JOHN MENADUE. What should Labor stand for as the blue collar base declines? Part 1 of 3.

A concern expressed to me by many voters was that the recent ALP campaign lacked an over-riding narrative or framework and that, being very detailed, it was vulnerable to lies and scare tactics. There were many attractive big-ticket policies but  was there a vision of  where Labor wanted to take Australia?

In the political process, I think there is general agreement that political compromises have to be made but they should only be made against a framework of generally agreed values. We like to know what our party and our leaders stand for, even if a few corners have to be cut. Voters will cut the ALP a lot of slack if they understand what its values are and it holds to them.

ALP policies and programs must be anchored in a framework of values and principles. ‘What does the ALP stand for’. When that is understood the ALP is then in a much stronger position to win support for policies and programs. It is important that Labor is firm on principles but not positions. Unfortunately, politicians keep getting sucked into positions. That gives opportunists like Scott Morrison many opportunities to distort and scare the electorate.

The political facts are stark. The Labor primary vote has declined from about 45-50% fifty years ago to 34% today the lowest in perhaps a hundred years. In Queensland, the birthplace of the ALP it was 27%. The Greens and independents are eating the ALP’s lunch.

The Coalition vote is virtually unchanged. Labor has lost its clear identity with the ‘working class’ and what it stands for. Its natural constituency and membership has declined.  But Hawke showed that it is possible to bind the traditional blue collar voter with the more educated and socially progressive voter who cares for issues such as global warming and the environment.

To compensate for the loss of it’s traditional supporters, Labor has increasingly committed itself to focus groups, marginal seat strategies and fund raising. A framework of values, principles and ideas has given way to the marketing of products.

The trade unions remain the most important institutional Labor supporter and must be maintained, but trade union influence is out of proportion to its role in the community and the ‘Labor constituency’.

Principles as the basis of policies
If Labor is to differentiate itself from conservative parties, it needs to express that difference in a clear set of principles which accord with the best of Australians’ values. Otherwise the political contest is reduced to satisfying short-term materialist ‘aspirations’, appeasing vested interests and managing the media cycle. In such a contest, Labor is engaged in a futile struggle, for the Coalition with the help of News Corp and powerful and wealthy vested interest is adept at conveying the misleading impression that it is the ‘natural party of government’, particularly because of its wrongly assumed competence in economic management. From community values a set of principles of public policy can be developed – principles which define Labor in contrast to other parties. Those principles can underpin a coherent set of policies and programs which implement those policies.
Values > principles > policies > programs.

Moving to the ‘right’ on issues such as refugee and defence policy simply legitimises the conservative position – a position from where exploitation of people’s fear is likely to drive out sensible and reasonable political debate. Selectively compromising – a little socialism here, a little free market there – as was the strategy of Britain’s New Labour – only confuses Labor supporters and the electorate because it presents inconsistent values. Social democrat parties, including Labor, were founded on an optimistic view of human nature and on recognition of the public sphere where people realise their full capabilities. These ideas can be expressed in consistent and coherent principles such as stewardship, the common wealth, including enhancement of social, environmental and institutional capital and protection of natural resources. In his emphasis on the ‘social question’, John Curtin gave effect to these principles, acknowledging that only a strong society, including a strong and respected government, can support a strong economy. And of course there is no point in an economy that does not serve social ends.

Curtin’s vision – ‘the social question’
Curtin’s social democratic vision contrasts sharply with the Liberal Party platform ‘that only businesses and individuals are the creators of wealth and employment’, a view that reduces government to a burden rather than a contributor to the common wealth. Curtin’s vision contrasts with the notion that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’, which legitimises destructive social divisions, which encourages people to separate themselves from society in physical or metaphorical gated communities (private schools, private health insurance), which allows the connection between contribution and reward to be severed, which encourages rent-seeking, speculation and protection of privilege rather than productive investment and which compensates the ‘losers’ with social security handouts.

Labor – the Party of strong leadership and values
Just as Labor governments provided leadership in the past, Australia faces even greater challenges today – climate change, population ageing, dilapidated infrastructure, commodity based exports, deficits in human capital and a weak base of public revenue. The politics of ‘what’s in it for me’ discourages us from facing these challenges, for there will have to be trade-offs: some will have to pay more than others and some will have to forego benefits now for the sake of longer term benefits. Such transitions can be painful, but are more likely to gain support when people understand the principles underpinning public policy. When the Party is unified around a set of principles it can still have a robust debate about how to give effect to those principles. But it would be in control of its message because its parliamentary representatives can engage with the electorate in a consistent and sincere voice, with less reliance on ‘talking points’ and spin and with less concern with the immediate reaction of focus groups. Labor supporters would be much more prepared to accept political compromise if they know that there is strong leadership and there is broad agreement on key values and principles. Labor leadership has to be patient and consistent around these values and principles – and never go backwards.  Authenticity and sincerity are then easily recognised.

In Part 2 I will focus on five key issues that the ALP must address.

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4 Responses to JOHN MENADUE. What should Labor stand for as the blue collar base declines? Part 1 of 3.

  1. Nini says:

    I’m a latte-sipping Lefty from an academic family, who spent my teens and twenties in inner-city Melbourne, but my first 10 years were out in the working-class ‘burbs.

    The issue is not the platform, it is the way left-wing voices communicate with working class people. THE LEFT SHOULD NOT BE LOSING WORKING CLASS VOTERS. I have lived in Pauline Hanson territory for a decade and a half, and, despite my youthful conviction that QLD was full of redneck Nazis, when I came here I discovered that things are more complex and nuanced than that. I have friends who are brickies, plumbers, farm workers, cleaners. The Left, full of people like myself, who have all the middle class snobbery towards “bogans”, has been sneering at these people for a number of decades, and calling their ideas and conclusions ignorant and racist. We don’t respect their views, or bother to listen to why they might say things. Because they are not literate or very articulate, working class people have trouble capturing the subtleties. They will call someone a ‘wanker’ rather than being able to say why they think so.
    Social policies are blunt instruments. Assistance to Indigenous people is not always fair. I know a child with scars from beatings by a parent, who has never been to the city ( 1 and a half hours drive) because the family is too poor. I know 2 Indigenous kids who qualified for extra assistance at school, due to being Indigenous, even though their mother is a Teacher Aide and the father is a Deputy Principal. Some of the complaints up in QLD are due to this kind of thing, when you have people who are genuinely struggling, who are not receiving assistance, who see an uneven application of help when it is not necessarily fair. To a middle class person, it’s not a big deal, but it is to someone who is struggling. If you listen to some of the complaints form One Nation voters, they say “All Australians should be treated equally” NOT “Indigenous people should be treated worse than white people”. But we are too quick to look down on people like that and paint them as racist.
    Same with immigrants/visa holders, and the issue of them being prepared to work for lower wages. If you are earning a shit wage, it is not much fun to see it being driven down by competition. I know a woman in her fifties who is paid NINETEEN dollars an hour as a cleaner. It’s disgusting. She has been working for the same company for years, even though it keeps changing hands. She is divorced and does not own her own home. I am friends with her son, and she is excited about spending $16 000 on a newer car. That is her big financial reward for all her decades of hard work.
    Meanwhile, the Right has learnt to talk to working class people. They will go either way, depending on if you appeal to them. And the Right is fantastic at it. Meanwhile, we sneer at them because they don’t understand franking credits, or how eliminating negative gearing will help them. Working class people will never bother to learn that sort of thing, but they will get it if you say something simple, punchy and direct. Look at Clive Palmer’s ads. The billionaire had the ultimate working class ads, and it worked.
    Labor does not need to abandon its ideas; it needs to communicate them well. It needs to learn working class language, to respect with and connect with a previously large part of its base.
    Why was Hawke so popular? One of the reasons was that he liked all sorts of Australians, and he communicated directly to them, in their language.

  2. john tons says:

    Shorten had the basis for an appropriate framework. Social democrats have always been concerned with fairness. Fairness and equality of opportunity are the cornerstones of a sound and effective government. Once Labor seeks to gain office by mimicking whatr the conservatives do they remove any sound reason one may in voting for them.

  3. Abul Rizvi says:

    Thanks John

    I think the last part of your article really hits the nail on the head – change is painful. People would prefer not to change if they don’t have to. Morrison offered them the illusion that there was no need to change. We can happily go down our current path and everything will be just fine. Indeed, Morrison’s ten year surplus plan offered just that. However illusory people were happy to buy the no change agenda.

    What Labor failed to do was explain the ‘burning platform’. That is, the consequences of not changing are worse than taking the risk to change. That played into Morrison’s hands.

  4. George Morrow says:

    You have to wonder what the “blue collar” base is anymore. The median wage in the Coal Mining industry is about $190,000 a year (the Miner who took Bill Shorten to task in FNQ was earning $200K a year), Self-employed Tradies in most cities and in the regions are doing very nicely and large sections of the heavily unionised public sector are attracting good salaries. If what Labor is left with are casual workers in the gig economy it can’t win power on those alone.
    Perhaps the pitch in carbon based industries such as Coal has to be to the children of existing workers (you may have a job for the next 10- years but will your kids have a job?).
    Otherwise Labor has to compete with the Coalition for the “sensible swinging center”. One wonders how it will do this while accommodating the demands of the a Union Movement desperately seeking relevance and Factions focused on power within the Party rather than on the needs and wants of the Nation.

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