The Left needs its own agenda

Not so very long ago, I wrote that Abbott’s ascension to the Liberal leadership rendered the Coalition unelectable for the foreseeable future. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

In my defense, the shift in mainstream politics over the last few years has been quite extraordinary, especially considering how shattered the Liberals were after their defeat.

In the context of an emboldened conservative movement running rampant, there’s a temptation for the Left to become purely reactive, so much so that leftism becomes exclusively a matter of defending every cause that the Tories menace. But with the Liberals pushing the agenda to the Right, an exclusively defensive politics inevitably tails that rightward drift, with the Left digging in behind not-very-good-positions for fear of the even-worse policies to come.

The recently-launched Women For Gillard campaign poses these issues in a very sharp fashion.

If you look at the hashtags #womenforJulia and #womenforGillard, they’ve been hijacked by the vilest misogynists. The stream of anti-Gillard tweets, and now the grotesque menu apparently featured at some Liberal Party dinner, proves the obvious point that the Australian political landscape remains thoroughly sexist and any woman in public life will be subjected to horrendous gender-based smears.

Obviously, anyone who claims to belong to the Left needs to speak up against this kind of sexism, to call it out whenever it occurs. This is not an optional extra. A Left that doesn’t oppose sexism has no future – and doesn’t deserve one.

Yet that’s not to say that we have to engage with the argument in the way that the Labor leaders pose it. Quite obviously, it’s entirely possible to oppose sexist attacks on Gillard without endorsing Gillard’s policies.

Indeed, there’s a real danger in allowing the recent, exciting revival of anti-sexist energy to be corralled into an identification with the ALP right at the moment when the ALP’s heading for a catastrophic loss.

It’s not simply that we can all reel off a list of atrocious attacks on women over which Labor’s presided: the prime minister who delivered the stirring attack on Abbott’s misogyny is, of course, the prime minister responsible for keeping who seek asylum in indefinite detention without charges or trial on the basis of security assessments they can’t see.

No, there’s a more fundamental problem: namely, Labor’s not able to mobilise sufficient women (or men) for Gillard because the neoliberal politics upon which ALP now rests are incapable of inspiring widespread support.

That’s the secret of Abbott’s success. The Coalition might be leading in all the polls but Abbott’s own popularity remains at dire levels. Voters aren’t flocking to the Liberals so much as they are turning against Labor.

Think back to the state in which the Liberals were left after the public overwhelmingly rejected John Howard in 2007. How did they get from where they were then to where they are now? Despite a brief and largely rhetorical repudiation of neoliberalism in various Monthly essays, the ALP fostered the conservative revival by ALP implementing policies that were a continuation of Howardism rather than a repudiation of it. Think, for instance, of Gillard excising the Australian continent from the migration zone, a plan that Howard contemplated – and then abandoned after a backbench revolt.

Obviously, with the election looming, the Labor Party itself has an incentive to foster lesser evilism, in a manner recalling the famous passage from Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Surely, comrades,” cried Squealer almost pleadingly, skipping from side to side and whisking his tail, “surely there is no one among you who wants to see Jones come back?” 

Now if there was one thing that the animals were completely certain of, it was that they did not want Jones back. When it was put to them in this light, they had no more to say.

Orwell’s point is that, once you internalise the logic of the lesser evil – that permanent fear of Farmer Jones – there’s almost nothing that you won’t swallow, simply because it’s always possible to scare yourself back into line by imagining an even worse outcome.

At this moment, it’s crucial to think differently.

If it’s true that, as the polls suggest, Labor’s electoral defeat is now almost certain, then separating the Left’s fortunes from those of this particular administration becomes all the more urgent. Even if we were previously content simply to defend the bad against the worse, that project’s increasingly seeming unfeasible – and so it’s well past time we started talking about what we actually want and what we actually need.

That’s not to say that an Abbott government won’t be nasty. It’s rather to point out that the best way to get ready for what’s coming is to start fighting against rightwing ideas in the here and now, rather than accepting them on the basis that the future will be worse.

More than anything, the Left needs some clarity. Actually, after the election, a great deal of what we’ll be facing will already be familiar. Yes, Abbott and Morrison will probably unleash a fresh campaign against refugees. But we’ve seen anti-refugee campaigns from both parties now for more than a decade, and so the solution’s not to contrast Labor’s xenophobia –light with Abbott’s more full-flavoured version but rather to articulate a program of our own.

We need, in other words, a return to first principles. If we’re to start winning again, we need our own agenda rather than fighting on the terrain of the Right.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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    1. Hi Mel,
      Unfortunately, it’s quite likely that the Greens will do pretty badly at the forthcoming election. Tad Tietze has written a lot about how the Greens have struggled to position themselves, uncertain as to whether they’re an outsider force or simply a smaller mainstream party. You can see the difficulty now: it’s unclear whether they’re going to the polls campaigning for Gillard or campaigning against her.
      In any case, the point i was trying to make is that we need a discussion that doesn’t begin in terms constrained by what already exists. The starting point has to be what we actually need — and then we can talk about getting there.

      1. “You can see the difficulty now: it’s unclear whether they’re going to the polls campaigning for Gillard or campaigning against her.”

        But didn’t you just spend an entire article saying that the Left need to stop being reactive and positioning themselves only in relation to their opponents, and fight for their issues and needs etc? Then you criticise The Greens for doing just that. It is unclear whether they support or are against Gillard because they do not operate in that framework of the major parties – which is exactly what is right with them. They know and define their issues, and they respond to the rest of parliament in whatever way helps them achieve their goals. They are not about being for or against Gillard.

        1. Interesting you raise that. That’s the argument the Greens used in the 90s for supporting the Qld Nationals in key seats and then delivering Qld back into the hands of the Nationals. The opportunism behind the Greens brand of “new paradigm” politics is a whole different topic of discussion I suspect.

        2. Since Jeff has named me regarding the Greens, I’ll jump in to say that I think positioning is actually vital. But the question is positioning and political strategy in the service of what, exactly?

          The Greens’ focus on gaining access to governmental power led them to blur the distinction between them and the ALP. They moved from being critics (however partial) of the old political set-up to being players within it. The problem is that the political class is in crisis and the Greens have actually weakened their ability to push an independent agenda by accepting the need for constructive engagement with it. The end result is that they are likely to take a significant electoral hit, which will be used to argue that the space for a Left alternative to the ALP is even smaller than before. In other words, this has been a gift to the Right.

          I think Jeff is correct to highlight principles as a guide to political positioning. The problem for the Greens is that one of their guiding principles is that government is the real agency for progressive social change, and this is in practice elevated above a series of principles on what sort of social change they want.

          I have written about the Greens’ problems here and here.

  1. the task is huge. two points: 1. is the problem with this administration, or is it actually time to separate the left’s fortunes from the ALP?
    2. people aren’t mobilised by ALP neoliberalism but/so they vote for Coalition? unfortunately this seems like wishful thinking. on another reading, despite abbott people are still wiling to vote for his party : a grimmer reality but probably needs to be faced.

  2. Interesting read. But I echo Mel’s question. Should we accept the election of Abbott as given? The Greens are held in contempt by most people I know on the hard left, and reforming the ALP seems unlikely. Is the answer a new party? Or to more effectively lobby and transform an existing one? And for now, can Gillard really be blamed for decades of failure on asylum seekers, Indigenous Australia and adequate welfare?

    1. But that’s the point I’m trying to make: if we pose the question like that — ie, exclusively in terms of the alternatives that already exist — we rule out any solutions in advance, almost by definition.
      Surely the starting point has got to be our own ideas. If we think that it’s wrong to, say, detain asylum seekers in offshore hell holes, we should say so. Once we’ve established that, we have the basis to fight against those who would subject people fleeing persecution to such treatment, be they Labor or Liberal.
      The problem I have with the Women for Gillard approach is not that the people involved prefer to see a Labor government returned rather than a conservative one, for that’s a preference I share. The problem is that they turn the tactical advantage of having Labor in power into a political campaign for Gillardism, in which they minimise the truly atrocious policies implemented by one of the most rightwing Labor leaders of all time. They don’t come across as saying, ‘we’re holding our nose and voting Labor’ — they say Labor’s doing a great job.
      It’s not only that campaigning in that manner fudges the political issues, over, say, refugees or indigenous affairs or support for Israel or support for US wars or whatever else. I also think it’s incredibly self-destructive. That slogan ‘we’re for Gillard because Gillard is for us’ (or whatever it was) only increases the distance between those activists and everyone else who quite rightly concludes, well, Gillard’s not for us. I mean, if you are a refugee or someone getting your welfare payment quarantined or someone unable to marry your same sex partner, you’re most unlikely to feel that Gillard’s for you — and if you think the Left’s lining up with Gillard, you might very likely decide the Left’s not for you, either.
      Of course, I don’t mean to understate the difficulties in rebuilding the Left. But until we get the foundations right, I don’t see how we can proceed at all.

    2. Surely there is no alternative in the electoral sphere at the moment and are energies would be better spend in building grassroots campaigns that, as Jeff suggests, take on the right-wing policies of both the ALP and the Liberals…?

  3. When the issue of paid maternity leave came up it was pointed out that Labor so compromised itself to neoliberalism that it could be outflanked even on the Left by the Liberals. Labor just isn’t in the business of defending any kind of alternative position (vis refugees, equal marriage, single parent payments, cuts to higher education etc etc) but engages constantly in a race that requires them to jettison even mild social democratic positions they once held. All this is understood, so it is kind of strange the extent to which people still respond to this kind of piece by saying ‘yes, but who do we vote for?’ Its as if the call for the Left defining it’s own politics and agenda, actively defending it, building some memory and permanence around it, and pushing the political agenda/conversation into new directions is literally unthinkable.

  4. I find it incredible that the author managed to get through this article without mentioning the new, progressive political party, with polling that shows as many as a quarter of people may vote for them: The WIkileaks Party.

  5. Its seems to me that the “left” has an agenda that the “left” seems to ignore. Writers like Barbara Pocock, Sarah Charlesworth, Frank Stilwell, Bill MItchell, John Buchanan have been annunciating an alternative path for years at varying volumes.

    The right has also been pushing its path. It has not been deflected by thoughts of compromise or what a particular party can bargain around. The right has pushed and pushed whoever the government is. The Greens have been at their strongest when they haven’t accepted compromise. Forget the Anti Labor Party , s Humphrey McQueen I think calls them. You want a progressive agenda then argue for it no matter what government is in or who is really in power. The most progressive time of social issues in US politics was under Johnson and then Nixon. OHS, women’s rights, environment protection etc. Watergate brought him down. Now Obama, the great progressive”hope” is happy to murder and spy and keeps it up. Party politics constrains an agenda As soon as you say anyone but Abbott, then you accept all the horrors and backsliding of the ALP as supposedly the better than the Libs. The differences are on the margins. Farmer Jones is spot on.

  6. Clearly the Left is almost totally reactive, and most of the reaction is chatter. But this is the natural form of Left-capitalists. They launch progressive critique after progressive critique, in the hope that real forces in society mend their ways a little.

    There have been wins for such tactics – slavery abolished, 8hr day, votes for women, elected parliaments, welfare state, equal pay, land rights, Vietnam war, ethnic and gay rights and so on. Meanwhile capitalists go about their business creating billion dollar profits, closing manufacturing, cutting wages, building debt and killing the climate.

    Nobel winning capitalists simply separate “economic efficiency” from morality, and this thinking drives the real affairs of capitalist competition – and therefore the policy preferences of capitalist politicians, administrators and media executives. See for example Obit of Robert Fogel – Syd. Morn. Herald: 17 June, p39.

    Left capitalists have a standard template for their progressive chatter: eg’

    Anyone who claims to belong to the Left must speak against ________________

    A Left that doesn’t oppose _____________ has no future etc etc.

    [fill in the blank with your own concern]

    Given capitalism, and within its parameters you can spen your whole life addressing such concerns – all you really seek is to pretiffy capitalism.

    A nice policy w.r.t refugees does not abolish the conditions causing refugees.

    Maybe the Left needs to recognise that a Left that doesn’t oppose capitalism has no future. Then clarity will follow.

  7. ‘defense’?? Using American spelling now are we? Or maybe you’ve just outsourced subediting offshore like they have at The Age? haha

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