Where to now for the left?

‘Labor took a hugely ambitious agenda to this election …The prospect of raising big ideas and ambitious plans is just too dangerous. This formula is dead.’

The piece by the Age’s David Crowe exemplifies a certain mainstream reaction to the ALP’s shock loss.

One could, however, put forward a quite different argument.

Labor’s problems were, you might say, embodied in the form of Bill Shorten himself, a man who remained deeply disliked even as every poll put the ALP ahead of the Coalition.

Personal popularity waxes and wanes but the visceral disdain for Shorten mattered because of the sense that the man believed in nothing, that he’d say or do anything at all to win office.

Labor’s strategy did little to undercut the perception of its leader as an opportunist. On the contrary, a gulf between form and content ran through the entire campaign.

Shorten referred to a climate ‘emergency’ and pledged himself committed to ‘real action’. Yet Labor would not take a stand on Adani’s Carmichael mine, by far the most important single environmental issue in the country.

Even as Shorten attacked Morrison as a denier and dinosaur, the ALP put forward a plan to ‘unlock’ gas in the NT and Queensland, a scheme that would have, according to experts, unleashed even more emissions than Adani.

The ACTU transformed its ‘Change the Rules’ campaign into a long election rally for the ALP, hoping to replicate the labour movement’s success in getting Rudd in in 2007.

Yet Shorten consistently refused to spell out exactly which industrial rules he intended to change, an equivocation that blunted a union campaign already tarred by the outcomes of the Rudd/Gillard years (during which Labor put in place the IR architecture that would, under the Coalition, make Australia one of the most anti-union environments in the developed world).

Given that voters had long thought Shorten shifty, one could conclude that many people simply didn’t believe in Labor’s ‘hugely ambitious agenda’ – or, more exactly, didn’t believe that Labor believed in it.

But, irrespective of the accuracy of Crowe’s diagnosis, he’s probably correctly outlining the conclusions that Labor strategists will draw. There isn’t really a left in the ALP anymore – and the Labor right never needs an excuse to embrace a unity ticket with the Liberals.

But what does that mean?

A few weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released its Global Assessment, a document written in collaboration by some five hundred scientists from over 50 countries. That report warned that a million species now face extinction, as the worldwide environmental crisis enters a new and dire phase.

‘If we are to halt the continued loss of nature,’ insisted Michelle Lim in the Conversation, ‘then the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely.’

Now, even the most sympathetic account of Shorten’s environmental platform in the 2019 election must acknowledge they did not amount to a reform on that scale; that, indeed, as Greenpeace put it, ‘the measures announced by Labor [were] not ambitious enough to combat the threat of catastrophic climate change’.

So if Crowe’s right, it’s not just ‘big ideas and ambitious plans’ that are dead to our politicians. It’s also, according to the best available science, a great chunk of life on Earth, with neither major party even trying to put forward the measures necessary to end extinctions.

That’s a bleak conclusion – but, in a way, it’s a bracing one since it clarifies, in the starkest possible fashion, the strategic perspectives in front of us.

The fight against climate change – and the broader environmental disaster of which it is part – depends on the construction of a social movement. It depends on the kind of struggle we associate with the civil rights campaigns of the sixties: on civil disobedience, on mass marches, on occupations, on ordinary people putting their bodies on the line to stop something we all know to be terribly wrong.

In Britain, we’ve already seen a faint glimpse of this via the actions organised by Extinction Rebellion over the past months. But we need more. Much, much more.

There’s no point underestimating the scale of the task.

Yet there are some reasons for optimism.

Throughout the campaign, Morrison studiously avoided putting forward any kind of program whatsoever. He might have won the election but no-one can claim popular enthusiasm for a Coalition platform, since the Liberals barely articulated policies at all.

If, as seems likely, the new government pushes ahead with Adani, one can imagine public opposition growing quite quickly, particularly since the (temporarily quelled) divisions between Liberal moderates and extremists remain unresolved.

Without the prospect of a Labor administration, the ACTU will be under pressure to rediscover Sally McManus’s early enthusiasm for breaking laws rather than changing them. And that might create space for the kind of union and community alliance we so obviously need.

In any case, what’s the alternative?

Again, matters could not be clearer. Either we fight – or we watch the planet die.


Read more perspectives on the 2019 Federal Election 


Image: ‘Bill Shorten MP Action’ / Stop Adani

Jeff Sparrow

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

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Gawd … I am so sick of this crap …

    Here’s a little tidbit from Sunday School.

    They crucified Jesus !

    His own disciples disowned and betrayed him (as he knew they would) and despite the fact he preached nothing but forgiveness and charity and tolerance, the masses who would benefit most from his message tortured him to death.

    And you know what’s nuts even today.

    There are people who call themselves Christians (many of whom likely share the current PM’s bizarre interpretation of Christ’s message) who BLAME JESUS for his own crucifixion.

    I’m not kidding ! They argue it was because Jesus was a poor politician. The man they believe is the Son of God was a poor politician.

    And no, Bill Shorten was no Messiah, but let’s not try to project the blame.

    The fault lies within us ! As it always has.
    And sadly, always will.

  2. You’re right about shorten but the idea that labor didn’t get elected because they didn’t have bold enough progressive policies is surely ludicrous. Do you really mean it or what? The precisely didn’t get elected because their progressive reforms were too much for the apathetic, conservative, and misinformed electorate we have, largely thanks to the murdoch media’s monopoly.

  3. I have believed for some time that most people are stupid, Queenslanders more so than most. I can’t say I’m all that surprised by the election result, just both maddened and depressed. We are totally screwed along with the planet.

    1. Putting inaction on climate change and conservative voting down to stupidity and lack of education is wrong and it’s part of the reason why its so difficult to make change.. and its also part of the problem of some of the left’s tactic and something we can improve.

      Conservative people aren’t more stupid than leftists in any way, they are just fighting for their own vision of the world (in the best case scenario) that makes them feel better or more secure, or are malevolent or scheming (in the world case scenario, think Gina). But either way, worker class conservative people have genuine concerns about the world (insecurity, low pay, further marginalisation and disenfranchisement) and we as leftists need to heed their concerns and channel them into a productive vision of the world that improves things for everyone. People will vote for Donald Trump until the left gives an alternate vision that is better and demonstrate why collectivism is better. So instead of calling people stupid we should look at the faults of our own campaign and look at how we can reach people better.

      1. I agree with the point you make here, Peter, about not labeling conservatives as ‘stupid’ etc. The middle-class, left wing (pseudo?) progressives who look down their smug noses at anyone who doesn’t echo and mirror them are not doing anyone any favours. In fact, it is profoundly ‘undemocratic’ to dismiss others’ views like this – it’s ignorant, hateful and ugly and it’s also (as we are seeing) dangerous.

        If there are large sections of our community whose fears can be harnessed so powerfully by the Right, then we need to learn to listen to them. You cannot change anything without understanding the problem, and you cannot understand human problems without opening your ears. And you shouldn’t have to agree with someone in order to listen to and respect them…

        How can you argue for the humanity of refugees to be recognised, for example, whilst simultaneously demonising and dismissing those who don’t reflect your views…? It’s illogical, apart from anything else… which makes such behaviour part of the ‘irrationality’ problem that’s blowing the world up right now…

        1. Yeah exactly. If we demonise people on the right, specifically working class people, we hurt our own movement, and we make it difficult to build bridges between different sections of the community. If we want to build a movement that is for all people, we need to listen to all people and understand why they are saying what they are saying, what their concerns are and what they want for society as well. If we do this then we can truly claim to treat all people equally and to build an egalitarian society based on the equal treatment for all. Until we do that, we are just hurting our own movement and failing to strive for the aims we so rightfully claim as ours.

    2. The so-called Left lost the argument when they allowed euphemisms such as “Conservative” and “Populism” into the discussion.

      Being hateful, short-sighted, racist, misogynist. homophobic or xenophobic doesn’t make you “conservative”. It just makes you an arsehole.

      And conserving sure as hell wasn’t on the mind of Queensland voters.

      This nonsense of better luck next time chaps only emphasises how idiotic the electorate really is.

  4. Perspicacious analysis by Jeff.

    I have three comments:

    1) The people who voted for the LNP in Queensland–and I noted double digit increase in LNP vote in some electorates–have a similar class profile to those who voted for Trump and vote of neo-fascist parties in Europe.

    These people have a low union membership and low working class consciousness.

    2) Ruling class propaganda focused on Shorten and Greens on not supporting new job creation for Queenslanders.

    To win these lumpenproletariat to progressive agendas the ALP must abandon neoliberalism and implement a Green Keynesianism creating state funded green infrastructure projects.

    3) The Liberal Party of Fraser and even Turnbull has been transformed into a far-right outfit comparable to Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party and other far-right outfits in Europe. It seems to have absorbed, in terms of its vote, all the far-right micro- parties in Australia.

  5. “Where climate change is a moral issue we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue, as tonight shows, we do very, very well.“ – Tony Abbott

    When what’s at stake is individual financial outlook, come election time Australians are overwhelmingly conservative. And the truth is that simple and targeted scare campaigns work, be they rising power prices, the threat to jobs in regional Qld, or the threat to income of older Australians (over 65s were the largest swing category to LNP). Also, whilst the Labor agenda re climate, wealth redistribution etc was aspirational, it wasn’t accompanied by a particularly inspirational leader. Shorten’s political history includes backstabbing an elected PM to gain power and ‘me tooing’ on asylum seeker policy to blunt perceived political liability. The perception that he was less conviction and more political expediency was consistently reflected in preferred pm polls. As a consequence of this and the aforementioned, the political ‘centre’ just didn’t move.

  6. Even though you’re right about Labor’s flawed Climate policy and lack of conviction etc., I agree with Pedros comment, that even the policy reforms they put forward seemed too radical for the voters. Labor may have had even less votes if they’d put forward more progressive polices.

  7. Great piece Jeff, excellent when read alongside Amy Thomas’ election review.

    In response to Jill and Pedro, I suppose the question we should be asking is about the nature of left-wing electoral strategy. If it were simply a matter of putting a platform to voters that was set to the perfect temperature for the moment, ultimately any electoral contest would come down to which party is most adept at reading the mood of the majority of voters and advancing the obvious platform to suit them. Ultimately, then, the election is just a measure of how good the various parties are at doing this.

    But in that case, what’s the point of having parties at all? Parties in that reading are just like big computers that figure out how to win elections. Strangely, or perhaps not, this is essentially what left-wing parties have become in the neoliberal age: election machines with no grassroots elements, little to no day-to-day engagement with the working class, no established base whatsoever. They obsess over technocratic policies and high-tech electoral strategy (cf. Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 campaign) and yet generally horrible at winning elections. Even when their opponents are standing on the cliff edge they manage to throw themselves off instead.

    On the other hand, parties of the right traditionally have no need for mass membership, in that their project is not about democracy or mass representation but the maintenance of ruling class control. Obviously they still have to win elections, but consider the huge amount of money that was spent convincing voters that Bill Shorten was a Communist, that the ACTU is full of thugs etc. If voters are simply inherently reactionary, self-interested etc, why would NewsCorp exist? Obviously, some section of the ruling class is very, very afraid of what the workers might think if they’re not constantly bashed about the head with right-wing propaganda.

    Any left electoral strategy that hopes to achieve decisive victories will have to contend with the fact that their mission is not just to reflect what people already want but to *change people’s minds*. It has to grapple with the real issues facing working people on a daily basis and has to be engaged with their struggles to improve their lives. This goes for urban and rural workers, pensioners and, yes, farmers.

    The ALP is stuck in a historic impasse in which their base has dissolved—not because the people are gone, but because they are no longer organised into the trade union movement—and all they have left are the hopes of some electoral miracle. It will never come as long as the ALP keeps telling itself it is the party of the union movement. It is not. It is the party of the trade union bureaucracy, bosses of unions that have been bled of their membership.

    The ALP can be a partner in the struggle to rebuild our unions from the ground up, rooted in communities and focused on justice, anti-racism, feminism, environmentalism and democracy as part of an international struggle to combat the ravages of neoliberalism.

    If it can do that, it might be able to start changing the national conversation, and that’s how you win elections.

  8. Pedro & Jill are right, and here’s my take. Sure, Shorten has had a charisma bypass, but John Howard had all the magnetism of a small-town bank clerk, yet he finally hit pay-dirt after a couple of decades of trying out for PM. People will ignore your lack of personality if you’re selling something they want.

    Several policies are mentioned in your piece where Labor has a conservative or cautious take: IR, fracking & of course, climate change. But you ignore the ones that spooked the electorate: abolishing franking credits, modifying neg gearing & a tax policy favourable to middle & low-income earners. All of these would have contributed to a more equitable distribution of wealth, along with a focus on health, public schools & a tertiary education policy that moved away from universities as cash cows pulling in OS students.

    ScoMo managed to convince large slabs of the electorate that Shorten was after their money – people voted according to their hip pocket. So your argument that Labor needs to become more progressive doesn’t gel with the results – it’s pretty much a latte-left view that completely ignores the reality of why Labor lost the election. David Crowe etc convincingly made the hip-pocket argument on Insiders. You can diss mainstream reporters but they’ve covered the election, they were out talking to voters. It’s disappointing that this piece, and other Socialist post-election analysis i’ve seen on soc media are incredibly myopic and self-centric.

    How about focusing on Shorten’s failure to commit to increasing Newstart and resolving pervasive homelessness? Like the Libs, he ignores the swelling numbers of people in entrenched disadvantage. Climate change is, after all, a higher-order issue that won’t engage families who are struggling to survive at the most basic level.

  9. Although climate change is the biggest issue facing the planet, it will never be the major issue for people, until there are things like: secure jobs, wage rises, raised pensions, cheaper cost of living, cheaper education etc…

    That’s what the Left should be encouraging people to fight for. And its something movements like Greenpeace, The Greens and, for that matter, Labor and the unions don’t understand!

    1. Hmm …

      A majority of Australians (albeit a slender one) voted for a political party that …

      * arguably aided and abetted in the corrupt behaviour of the financial sector and CERTAINLY actively prevented any investigation into it (until ultimately dragged kicking and screaming into a kabuki Royal Commission)
      * actively prevented any investigation into the institutional abuse of children by the Church (until ultimately dragged kicking and screaming into a Royal Commission)
      * had members still defending Archbishop Pell AFTER he himself had been found guilty of offences
      * ignored public opinion on marriage equality (until ultimately dragged kicking and screaming into a costly and divisive public vote)
      * still actively and proudly denies the impacts of human-exacerbated climate change on the country despite the evidence killing great swathes of the countryside and coral reef
      * still actively props up a coal industry which even banks themselves agree is a sector unworthy of investment

      all of these activities to a greater or lesser extent adversely affected the day to day lives of so-called ordinary Australians, and especially the lives of Australians to come.

      What commenters don’t understand is …

      it ain’t the economy stupid … it’s just the stupid !

      1. It’s not that we don’t understand your point, Shaun Robson. We were responding to Jeff Sparrow’s post-election piece which fails to grasp why Labor lost the election.

      2. Interesting piece by Daniel Lopez.


        Not sure some of the comparisons between the US and Australia crossover — we don’t have enough billionaires to target as a remedy for inequality — but still an interesting read.

        “This election was remarkable for the fact that for once, Labor tacked to the left, briefly raising hopes. To blame this for their loss would be a disaster. In fact, the opposite was true: their tilt to the left was far too little, far too late.”

        “To win a class war, you need an army. Lacking one, Shorten tried to duck and weave.”

  10. There’s never a single reason why elections are won and lost, of course, just as preferential voting / proportional representation are great water muddyers. Politics as ever dances on the head of those people and things included in and excluded from representation.

  11. “Either we fight – or we watch the planet die.”
    What hubris! The ‘planet’ will outlast Mr Sparrow (and, btw Mr Morrison)
    This ‘our-way-or-the-highway’ self-talk is one of the fundamental reasons the average Australian distrusts the current mutated Left.
    There’s an old country saying ‘You don’t learn anything from the second kick of a horse,’ but obviously some folks need a few kicks.

  12. Repeat after me-

    the ALP is centre right

    the ALP is centre right

    the ALP is centre right

    Got that? The overton window is fked, which is why people think the ALP is remotely leftist. it is not. any party that thinks capitalism is workable isn’t leftist.

    Carry on.

  13. On the subject of climate change (a principal theme of this article), a major problem is that people, encouraged by throwaway capitalism, no longer fix (recycle) purchased commodities, or are no longer able to, because it is not part of capital’s commoditisation of the universe plan; throwing them instead up the mounting rubbish mountains or into those choked and choking plastic rivers and oceans, before or after purchasing the next and the next and the next replacement. Well, only for so long: until there is ‘no way out of here, past the atmosphere, wearing nothing but a onesie and a veil’ (Andrew Bird, not Joe Dulce).

    1. QED? Sort of expected the comment above to be challenged as yet another pointless or totally useless comment vis-à-vis climate change. Au contraire, for what is required to be proven in respect of the gist of the comment is that if capital doesn’t encourage or totally nullifies fixing things in respect of commodities (and almost everything comes under commodification within the rule of capital, from refugees to royalty, from objects to subjects), then how is climate change going to be fixed, if fixing is possible still, use by dates having not yet expired?

  14. Precisely, for as Machiavelli put it, if you’re going to kill the king, you’ve got to kill THE king (in this case, Capital), and not some substitute.

  15. Jesse, thinking in cliches isn’t a great help at this point. Pretty sure Overland readers are across what the ALP is and is not. This time around Shorten & Labor had some courageous income-redistribution policies but couldn’t convincingly prosecute the case for them, particularly abolishing franking credits. Perhaps those Queenslanders etc have voted against their own interests.

  16. A succinct overview Jeff which clarifies many of the paradoxes in Labours platform. I am unsure about the weight you put to Shortens personality in the defeat. I think it is better expressed as a distrust in politicians as a class. They are quick to promote themselves as servants when they pay, service and protect their interest as if royalty. The life for an average Australian whether left or right is not without sacrifice and trial, so such simpering is clearly seen as disingenuous. Perhaps the large early voter turnout was an expression of a broader disinterest. I noted during the campaign that opinions of average voters were sometime misinterpreted especially in regard to Franking and negative gearing. There was a distinct impression that voters only heard the first line of a policy. It is an indictment on the press and the population that a so called presidential campaign from both sides was allowed such free passage. Re- your summation “Again, matters could not be clearer. Either we fight – or we watch the planet die.” In comparison to much of the planet Australians are protectionist, elitist, cosseted and flagrantly indulgent, maybe we got what we deserved, as more than a hint of drama is needed to wake us from our lethargy.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.