Sunday, 8 April 2012
It’s about now, after a spectacular Labor defeat, that this blog should be joining other “progressive” blogs to post a “whither Labor?” piece and opening up a forum for suggestions on how Labor can recover … going back to base … core values … party reform … more say for members … hum-te-dum-de-dum.
Actually this blog doesn’t care that much. From a democratic point of view, fretting about the decline of a political party rather misses the point. The only question of any interest is how people can get what they want – not how to revive an organisation that might no longer do the job. As Bob Katter showed, setting up a new political party on even the flakiest of premises is no big deal.
Starting from an electoral defeat doesn’t help much for understanding what is going on either. Some almost-as-progressive blogs have come in with a counter line saying basically, don’t worry about Queensland and NSW, we’ve been here before, it’s just a phase in the cycle.
One example is a piece by the ABC’s Antony Green cautioning against being too quick to write Labor off. His argument centres on a graph showing Labor’s share of state and federal seats across the country since 1969, saying that it shows that Labor’s current sharp decline is just part of the political cycle.
The first obvious point to make is that by starting in 1969, near the end of 23 years of Coalition federal rule, it makes it look as though such cycles are part of Australian politics. In fact for most of the 20th century, Australian politics was marked by long periods of continuous government (usually Coalition) and sporadic periods of Labor rule often ending in splits on the Labor side and a realignment of non-Labor parties. From this graph we can make the first profound observation that yes, Australian politics is cyclical – except of course when it isn’t.
Moreover, if we are meant to read the graph and conclude something about Australian politics, then it would suggest that Labor’s fortunes are getting better and better, with each trough less than before and each peak ascending even higher to the glory years of 2005-2006.
Somehow this intuitively doesn’t feel quite right.
There’s a good reason for that. If we look at actual votes Labor has received in both state and federal over the same time, we don’t get much of “cycle”. It’s more undulating decline.
In fact, going back further we see that in terms of votes, Labor’s “golden days” of 2005-6 were worse than even the slump during the DLP split of the 1950s (even before including the “non-Communist” Labor party) and was only beaten by the party splits during the Depression of the 1930s.
Labor’s lousy voting record in recent decades has generally not translated to seats mainly, of course, because of preferential voting, with Green preferences coming back to Labor (compared to the DLP days when they went away from Labor).
This is partly why the long-running decline in Labor’s primary vote tends to get ignored – except where it starts to get so bad that Labor falls behind the Greens or independents and loses what had been a core seat.
But it’s also possible to pick up an unwillingness to take the decline at face value. Commentary increasingly wants to ascribe meta-tactical reasons for voters not giving their first vote to Labor to “teach them a lesson” and “send a message” rather than Labor simply being no longer most voter’s first preference.
Even political parties can fall for such meta thinking – as we saw in Queensland when near the end of the election campaign Labor started asking voters not to give the LNP a too big majority – as though someone would go into a polling booth and cast opposite to how they were going to vote to offset those of other voters. Now we seem to also have an expectation that voters will balk at the size of the LNP majority and swing back to Labor in the coming by-election in Bligh’s seat – when the very opposite may happen.
But the decline of voting is one thing, yet this is not just any political party we are talking about. This is the Australian Labor Party, set up and run by the union leadership. Labor’s vote is not only in decline, but so is the social base that set it up.
The decline of union membership in Australia is well recorded. Andrew Leigh, who became Labor’s Member for Fraser at the last election, wrote an article in 2008 tracking the decline and looking at the reasons for it.
Leigh directly takes on what he sees as the “common explanations” for the decline of the unions – one being because workers became more sceptical about them. He argues this is wrong because when unions were rising, such as in the 1970s, Australians were more likely to have negative opinions about them and tell pollsters that they had “too much power” and less likely to think they were “good for Australia”.
But it is precisely when unions had some weight to throw about that obviously other sections of society would most object. It’s only when unions became powerless and a weak bargaining tool for its members that they would get a sympathy vote – something union leaders have been only too happy to play up in recent years, summed up by the Workchoices ad showing a worker crying on the phone to her mum, that everyone loved so much.
Leigh also takes up the other “common” reason given, the impact of the union accord with the Labor government in the 1980s. This should be a powerful argument given that it resulted in the biggest blow to Australian workers’ standards since the war. But Leigh says that this is unconvincing as well, since the sharpest declines happened in the 1990s after the accord was over.
Readers can judge from Leigh’s graph when the decline occurred, but its acceleration is fairly straightforward – for the same reason unions so rapidly formed – unity is strength. Once unions start to lose their bargaining mass there’s not much point being in them. It has to be said, for someone who has studied this, Leigh shows a surprising naivety of how collective action works, not only how unions throw their weight around but how others react when they do. But then, such naivety over the nature of social conflict is probably prerequisite these days for being in the Parliamentary Labor Party.
Leigh thinks the unions’ decline has little to do with what the unions actually did, but due to changes in the workplace. This is a favourite and uncontroversial reason, that is nobody’s fault and is based on a romantic view that in the past the Australian workforce were collectivised proletarians in the factories rather than the highly fragmented workforce (especially with a higher proportion of agricultural workers) that it actually was.
But at least Leigh addresses the causes that had actually to do with how the unions let down their members. Leigh says blaming worker disillusionment with unions, especially during the Hawke accord is “common”. It may be in academia, but it’s certainly rare in the media.
Indeed in the press you tend to read the opposite reason. George Megalogenis, for example, thinks the unions’, and Labor’s, decline happened because they were too successful for their members. This is understandable given that it would otherwise cast a poor light on his favourite period: the highly educative reform period of the Hawke/Keating years. Presumably having enough plasma TVs, workers decided they had more than enough money and no longer needed the unions for higher pay. Hmmm. It is possible people leave organisations because they are too successful. Although leaving organisations because they are not effective enough has also been heard of. The reader will obviously have to decide.
But the decline of Labor’s vote and its base in the unions is clear. So this leaves an important question: if, on any social criteria, Labor is clearly in decline, but commentators like Antony Green can still say Labor’s fortunes are just part of a “political cycle” what exactly do they mean by “political”?
What Green means by political in his piece is purely representation in the Parliament. Ironically the increasing cyclical nature of political representation, the way Labor’s seats can blow out and then implode, has much to do with the party’s decline in society and the loosening ties from its social base (especially in Queensland where the two party system is at its weakest and which is probably over-represented in Green’s graph). Commentators like saying that the electorate is becoming more “volatile”. But it’s not really swinging from one side to the other, but increasingly indifferent to either. In short, the cyclicality of parties in Parliament comes from the increasing detachment of society from what is going on in there.
So in a way, Green and others have a point. Politics is becoming more cyclical, but only because the nature of politics is changing from what it was in the 20th century. Then parties were formed because social groups in society wanted representation in Parliament – and based their loyalties accordingly. Now we have instead, parties looking for someone in society to represent.
That’s why, for example, we have state funding of political parties. Usually posed to prevent undue influence from sectional interests on political parties, it is really about the opposite. It’s the lack of interest by social groups in political parties and financing them which is why the state must step in.
Menzies’ Liberals were formed on the basis of translating the interests of metropolitan business interests to a broader audience in the middle class and some sections of the working class. Now politics is turned upside down. Instead of political parties trying to translate particular interests to a broader section of society, now we have parties eager to appear to be representing anybody in particular. So we have political leaders spending most of the election campaign bothering and getting photographed with “ordinary” voters to show how they can “connect” with real people.
As a perceptive piece in The Drum recently pointed out, yesterday’s political apparatchik is seen as a true son of Labor in the past, while today’s apparatchik is now something for the party to be defensive about, because they are in a party that no longer represents anything much.
Politics in the 21st century is now operating on the absence of any real connection in society, but politicians constantly needing to manufacture one. There is no sign that this detachment will reverse – even in countries that are now going through economic crisis, the detachment of the state from society is only consolidating.
If politics is now less about society seeking political representation than politicians seeking social representation, it also changes the nature of how the state is perceived – or, more accurately, commentators are now catching up with how the state is already widely perceived – as something to be avoided unless necessary and politics purely as a pursuit in its own terms.
This is getting reflected in a subtle differentiation emerging in commentary both in the mainstream press and the blogosphere – between those who still see politics as being driven directly by society and those who see it as more detached.
This is especially seen in the blogosphere where politics is now increasingly confused with policy. So, a “serious” political blog will show just how serious it is by having a long piece on, say, the NBN. Optic fibre or copper wiring with wireless? How on earth could anyone have an opinion on this or even care? Aren’t there experts paid to work out such things? What had been the real basis for interest in politics, as a forum for the competition of interests in society, is now missing from such high-minded “policy” discussions.
Or take the writers in The Australian, probably the largest single collection of political commentators in Australia. Compare Paul Kelly talk about government policy and popularity as though the two are related, with that of George Megalogenis who treats policy as something politicians need to educate the public on whether they like it or not. Or compare the way Shanahan will talk of the latest poll, desperately trying to relate it to whatever happened in politics over the last fortnight, with that of Peter Brent’s Mumble that tends to treat it happening under its own fairly vague laws, and therefore getting closer to the mark of what is going on.
So will Labor survive? That is a question that relies little on whether it can revive its “values” and reconnect in any meaningful way to the electorate. In reality the survival of either of the main parties depends on the opposite: how well can they adapt to operating with no social base? This is the real content to the discussion of party reform in Labor, a discussion that has, for the time being, been put on ice because Rudd threatens to take it to its logical conclusion. But whether the major parties will survive is one question – yet there is now a more important one. Why should anyone else care?
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Sunday, 8 April 2012.Filed under Key posts, Media analysis, State of the parties