Unity is death

‘We know the single biggest reason voters turned away from Labor was internal party disunity.’ (2013 Election Campaign Review, Australian Labor Party)

Since Federal Labor’s crushing defeat on election night 2013, one lesson seems to have been learned from the experience of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments – party disunity disrupted Labor’s ability to govern. The fatal consequences of disunity has been the most consistent conclusion drawn by the party reform process and the media post-mortems from six dysfunctional years in which wall-to-wall Labor rule has given way to a near-total conservative take over. The latest example was the party’s own review of campaign 2013, made public last week.

The review was conducted by two party notables, federal vice president Jane Garrett and former Queensland state secretary Milton Dick. The primary conclusion drawn was that party disunity curdled the Labor brand. Other issues were recognised, of course: the turnover in campaign staff after Rudd’s successful challenge; the micro-managing of the new prime ministers ‘Travelling Party’; insufficient preparation time for the campaign. But none of these, it was suggested, compare to the long-term damage of the internecine warfare between the Rudd and Gillard camps between 2010 and 2013.

On the surface the claim seems so much like common sense, so accordant with the political melodrama of the last parliament, so outright obvious that it need not even be questioned. The moral of the story is clear: disunity is a killer. But is it? Is disunity the real reason why voters have ‘turned away from Labor’?

Before we answer this question, another needs to be addressed – what is disunity? For younger people, those whose political awakening has come since Howard’s downfall in 2007, the answer might seem obvious, after that has played out nightly on their TV screens: the cynical competition between key political players in the apportioning of prestigious positions. The greatest example is, of course, the bitter contest between Rudd and Gillard from early 2010 until Rudd’s challenge in 2013. Undoubtedly, the constant friction between the two leaders and their followers caused untold harm to the electoral prospects of the party as voters grew increasingly cynical about the political pantomime.

But underlying this clash of the would-be-titans was a fundamental unity more damaging to Labor than leadership division: a unity that set the scene for the cynicism and the disillusionment that the party’s musical chairs came to represent but did not in itself cause. This was a unity concerning how Australian capitalism should best be governed in the twenty-first century, a market-oriented vision of mild reform welded to an acceptance of the fundamentally iniquitous relations in society.

Today, things look darker and more desperate with the Abbott government seeking enough elbow room in parliament to start seriously swinging the axe at government programs and welfare support. But in its six years of government, the ALP failed to present and articulate a serious alternative to the dominant neoliberal paradigm for Australia in the twenty-first century. Even when the government successfully responded to the Global Financial Crisis (something for which it received nowhere near enough credit) no serious alternative was proposed.

Instead, Labor was guided into the quagmire by a reliance on economic orthodoxies inherited from three decades of neoliberal ideological hegemony. The clearest example was Treasurer Wayne Swan’s insistence that Labor would prove its ability to govern responsibly by restoring the budget to surplus, no matter what government spending would ‘need’ to be slashed in the process. Swan evidently considered himself born to run a surplus, even if single mothers and the tertiary sector suffered as a result. The goal overrode the effects; surplus was necessary, no matter the cost.

This logic was allegedly political – designed to appeal to the public, a means to demonstrate Labor’s responsible economic management. Instead, it legitimated the conservative assault on the Gillard government’s economic record, and reaffirmed the logic of increasing austerity upon which Abbott capitalised in the election campaign (though, as the recent response to Hockey’s budget has demonstrated, there’s no inherent love for surplus at the cost of the community among the voting public).

Ultimately, in six years of government the Labor caucus was fundamentally united on this direction for Australia. There were, of course, murmurings of dissent, particularly focused on the ever more inhumane treatment of refugees and Gillard’s almost baffling intransigence on Marriage Equality. Some in the Federal Parliamentary Party did manage to drag themselves to conference floor for a brief cameo or to issue the odd press release. But the overwhelming direction of the government, particularly on economics, was not challenged. From inside the party, and outside in the extra-parliamentary machinery and the trade union movement, Labor’s policies were overwhelmingly tolerated, even when distaste was evident.

The unfortunate reality is that, within the contemporary ALP, there exists no force capable of articulating a vision for Australia that fundamentally challenges the neoliberal orthodoxies that have dominated its recent thinking. On this, parliamentary Labor is clearly united.

It is, in fact, the lack of disunity that has stifled Labor thinking. The result has been Labor appearing, on the one hand, conflicted and confused, implementing or failing to implement an array of scattered and inconsistent policies and, on the other, clearly not taking the bold steps necessary to challenge the economic orthodoxy and deliver the better standard of living that its rhetoric promises.

This brings us back to the question of disunity. If all the term means is the disunity between rival claimants to the keys to Kirribilli, then, yes, this was clearly a major problem for the electoral prospects of the ALP as the last government wore on. But it was not the most fundamental one, and nor is short-term electoral positioning the greatest challenge that Labor faces.

Labor remains imprisoned by the market-oriented policies that have colonised the decision making of state managers in Australia and abroad. Its fate is similar to that of other Labo[u]r and social democratic parties around the world, which have not been able to liberate themselves from the ideological constraints of neoliberalism. It is not just that they are unwilling to consider another way of conducting politics but they are unable to do so. Any move to actively utilise state spending and even formal control of sections of the economy and to utilise taxation on the most profitable sectors of the economy to do so, is innately incompatible with their approach to politics and spending. Even at the cost of public support such organisations hold the ideological line. Take, for instance, Ed Milliband, Ed Balls, and British Labour, whose acceptance of austerity – though of a slightly delayed nature – has culminated in a policy of welfare reduction strikingly similar to some of what’s been outlined in the latest Hockey budget.

Perhaps the term ‘neoliberalism’ appears outdated, and has lost some of its explanatory power in this Piketty moment in the post-GFC world.  Yet it remains an important concept to describe the process of ideological colonisation that has led to the restructuring of economies since the mid-1970s. The restructuring has moved, piece by piece, to repudiate the dominant post-war welfare state model in favour of market-oriented economic decision making that has stripped away financial regulation and social provision, even as rates of exploitation have been increasing.

Just like its British cousins, Australian Labor is being strangled by adherence to this neoliberal inheritance. Its points of differentiation with the conservative opposition on economic directions have become fewer and shallower. Its ability to buck the trend of thought and articulate its own unique vision, a distinctively Labor ideology for governance, has dissolved. Accordingly, its own party organisation has hollowed out, corroded by growing disillusionment and indifference from traditional party supporters. Large swathes of young potential Labor loyalists have been lost to cynicism, many offering their support to the more relatable and seemingly progressive Greens.

It has not always been this way. Disunity and contestation within the party has, in fact, been a fundamental component to Labor’s existence. Beneath the unified manifestos and policy platforms issued come election time, the ALP has traditionally been riven with disagreement over the direction and purpose of the party and its social mission.

In the past, the ALP has been composed of two major forces – moderate pragmatists and Labor socialists. These are not the only groups that have influenced the organisation and shaped its existence: right-wing Catholics and revolutionary socialists have also written pages of party lore. But these it is these two tendencies that have fought within both wings of the labour movement over the ALP’s political direction, in a battle that involved its fair share of personal positioning but was fundamentally about purpose.  Was Labor for moderate and gradual reform to the advantage of the class and the nation based on a strong economy, or the redistribution of social wealth to the advantage of the poor and dispossessed?

Far from being damaging, these divisions have provided life and intellectual stimulus to Labor, and played a creative role in its history. Perhaps, the clearest example is the debate within the early party over the socialisation objective – would Labor be a party of socialist transformation or moderate reform? From 1905 to 1921, this was the fundamental question over the head of the party, informing the debates over its role in the First World War, the unsuccessful attempt of Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes to implement conscription, and the first national ALP split in late 1916.

During these years, Labor moderates and socialists fought with each other to set the direction of the party. At party conferences, executive elections and pre-selections, as well as local branch meetings, the battle was joined. The struggle forced the wings of the party to constantly put forward and defend their positions, to engage with a battle of ideas, to justify their stance in party forums and within the broader labour movement. It created an intellectual environment completely foreign to Labor’s contemporary existence; it generated ideas and policy directions that long years of intellectual stagnation could never have spurred. It trained future leaders in the art of political combat – both the young socialist John Curtin and the moderate James Scullin, for instance, came to prominence as Labor leaders in those debates. It allowed Labor to relate to broad and diverse opinions within the class – even if they disagreed with the overall direction of the party, labour activists could have some hope that there were dissenting voices within the ALP that could sway it in what they considered the correct direction.

Crucially, there was a section of the party that was willing to provide opposition to its dominant line, often when the union movement attempted to exert its influence over the parliamentary caucus, demonstrating Labor’s unique existence as the party of the organised working-class movement. At times, oppositionists were willing to risk periods out of office to ensure that Labor stood for something they could believe in, something that would change Australia to the benefit of working people.

Where are those dissenting voices now?

The sad truth is that since at least the mid-1980s this contestation within Labor has gradually eroded. There no longer a significant section of the party that is clearly situated on the Left and capable of waging a sustained and successful campaign to reorient the party away from neoliberalism and towards the left-Labor tradition.

Unchallenged, the Right of the party has clearly stagnated. Many Labor traditionalists can and will disagree with Paul Keating’s direction for the ALP. But what cannot be denied was his consistent and transformative vision for Australia, for which he was prepared to fight within the party as well as without. In this, he was demonstrating the training he received throughout the tumultuous post-war years, through the contest between Right and Left. No contemporary Labor member from the Right of the party could claim the same breadth of vision or political courage as Keating. The stagnation has found its purest expression in the traditional redoubt of the Right in New South Wales, where, devoid of enemies outside the faction that could challenge its power and bereft of a vision beyond the next election or portfolio reshuffle, the Labor Right has turned in on itself in the most destructive manner.

Gone are the days when the Left would formulate and fight for a distinctive vision of the party’s direction to which the Right had to respond. Without this pressure, the creative impulse, the contestation at the heart of Labor has withered away. Labor supporters can choose for themselves if this decline of the Right is a positive or negative, but either way it is a strong indication of the party’s general decline. It is indicative of the broader malaise that lurks behind the most obvious indication of discontent and disaffection – the constant reliance on and belief in leadership shuffles.

It would seem, anecdotally at least, that many traditionally Labor supporters have been impressed with Bill Shorten and Labor’s response to Abbott’s horror budget. Time will tell if they are capable of maintaining this consistent opposition in the face of right-wing pressure likely to come upon them as negotiations grind on.

But the challenge for Labor is greater than maintaining discipline and hoping – as many of us do – that Abbott’s unpopular measures will ensure a one-term Coalition government. The challenge for Labor is – and should always be – greater than the next election or the one after that or even the one after that. The primary challenge for Labor is to discover its purpose in the twenty-first century, and to start settling accounts with the neoliberal orthodoxies that have denuded it of its traditional rationale and meaning.

Where such a search for meaning will lead, no-one can truly tell. But it begins with striking out, tackling the challenging questions, being prepared to question the seemingly common-sense ideological approach that has dominated party thinking in recent decades. It begins with the willingness to repudiate the neoliberal orthodoxy and to place social need, rather than the relentless pursuit of profit, at the heart of its policy approach.

Whether modern Labor is capable of striking in this direction is yet to be seen. But one lesson from history is clear. If the ALP is to provide a genuine alternative to the contemporary government status-quo, the process will not begin with the enforcing of discipline in a party which pursues austerity-lite.

It begins with disunity – and the rediscovery of something worth being disunited about.

Liam Byrne

Liam is a researcher in Australian political culture, focusing on the ALP. He blogs at maintainyourrage.com.au

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  1. It was Murdoch who did Rudd in, then did Gillard in, then did Rudd in again. I know the ALP’s not blameless but Tony Abbott doesn’t have to fight both the ALP and the media the way we know that the ALP always has to fight the LNP AND the media.And we know that when the media wants to destroy you, they can. It doesn’t matter if you’re as smart as Einstein and as pure as the driven snow if they want to drag you through the mud they will and there will always be fatuous fools who will believe their lies, simply because they have been repeated over and over again.The ALP’s purpose in the 21st century is the same as it was in the 19th century, to represent workers, who make up most of the population of this country, or of any country, and to protect their wages, their conditions and their quality of life. As things stand that on its own is enough to keep any political party busy all day long and most of the night.

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