Elections often coincide with a flurry of new releases from political commentators and this election year was no different. Usually it’s only after the door knocking and phone banking is done that people have time to read, reflect and compare the electoral theories discussed with practical experience.
One book I read recently, How to Vote Progressive in Australia, brings together short essays from politicians and political commentators across the ‘progressive’ movement (quotation marks used with intent there) to debate our collective future. Apart from one peculiar essay from Peter van Onselen claiming Malcolm Turnbull is progressive, the book largely ignores the Liberal Party.
The other, The Trust Deficit, by former senior Labor adviser Sam Crosby, looks at the role of trust in modern politics, drawing on recent Labor leaders such as Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Peter Beattie as examples. Not exclusively about Labor, it also looks at Tony Abbott and Barack Obama. Apart from a few examples regarding the emissions trading scheme, this book largely ignores the Greens.
Obviously, the point where these two books intersect is with the Australian Labor Party. What’s also obvious is there’s a lot of different interpretations of the Labor Party and it means many different things to different people. This is nothing new: as Shaun Wilson writes in his essay in How to Vote Progressive, ‘criticising the ALP for its failings is a national pastime even though on a range of measures Labor remains one of the world’s most electorally successful social-democratic parties’.
As someone who has participated in that criticism previously, but found their way back, these books struck a particular chord with me.
How to Vote Progressive in Australia (which has the explicit subtitle, Labor or Green?) reads as its intended: a pitch from opposing sides of the progressive fence about why you should back them and not the other team. However, the target audience is clearly policy wonks and political nerds, and I’m pretty sure no actual undecided voters (in marginal seats) are picking up this book.
Its short and sharp format makes entertaining albeit disjointed reading. Van Badham fires up with a passionate and heartfelt critique of the Greens; Senator Scott Ludlam provides the comic relief and Simon Copland loses credibility by claiming a marriage-equality plebiscite would be a good thing. Labor MP Andrew Giles calls out the term ‘progressive’ for what it actually is: ‘a Humpty Dumpty that means whatever you want it to mean’.
The book’s launch at Nova Cinemas in Melbourne was an engaging debate between Giles, federal member for Scullin, and Ellen Sandell, state Greens MP for Melbourne, who wrote the (opening) essay for the book. There should be more of this sort of discussion in the public domain and not just on Lygon Street.
But the way each essay talks about Labor from an utterly different standpoint, whether on climate change, economic growth or unionism, makes for almost manic reading. It’s a literary version of an inner-city dinner party with a bunch of Labor and Green guests: we’re all talking at cross-purposes. The book seemed to struggle to bed down the crux of what it means to be Labor in this country, but that might just be because it couldn’t define progress either. This isn’t the fault of the book so much as a challenge for the Left to clearly define who we are.
In contrast, The Trust Deficit is a smoother read, blending psychology and hormone theory with political statistics into engaging storylines. It defines it’s topic ‘trust’ early by opening with an introduction to oxytocin, a hormone that sends signals to our brain that let us trust other people. The book delves into the science behind why politicians need to press the flesh: we need to touch someone, skin on skin, to trust them.
These insights can be applied to electoral organising practice. These days a politician can’t shake the hand of every voter, but if someone can form a connection with another fellow human in a red t-shirt, then this trust transfers. A good number of my dearest friends wear red and I obviously trust them dearly. The Labor brand, for want of a better term, can build trust with each member.
Crosby offers another perspective on Labor. To me, when he talks about Labor (and it’s through a specific paradigm of trust metrics), it’s an analysis of its individuals over the party. Compared with the former, Crosby draws in a number of players namely the global financial crisis, trade markets and lots of opinion polls. He’s clinical to the point where values don’t quite rate a mention. While the former book is about winning the vote, Crosby’s book is about how we hold onto that vote, through trust.
Reading these books has forced me to articulate what I talk about when I talk about Labor: a commitment to collectivism, which manifests itself in union membership; that the free market won’t solve, let alone address, inequality; and a commitment to good quality public education at every local school and a class awareness applied to all that we do.
I joined Labor for two reasons these books discuss: its ability to deliver a social justice agenda (I won’t call it progressive) and because of my trust in the party. At a state level, the agenda of the Andrews Government has been invigorating and something I’m immensely proud of. After the 2014 state election, when Labor committed to not building the East West Link toll road and they stuck to their word, I trusted them – and that trust was not misplaced.
Labor is not about to stop meaning different things to different people, but I’m clearer than ever about what Labor means to me.