Populism is rapidly evolving as the catch-all explanation for the maelstrom engulfing national and international politics. It is said to be driving the rise of the authoritarian right in Europe and to be evident in the re-emergence of ‘strong man’ politics associated with Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China and Duterte’s Philippines. While Trump appears to be riding a populist wave all his own, it is also proferred as the key to understanding Bernie Sanders’ and Jeremy Corbyn’s surprising successes. The recourse to populism as the answer risks blinding us to the complex realities. It risks obscuring the more meaningful lessons that would better serve the sort of reform-minded social democratic movement that we might like to think the Australian Labor Party could be.
The 2017 General Election in the United Kingdom saw Labour capture 40% of the vote and pick up 13 seats. For many, this strong showing was even more surprising than Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the Labour leadership two years earlier. The result restored Labour’s standing as a genuine opposition with an election manifesto [hyperlink] that drew deeply on ‘Old Labour’ thinking and experience.
In his recent Newspoll Round-up , Adrian Beaumont contrasts UK Labour’s continuing strong standing with the faltering centre-left parties on the Continent suggesting that “the most important cause of this disparity is that UK Labour has adopted many populist left policies, while European centre-left parties resist populist policies”.
I would suggest that this is a misreading.
Jeremy Corbyn has shifted the Labour Party there is no doubt of that. He continues to muse aloud including on scrapping Britain’s nuclear arsenal or printing money to fund public investments (having listened perhaps to our own Bill Mitchell’s thinking on Modern Monetary Theory). Whether intentionally or not his musings are opening the space for policy conversations inside and outside his own party beyond the givens. This testing of policy assumptions and the public mood for reform is no bad thing. Policy discourse should be just that, an exchange: it is as much about educating and listening as it is about prosecuting a case. Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating both understood this in their own ways.
There is a hint of it in Shorten Labor’s policy development and public discussions around negative gearing and now on abolishing the cash refunds on excess dividend imputation credits – though neither can lay claim to being transformational policy reforms. It is to be hoped that it will be bear more fruit with a significant employment policy well before the next election.
On reading For the Many Not the Few: the UK Labour Party Manifesto 2017 you soon become aware of just how much Corbyn Labour has shifted – or, depending on your point of view, rediscovered its roots. Most striking is its reaffirmation of the public good and a pro-active role for government in delivering on behalf of all: the creation of wealth is a public endeavour, paying tax is a social obligation…for the common good. Key public services should be in public hands through the creation of new public institutions in some areas and a gradual process of re-investment and reclaiming identified privatised services as contracts expire. Enterprise is to be encouraged and supported. Private ownership is encouraged but ownership of the economy is to be distributed. In what appears to be a curious reconfiguring of property rights (so dear to neo-liberals), there is proposed “right to own” giving employees the right of first refusal when the company they work for is threatened with closure.
Inevitably the manifesto is a mixed bag: some of it is a bit silly, a good deal seeks to undo the damage done and is unimaginative in how it proposes to go about it. Elsewhere it breaks new ground.
However, there could be no mistaking that this is a labour platform: it is a different political language (not a mention of user choice or purchaser-provider or citizen customer). It could not be clearer that this lot and the Tories see the world differently.
Just as significantly there is an underlying democratic current evident not only in the framing of economic and industry policies but also in the emphasis on the nations that comprise the United Kingdom and more importantly perhaps devolution to communities (subsidiarity is the unspoken principle). The ‘sport’ policy is a case in point where Labour commits to giving “football supporters the opportunity to have a greater say in how their clubs are run” and mandating that 5% of all television rights income be invested in the “grassroots game”.
Corbyn himself is a beneficiary of the mixed efforts to reform and democratise British Labour.
Returning for a moment to the 2017 UK elections, just as interesting as Labour’s gains with a swing of 9.5% was the fact that the Tories also had a 5.5% swing to them. This combined 15% shift back saw all the smaller parties (with one or two exceptions) either halted in their tracks or sent backwards. The ugly UKIP won the biggest loser prize with a 10.8% swing against them.
It prompted me to read the new Grattan Institute report, A crisis of trust: the rise of protest politics in Australia. It is a data-rich report. Its key conclusion is that the growing support for minor parties is not a consequence of inequality or economic insecurity but is primarily a failing trust in government. This is felt more keenly the further you get from the centres of our major cities. Distance from government it would seem is both real and metaphorical: it is a matter of belief, community, services and geography.
The lesson for Australian Labor in all this is not to take the easy road of pandering to populist whims but rather to go boldly forth: recovering the party’s social democratic roots must be more than a sentimental journey or a sop to disaffection. It should be the bedrock of both party and policy reform. It is a rich source of a language that has a deep history and that speaks to a public (and yes remarkably even to the younger public) feeling battered by decades of blind obedience to ‘the markets’.
Australians have understandably lost faith but want to believe. They need a reason to do so. In this respect Labor elder, John Faulkner, got it absolutely right when he reminded us at Gough Whitlam’s State Memorial Service that Gough made the Labor Party not only electable but worth electing.
Eric Sidoti is a public policy analyst and advocate. He was till recently the Director (2007-2017) of the Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney University.