The phoney problem of ideology

Monday, 25 February 2013 

Paul and Bill belt it out. Bless.

Paul and Bill belt it out. Bless.

I’m not the leader of a party called the progressive party.
I’m not the leader of a party called the moderate party.
I’m not the leader of a party even called the socialist democratic party.
I’m a leader of the party called the Labor Party deliberately because that is what we come from. That is what we believe in and that is who we are.

Julia Gillard at the AWU Conference, Jupiters Casino

As Labor stumbles, the ideological vultures are circling. A raft of articles is emerging in the press recognising that Labor is now in a profound crisis. One such is by Waleed Aly who wrote a piece in Friday’s SMH entitled Labor has lost the plot, and the narrative.

Aly is a sort of a travelling ideological repairman fixing up broken down political parties stranded on the roadside. A few years ago, when the Liberals were in trouble, he wrote a piece in the Quarterly Essay called What’s Right: The Future for Conservatism in Australia that was chock full of helpful advice for the right. This time, now that it’s the left in trouble, they are also benefiting from his services.

Aly’s argument is straightforward. Labor is in much bigger trouble than simply poor polls and leadership worries, it also has an ideological problem. In fact it has since Keating, but it now has become unavoidable. Labor’s loss of narrative is a familiar refrain, not least repeated several times by Paul Kelly over past years, who repeats it again in The Weekend Australian. Recoiling from the AWU shindig, for Kelly it only confirms the party’s crisis of identity.

Saying that Labor has a crisis of ideology and identity sounds very profound. But in fact, it misses the profundity of what is actually happening.

The period that those who claim Labor now has an ideological problem would most struggle with is the Hawke/Keating years. Waleed Aly airily claims that Labor’s message then was clear, the Hawke government was about “a new, deregulated, globalised economy”. No confusion there.

Actually there was. The first point to make was that a lot of the “narrative” of Hawke/Keating years only emerged in hindsight. At the time, indeed, a common refrain was that Labor under Hawke didn’t stand for very much. For sure, a lot of what happened under Hawke was a pragmatic response to forces that were driving deregulation around the world. But a problem for the ALP leadership was also that there was a limit to how explicit they could be, because centering government policy on a “new, deregulated, globalised economy” flew in the face of what Labor was supposed to be about. If ideology was so important, it should have been a period of party upheaval and crisis.

But it wasn’t. While there were some set piece confrontations with the party’s left over side issues such as MX missiles and uranium mining, the core of the government’s program was untouched. Indeed far from descending into crisis, Labor experienced one of its most stable, and electorally successful, periods in its history.

The reason was that Labor could bring something to the table to help bring about this “new, deregulated, globalised economy” – its relationship with the unions. While the 1980s saw more direct assaults on unions by Reagan and Thatcher in the name of deregulation and flexibility, Australian Labor was able to achieve the same with the unions in a matey embrace.

To be blunt about it, while the Australian union leadership saw their brethren being marginalised elsewhere in the world, they were prepared to deliver up their own membership for a seat at the table. It was why Australian employees suffered a decline in real wages under Hawke not experienced under Thatcher and Reagan – and still faced the job insecurities of privatisation in the public sector and from the market generally with unemployment hitting 11% by the time Hawke had left office.

Unsurprisingly, union members returned the favour. When Hawke came to office, around 50% of Australian employees were in a union. By the time Labor lost office in 1996, it was just over 30% and falling fast. Now with over 80% of the Australian workforce no longer in unions, they have become marginalised on the industrial scene anyway. It is the loss of that social base that Labor is struggling to adapt to, not some problem of ideology.

In fact it is hard to think of any centre left party that has been less concerned with ideology through its history than the Australian Labor Party. The ALP reflects the political conservatism of the Australian union movement that led to its rapid institutionalisation and the emergence of Labor governments long before they appeared elsewhere. That conservatism is probably best summed up by what was arguably the one ideology it did have for most of the last century, race. The White Australia Policy was official policy of the union movement and Labor, and not abandoned officially by unions like the AWU until the 1970s – so giving us five minutes of sunshine before they sold out their members under Hawke.

The choice the unions made during Hawke’s time has only become starker today. Either they stick with Gillard and keep their influence in the party, and so face certain defeat at the election and being even more marginalised on the industrial scene under the Coalition – or they remove Gillard, leaving the possibility of Rudd coming in and the union leaders having no influence anywhere. If they turn on Gillard, it will only be because they no longer believe she will protect their position. The only real question is how long caucus can allow them to make that choice.

It is difficult to see how the process can be reversed. Labor’s social base is going only one way, and inevitably it will have to accommodate to that. For both parties, it will mean a different type of politics than the representative politics we saw in the last century. Or rather, it will make clearer what politics has already become.

Australia, of course, is not alone in experiencing this change in the nature of politics. In Europe, with the catalyst of the financial crisis, we are already seeing the emergence of a more technocratic political class taking their line from Brussels.

In Australia, the process is more drawn out, and revealing, because there isn’t such a catalyst, except for a certain Queenslander. It’s no coincidence, though, that his campaign manager has looked to Europe for examples of the future shape of the ALP as well. These more technocrat parties, with less direct ties to society and less agenda from them, may need some ideology to fill the gap. For our wandering ideology-makers like Aly or Soutphommasane, that sounds like good news for their job prospects.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 25 February 2013.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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19 responses to “The phoney problem of ideology”

  1. Elizabeth Humphrys on 25th February 2013 10:05 am

    Really though provoking post, Piping Shrike. I agree with you the origins of the current malaise are in the Accord era for a good part. This is particularly evident in some unions scratching around for how to handle the contemporary period.

    I blog with Tad Tietze at Left Flank, and although I’ve not written much on my PhD research on the Accord there (as yet) I am trying to explore two questions you raise:

    1) Neoliberalism under Thatcher, Reagan and in NZ involved more open coercion and less consent than here — so the dominant history we tell is one of coercion. This does not match the experiences in Australia as you point out, and the dominant narrative leads people to downplay the Accord era’s ‘neoliberalism’ and play up its social democratic aspects. To downplay Hawke/Keating and emphasise Howard. But really we have to ask ourselves whether this is a useful way of looking at it — rather, should we not ask both about the neoliberal aspects of the Hawke/Keating governments and what about the Accord can be considered neoliberal policy specifically and what can be considered as more generally facilitating of neoliberalisation (as you raise).

    2) I think it is also important to also explore in more detail why the militant Left unions of the late 1970s signed on to the Accord and why (say in the case of the AMWU) forthrightly led in selling it to their members and the working class in general. I think it is true that they wanted a seat at the table, but I also think it comes from their misunderstanding of the nature of the state, what occurs when unions ‘enter’ it and the inability to be both insiders and outsiders in this regard. I just spent a week reading the AMWU files (late 1970s-1996) at the Butlin archive in Canberra, which was most illuminating.

    In the end, I find myself asking whether the unions can really move forward without openly considering the problems of the Accord strategy and era. Openly because union members need to be involved in the discussion, not just officials. At the moment we are asked to accept not simply that the ALP is preferable to Abbot, but that the glory days of Hawke/Keating are a model for both how the ALP should act in power and how the unions should relate to them and the state. Whether unions believe this behind closed doors or not, this is the message being sent to union members.

    Really enjoyed reading your piece. Thanks.

  2. Mr Denmore on 25th February 2013 11:58 am

    Labor succeeded in the 80s by notionally broadening its base to include professionals and the new knowledge workers – the hated ‘inner city elites’.

    It’s spent the last 17 years since the dawn of the Howard era trying to cuddle up to the pseudo capitalists unleashed by privatisation, demutualisation and the birth of the shareholder “democracy”.

    These are the “tradies” (former blue collar wage earners) who now imagine themselves as entrepreneurs because they own their own tile laying businesses and have a couple of “investment” properties.

    The fact is, barring a recession (which we haven’t had in 20 years), Labor is never going to win these people back and the more it tries to ape the populist, socially conservative DLP-style of Abbott, the more it pisses off the nominally progressive people who once voted Labor.

    I don’t think Labor’s problem is that it has put its flag in the ground. I think it’s problem is it is fighting over a patch of dirt that no-one cares about anymore.

    Meanwhile the abandoned centre remains unrepresented.

  3. Avalon Dave on 25th February 2013 1:35 pm

    So true Shrike.

    That was why John Howard was such an angry little man in the 1980’s. Hawke & Keating were stealing all his policies, and thus left his new Government with nothing but “Events, dear boy, events”.

    The opening quote from Julia Gillard highlights her problem. The percentage of Aussie workers in a union currently run in the 20’s. What is her latest Primary Vote in the latest poll again?

    If they actually showed some real leadership, and changed their agenda to that of a Progressive Party, Tony Abbott would have never have even been considered as Leadership material at all. Just that slightly mad Attack Dog that he has always been.

    I really am developing a deep sympathy for that “Hobson” fellow. Sigh……

  4. The Piping Shrike on 25th February 2013 1:48 pm

    Hi Elizabeth,

    The term neoliberalism always makes me feel uncomfortable as to me it ascribes too much power to ideology and the right, which could confuse things. One of the difficulties in untangling what happened in the UK, for example, is to recognise that its source lay more with the social contract made by the unions in the late 70s. Thatcher merely completed the work already done by Callaghan while proclaiming the ascendancy of the right as she did so. Needless to say the wheels began falling off her government almost immediately she had finished dealing with the unions.

    In Australia, as usual, things are clearer. The role of the unions is quite explicit and, after all, the Accord should not be a surprise since political representation was quite clearly what the ALP is about. Its decomposition and the creation of something new should be revealing.

    Dr D I think it is more than the centre that is unrepresented. Employees have no proper representation at work, which is a problem. Nor do I think the business and normal supporters of the right are especially interested in political representation. The lack of representation is what the political parties must now account for.

  5. adamite on 25th February 2013 3:11 pm

    P.S.- I’d suggest we have yet to see how the well-known ideological proclivites of Abbot and his conservative supporters will play out when, and if, he is elected. Clearly the strategy at the moment is to keep the more controversial agenda items under wraps and to play small-target politics. But it will likely be another matter entirely if the MM is elected in a landslide with control of both houses.

  6. Graeme on 25th February 2013 10:18 pm

    The claims here date at least to Whitlam’s time. That’s not to say such a process couldn’t have been playing out for 40 years, but such longevity does suggest no simple, one-way linear narrative.

    Labor’s likeliest next successful leader (perhaps 6 yrs hence) is Shorten or Combet: mini-Hawkes, products of the union bureaucracy (which of course is as much an urban professional set as any other). What then will we say?

    It’s true, both major party blocs’ primary votes are in long slow decline overall. But short of moving to PR (which I favour, MMP style, but can’t foresee) it’s hard to imagine where the crisis point emerges for either.

  7. DM on 26th February 2013 12:12 am

    Brilliant piece of analysis Shrike! You hit the nail on the head when you described the deep conservatism of the Australian union movement since its inception, and its inherent willingness to “sell-out” to the powers that be. That’s precisely what the problem with the ALP is. It’s not ideology, but rather a lack thereof, and a spirit of pragmatic accomodation to whatever the prevailing socio-economic order might be.


    I wouldn’t be so sure about Combet and Shorten. Much depends on how badly Labor does at the next election. Regardless, a loss after just two terms in government will provoke many in the Labor movement to take a good hard look at themselves and the party. If Labor is to live it cannot continue to be the plaything of a union bureaucracy that has lost touch with more than 80% of Australians.

  8. worrierqueen on 26th February 2013 6:13 pm

    It is interesting what she declared herself not to be. Since she declares she is not what 80% of people are (moderate, progressive or social democrat), by definition isn’t she defining herself as leader of a minor party?

  9. Jock on 26th February 2013 8:38 pm

    I can’t fault your political analysis, Shrike, but your economics is dodgy to say the least. In the twenty years after the 1991 recession, Australia experienced the biggest increase in real wages and jobs growth in its history. in the later years these gains were mainly attibutable to the China boom, but for the first 15 years or so they were mainly attributable to the Hawke/Keating neoliberal reforms. If you don’t think that was the source, what do you think was?

  10. The Piping Shrike on 26th February 2013 11:39 pm

    Don’t think we have much disagreement on the economics at all. You’re right, after Hawke left, and the Accord effectively ended, those who still had a job (with unemployment at 11%) saw real wages go up. By the time Keating lost in 1996, real wages had recovered to where they were when Labor came in (i.e. to be less kind, wages had gone nowhere in 13 years).

    They continued to climb under Howard as the world economy recovered, but it certainly wasn’t due to unions, which by then were in rapid decline.

    Should at least Hawke/Keating take credit for the Howard boom? Well, that deregulation and boom occurred pretty well everywhere in the developed world. US and UK went through a similar program of economic reform as Australia.

    The only difference was who paid for it. In neither Thatcher’s UK or Reagan’s US did employees pay for those reforms as they did in Hawke’s Australia.

    Real wages are only part of what happened to employee living standards under the ALP/union Accord. I discuss it more fully here (halfway down).

  11. Riccardo on 2nd March 2013 8:37 pm

    Hawke had to cut wages. Australia does not add value the way the US or Europe did in those days. We sell rocks and seeds. The other miscellany of bits and pieces we do can be done by others offshore for a fraction of the price.

    The biggest thing protecting Australia at the moment is not the dollar or the mining boom or the warships of the US Pacific Fleet. It is that we are so far off other countries’ radars that we maintain the ‘independent initiative’ that Beazley was so often prizing.

    The political class are always fantasising great things for australia – ‘punching above our weight’ , ‘Saudi Arabia of xxx’ or ‘middle power’ or some such rubbish. Our landmass looks big on a map yet our reality is so much more modest and our political class have always had a helpful pm and c and treasury to remind them of this.

    The place really only ceased to be a UK colony in the second world war when said UK told us their own survival was more important, and lucky we were convenient as a base of operations for the US or they might not have been so obliging in taking the UK’s place.

  12. Riccardo on 2nd March 2013 8:54 pm

    I had to laugh one day. I filled up at a 7/11 and the official business name above the door of the shop, run by a Chinese couple, was ‘The Australia China International Import Export Corporation Ltd’ or some such thing. Grand plans.

    But it reminded me of how our political class and media paint this place, and how very different the reality is. The seat on the UN. The Olympics. I imagine David Cameron sitting down to his toast at breakfast and the Times, and on page 35 at the bottom a small article mentions that Australians want to be a republic or have a new flag or some such rubbish. He then moves on the things that actually affect his country and government. Our Storms in other peoples teacups.

  13. Godfrey on 3rd March 2013 10:50 am

    The breakdown of the established political order the confusion that follows continues on in Italy

  14. Riccardo on 3rd March 2013 4:41 pm

    I suspect most countries have this problem when a political order is put in place to help a nation state solve a problem, but the problem goes away the political order loses purpose.

    Eg japan post war.
    LDP created to boost state capitalism, put a veneer of democracy on it to remove the fascist stain, and to continue the fight against communism. Come 1990, no need for state capitalism and no need to fight Soviet influence. Mechanism of LDP still functioning the same way but unable to adjust to new reality.

    UK as TPS often pointing out, unions ran out of use in the 1970s and Callaghan spent his remaining labor ‘capital’ removing their teeth, for Thatcher to finish. Once the job was finished, she started looking for silly things that even her party loyalists couldnt stomach, they removed her. Tories now so lost they have teamed up with Libdems to do nothing very much in particular.

    Obama sells policies that would have looked perfectly normal for Richard Nixon or other 1960s republican to sell, while actual republicans fish for votes among the KKK or the bible bashers. All lost their bearings.

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  17. JosieK on 1st May 2013 5:30 pm

    “Unsurprisingly, union members returned the favour…” was tempted to comment on the list of facts in that paragraph that commentators repeatedly misrepresent to make troothy arguments about union membership. But, this is just the amateur blog of a hack building content towards gaining a job with News Ltd.

  18. David Jackmanson on 4th May 2013 6:42 pm

    The Shrike is trying to get a job with News Ltd?


    *pause for breath*


    Seriously, funniest ad hominem (and, I’m sure, inaccurate) attack ever! I assume JosieK is some ambitious ALP hack who has been trained to think all the ALP’s enemies are right-wingers.

    Of course, this blog generally attacks the ALP’s relevance from the *left*. Not a good way to get regular pay from Rupert.

  19. The Piping Shrike on 4th May 2013 8:20 pm

    Isn’t it?!? Damn.

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