The sunset of socialism—or, what is Labor for?

In his 1914 ‘sunshine of socialism’ speech, Scottish union organiser Keir Hardie reflected on 21 years of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) he had founded. ‘I shall not weary you by repeating the tale of how public opinion has changed during those twenty-one years,’ he told an audience in Bradford, West Yorkshire, where the ILP had in 1893 been launched as a response to the Liberal Party’s failure to endorse working class candidates. ‘But, as an example,’ he went on,

I may recall the fact that in those days, and for many years thereafter, it was tenaciously upheld by the public authorities, here and elsewhere, that it was an offence against laws of nature and ruinous to the State for public authorities to provide food for starving children, or independent aid for the aged poor. Even safety regulations in mines and factories were taboo. They interfered with the ‘freedom of the individual’. As for such proposals as an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, the right to work, and municipal houses, any serious mention of such classed a man as a fool.

The values articulated in Hardie’s speech were central to the foundation of the ILP, which in time would evolve into the modern Labour Party. Today, it’s still broadly accepted by many that Labour, like its Australian counterpart, embodies these principles: class-consciousness; collectivism, including, but not limited to, unionism; scepticism about the free market’s capacity to reduce inequality, manifesting in a robust social safety net; and high levels of investment in education, health, and public housing.

The so-called post-war consensus—an economic model incorporating nationalisation, trade unionism, high taxation, and strong regulation and welfare—largely enshrined these ideals across the political spectrum. What Hardie ridiculed as the right’s obsession with the ‘freedom of the individual’ at the expense of collective wellbeing, however, would, in the decades following the War, come to dominate mainstream politics. If the post-war consensus entrenched, however imperfectly, the idea of interventionist public policy as an instrument of social betterment, then the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s, spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US, had the effect of not merely destroying but inverting whatever unity there had been between the major parties of the left and right. Where once Labo(u)r had railed against it, the party would now embrace the unfettered freedom of the individual and the market, and uphold the old public goods more in name than substance.

As Elizabeth Humphrys showed in How Labour Built Neoliberalism (2019), Labor was not a victim of the New Right’s radical neoliberal agenda in the 1970s and ’80s, but a willing and even enthusiastic enabler of its rollout across the entirety of our social and economic structures. The party, once differentiated by its focus on enabling social mobility through the provision of basic entitlements like housing, education, and income, now came to resemble little more than a slightly less nasty version of their political rivals.

The result has been the rightwards drift of Labor here and in the UK, and the rise of a class of ostensibly socialist-left politicians who have had to accomodate the right faction of the party so often in order to ascend the ranks that even dunderheads like Piers Morgan have begun to wonder if something is up. Those who buck this trend, like the genuinely progressive Jeremy Corbyn—an activist for decades prior to holding a position in government—have a habit of being made to pay with their political lives.

In a 2012 article for LabourList, Kevin Meagher identified what he called the ‘realist’s dilemma’ facing the British Labour Party of the time: how to govern in a constrained fiscal environment. Meagher wrote that:

… it is impossible to galvanise centre-left opinion—and working people in particular—behind vague promises of being a bit nicer than the other lot. The Liberals tried that in Hardie’s day. The prospect of change has to be real and spelled out. Political organising and shifting public opinion remain as hard today as they were then. At its root there is a need to inspire a shared sense of mission, of destination… what is Labour’s animating purpose if ameliorating the worst excesses of the free market through social spending is out of bounds… To use a very un-Hardie phrase, what does Labour’s ‘brand’ stand for then?

It’s a question we might well ask of modern Labor, a party whose current leader is at pains to remind us of his working class roots.

On Tuesday, Jim Chalmers handed down the second budget of the Albanese Labor Government. In the days leading up to the Treasurer’s big speech, speculation had been rife as to what measures it would contain to address the cost-of-living crisis. Perhaps, many hoped, a substantial rise to JobSeeker—currently set at one of the lowest rates in the OECD—would be among them. Addressing the Labor caucus on Monday afternoon, the Prime Minister had said he was ‘very proud’ of a budget that was about the ‘aspiration of people for a better life.’

In truth, the budget said more about Labor’s aspiration to be neither liked nor disliked by anybody than it did about the material improvement of Australians’ lives. Reading through the detail, it’s hard to escape the feeling that, as Luke Savage put it on the subject of the Democratic Party under Joe Biden, Labor has ‘no new ideas, no sense of dynamism, and isn’t even pretending they’re serious about achieving a better world.’ It was, if nothing else, entertaining to watch the usual suspects try to spin a milquetoast centre-right budget as a masterstroke of progressive politics.

To be sure, there was some good, meat-and-potatoes Labor stuff: a pay increase for aged care workers, more support for single parents (although why fourteen, rather than sixteen, was considered by the PM ‘the right balance’ for the cut-off age of dependents is perplexing). There was also money for energy and medical bill relief, renewables, and First Nations communities. But it was all so halfhearted, so transparently couched in the fear of being branded by the Opposition and the mainstream press as fiscally irresponsible at a time of rising inflation.

We could have been given a visionary budget, emboldened by Labor’s recent electoral successes at both state and federal level, and the fact that the next election is still two years away. Instead, spooked by its own shadow and the boogeyman of inflation, Labor delivered a faded scrapbook of the Party’s old glories. A derisory lift of JobKeeper by $40 a fortnight or $50 for over-55s, amounts which leave millions of Australians in poverty. A rent assistance bump of $1.12 a day, far less than what’s required to address the soaring cost of rental properties across the country.

For those, like me, who don’t qualify for low-income support payments, but for whom it is nevertheless difficult to make rent each week, there was nothing. For those on the NDIS, there was less than nothing—effectively, cuts totalling $74.3 billion over the next decade. While the Government decided to sit on a projected nest egg of $4 billion rather than use the money to boost any number of social programs, it barely touched the huge profits of big gas—Chalmers predictably plumping for the option with the smallest financial impact—and left entirely alone the $11.6 billion Australia pays in subsidies to fossil fuel companies each year (neither the climate crisis, nor the environment more broadly, rated a single mention in the Treasurer’s thirty-minute speech). All of this we were supposed to ignore, or forgive, while rejoicing in—along with the bulk of the largely economically illiterate or just apathetic commentariat—a small and soon-to-disappear surplus.

As with the Government’s Safeguard Mechanism—its ‘signature’ climate change policy—the cost-of-living measures in this budget look more like political fixes than genuine attempts to improve anything in the real world. Rather, they appear designed to fend off criticism from progressives who, more than ever, cannot be relied upon to vote Labor at the federal level—and with good reason.

Why persevere with the stage-three tax cuts, AUKUS, and the Safeguard Mechanism—all boondoggles conceived under the previous government and retained in the Budget—rather than articulate and prosecute a genuinely progressive and reformist agenda? What’s to lose? Presumably, Labor strategists would answer ‘votes’, but it’s hard to see what rewards the party imagines can be reaped from maintaining LNP policy, especially given the increasing number of young people who feel disenfranchised by both major parties.

Underlying the Budget’s unconscionably timid spending on what should be bread-and-butter Labor issues is the Government’s fear of being seen to worsen inflation. On one level, this isn’t surprising. Just as much of the media has latched onto a surplus Labor had nothing to do with achieving as the big story of the Budget so, too, has its collective imagination been gripped by the non-question ‘is this inflationary?’, repeated ad nauseam in interviews and pressers with the Treasurer and Finance Minister since Tuesday night.

The reality is that government spending has little to no effect on inflation. Conversely, the Australia Institute estimates that corporate profits—which have boomed since the pandemic—are responsible for more than two-thirds of inflation above the Reserve Bank’s target of 2 to 3 per cent. Has Labor been so cowed by its years in opposition that it cannot in government state these facts with confidence, and use them to bolster the case that increased social spending is not only an economic asset rather than a liability but also a moral imperative when so many people are struggling to make ends meet? After all, as former US Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew put it, ‘a budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.’

It seems to me that here, as well as in the US and UK—where Hardie’s namesake, Labour Opposition Leader Keir Starmer, is vying for the prime ministership—what we are witnessing is not the sunshine but the sunset of socialism.


Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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

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