Wednesday, 7 September 2011
Er, choose the second from the right. He’ll know what to do.
As polls confirm Gillard as the most unpopular Prime Minister in the history of the planet, the mind inevitably asks, who’s next? Or at least the media’s mind does. As far as their narrative goes, when the leader becomes unpopular, the leader gets changed. Although the problem for Labor now is that this time it can’t, because otherwise it might be seen as having the ‘NSW disease’ and could end up getting wiped out like NSW Labor.
That this theory is supposed to be that parties become unpopular by changing leaders to be popular, suggests something’s not quite right with the narrative – and it underplays what Federal Labor is going through right now. If NSW Labor changed leaders to revive popularity, there was little polling evidence that it would. Any more than there was a single national poll that had Gillard more popular than Rudd when she toppled him. The media assumed that this was the reason that the leaders were toppled because that usually had something to do with it in the past. That assumption has now broken down.
Just as the dynamic for Gillard replacing Rudd had more to do with internal dynamics than anything, so the shuffling through the leadership pack in NSW had more to do with internal dynamics. But those internal dynamics have now gone wrong.
Labor’s internal structure reflects the role it plays in society. Historically that has been based on its relationship to the unions, and the role it can play in the broader economy. The factional splits in Labor reflect the contradictions in that role, most notably between the interests of the unions and that of business. The dominant faction in Labor has usually been the one that can best manage that role, and the Right’s links with business and the unions has underpinned its dominance. That’s why traditionally when the Right would assert its interests, there would usually be some electoral justification to it, as it was the Right that best represented it.
As Labor’s relationship with the unions has less social relevance, so does its internal factional structure have less meaning. Yet one of the striking features of Labor over the last two decades is the degree to which the internal factional structure has largely remained intact, at least formally. The rise of technocrat Labor has seen a gradual eclipsing of the normal power bases, with state parties like that in SA, the home of technocrat Labor, having a leader not formally from either faction but still heavily reliant on patronage from the Right.
It was in NSW, however, where the most successful of the old union-business models was the last to change. When it did, it went from the old business-union model to technocrat, straight through to decay in a couple of years. When the power bases in the party took on Iemma and the Parliamentary wing over electricity privatisation, it split the Right and resulting in the anti-Iemma part joining forces with the Left to choose the first leader from the left in living memory. Although Rees was only a new boy, so it didn’t count – until he tried to take the opportunity of the disarray in the Right to take on the old structures. That was enough to bring the Right back together again and soon Sartor was pumping the air in victory to make sure it was his candidate that would led the party to a crushing defeat.
Factional bosses getting rid of Labor leaders is hardly new – in fact it is the way it is always done. What was new was one, temporarily losing control in the process, but more importantly, two, it having absolutely nothing to do with the party’s electoral prospects, indeed actually damaging them. This was the real NSW disease, not changing leaders, but it having no electoral rationale. When Bligh or Rudd raise the NSW disease, it is from leaders dealing with the threat from factional retribution by highlighting what can no longer be ignored – the relationship between what the dominant faction does and any electoral justification has broken down.
Having now been exposed in Sussex Street, they have certainly been exposed in Canberra. This is not just with the failure of Gillard’s leadership. On other issues, the normal ability of the Right to assert its position for electoral gain has turned to mud. Take the most squalid of Gillard’s ‘Right turns’ on taking the leadership, the treatment of asylum seekers. The toughening up of handling asylum seekers (started, of course, under Rudd) was supposed to deal with a political problem by being just as tough as the Coalition, ending up in the miserable people trafficking deal with Malaysia. None of this namby-pamby touchy-feely stuff, if you want to stay in office. Yet if Gillard had greeted each boat personally with flowers and a box of chocolates before showing them to their new quarters in Wollstonecraft, the government’s refugee policy would probably be more popular than the one they have now got.
The factional leaders can no longer kid themselves they know what to do to cure Labor’s polling woes, leaving them with as little to say as Howes on Monday night’s Q&A. But even worse, the one leadership change that does have electoral justification is, of course, impossible. Everyone has been going on how Rudd must learn his lessons if he is to retake the leadership. But he has not been the one that has been discredited over the last year. Whatever he says, he, and the factional leaders, will know that in the unlikely circumstance that Napoleon comes back from Elba, it would have to be under conditions that will make the first stint seem like a picnic for the power brokers.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 7 September 2011.Filed under State of the parties