party presented, however equivocally, a wide-ranging set of policies: a critique of the US alliance, an opposition to uranium mining, a commitment to nationalisation of key industries, hostility to private schools, and so on. If you consult Dr Google, you can find documents from Socialist Forum, the caucus to which Gillard once belonged, on various rightwing blogs, where they’re presented as proof that she represents the red menace creeping its way into power. Of course, their significance is entirely otherwise. What those old typewritten tracts remind us is that, as late as the mid-1980s, an ambitious Labor careerist might still describe herself as dedicated to ‘fostering socialist development.’
But that’s all archaeological now. Today, every serious Labor player endorses free market economics, the American alliance and all the rest of the rightwing agenda that the Labor Left once existed to challenge. If there’s no discussion of these positions, it’s not because they’re not deeply held. On the contrary, they’re now simply taken for granted, so much so that debate becomes superfluous.
With the contenders in furious agreement, the arguments over leadership take place on a quite different basis.
Think, for instance, of Labor in NSW, a state in which the ALP seems less a family than The Family, in the Sicilian sense of that term. But even after the exposure of great chunks of the party as a kind of matey kleptocracy, the recriminations takes place via vicious feuds over arcane personalised wrongs, since no-one’s prepared to challenge the NSW Right’s almost theological devotion to neoliberal economics (especially since Bob Carr, the high priest of that particular church, has become foreign minister).
Indeed, because the philosophies of the Right are now both everywhere accepted and nowhere discussed inside Labor, the response to the party’s problems become ever more bizarre. Who, for instance, would have imagined the reinvention of Mark Latham (!) as the ALP’s conscience, as per this extraordinary spray against Graham Richardson and sundry Rudd backers. Then again, Latham’s recent Quarterly Essay illustrates how deeply ideas once associated with fringe neo-liberal thinktanks percolate inside Labor, with the essay laying out a program for renewal that entails breaking ties with the union movement, abandoning any lingering doubts about the market and dispersing the poor from their suburbs. It’s the My Lai approach to internal reform – destroying the party so as to save it. Yet it illustrates how much the intellectual centre of gravity remains on the Right. Certainly, you couldn’t imagine a manifesto of equal daring coming from the Labor Left.
One of the more striking aspects of yesterday’s challenge was how much Laborism has defined the terms of its own reception. The philosophical uniformity within today’s ALP means that spectators end up viewing such contests in an oddly personalised frame, with Twitter yesterday dividing its time between berating the media for its obsession with the leadership, and then updating every few seconds with annotations about the fortunes of Team JG and the Ruddinator.
The leadership question has been settled now. But as Tom Waits says somewhere: ‘The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.’ For why did Labor even think of going back to Rudd, an act akin to the proverbial dog returning to its vomit? Does not the very consideration of re-installing Rudd proclaim a lack of other options? What if Labor’s problems stem not from personalities but rather from politics – in particular, a set of politics that’s entirely shared by all the available candidates? In that case, you can re-arrange the deckchairs however you like but you’re still sailing on the Titanic.
Politics doesn’t have to be like this. It hasn’t been like this in the past; it needn’t be like this in the future. An obvious point but worth stressing, in the face of what Orwell once identified as ‘the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible’.
Certainly, parliamentary politics seems particularly woeful at the moment, with an Abbott victory now more likely than ever. But the dispiriting antics playing out in Canberra don’t represent the sum total of possibilities. Rather, we’re seeing a particular set of political choices reaching their depressing conclusion. It’s never been more important to start discussing alternatives.