Has Labor abandoned workers?

Nov 23, 2023
Two unrecognisable blue collar workers isolated against clear blue sky with sun flare.

The traditional parties of compassion – Labor in Australia, Labour in Britain, Liberals in Canada and the Democrats in the US – have come under attack from the left and the right for abandoning workers.

The critique from the left, particularly the Marxist left, is that the parties of compassion have become preoccupied with socially progressive issues which are of little interest to their traditional working class base. These socially progressive issues include climate change, gender, sexuality and race. They appeal to the university educated professional and managerial cohorts who have progressively seized control of traditional centre left parties. The French economist Thomas Piketty, author of the highly popular Capital in the 21st Century, characterises them as the Brahmin Left – intellectually and socially aloof and quietly contemptuous of those less educated. In fact, he argues, that this class’s focus on education and merit is more socially divisive than the “ancien regime” because it claims its elevated status has been earned and those who have failed to make the grade have done so because of lack of intelligence or application. He sees the Brahmin Left as complicit in the abandonment of high marginal tax rates and thus the growth in inequality in income and wealth since the late 1970s. In short, he argues, the traditional workers’ parties have abandoned workers and become socially progressive and economically conservative – SPECs.

From the right there are two strands of criticism – from the populist right, and from the philosophically conservative right.

The populist critique focuses on elitism. It is resentful of the claimed moral superiority of the educated left. It argues that these elites have infiltrated both major parties (in two party systems) and have rigged the game – in particular in relation to domestic competition policy, free trade and immigration. While the populists are not exclusively male, they are heavily so. They are anxious about their perceived loss of relative status as a result of progressive policies to support better life outcomes for women and ethnic and other minorities. They favour government intervention in the economy to advance their economic interests (for example energy and fuel subsidies, tariffs). They see actions to tackle climate change as unnecessary and disruptive to their lifestyle and work. They are nativist and see the parties of the left as betraying the national interest. They are deeply suspicious of supranational and foreign engagements generally and uninclined to accept the advice of experts – all of which they identify with the elites. We could think of these populists as agents of radical nostalgia yearning for a past that never quite was.

These are the traditional working class voters many of whom have abandoned the parties of compassion. They are the groups who drove Brexit, strongly backed both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and most vehemently voted NO in the Voice referendum. These are the voters that many on the right of the Liberal Party would urge Dutton to embrace as the new Liberal heartland.

But, of course, the traditional right, the party of the merchant classes and some elements of the Christian churches, has its own criticisms. These have been wrapped in the flag, faith and a new conservative ideology. The criticisms centre around what this new right sees as the impact of progressive values on what they grandly call Western Civilisation. The parties of compassion are parodied as “woke” slaves to French post-structural and post-modern philosophers – denying fundamental truths and surrendering to expressive individualism. They are painted as creating divisive identity politics, a glorification of small groups based around age, race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality at the expense of national coherence and pride. Multiculturalism is attacked and assimilation praised. Anthropogenic climate change is denied, or suggested to be a modest problem. Huge emphasis is placed on strategic links with the US and UK – the Anglosphere – and they claim that the left has failed to confront China. Labor is accused of a lack of moral clarity for failing to support Israel wholeheartedly because of its alleged commitment to moral relativism and a desire not to alienate electorates with high numbers of people with an Islamic background. The philosophical right has moved away from the traditional conservative reflexive support for the corporate world which they see as having been captured by a socially progressive management class. This new right are the intellectual proponents of the culture wars criticising left wing “indoctrination” in our schools and universities and arguing, in Alan Tudge’s words, for a national history curriculum that presents “a positive optimistic view of modern Australia”.

So what is the truth? Have the parties of compassion, which in Australia now include the Teal Independents and the Greens, alongside Labor, abandoned the working class? Or have the parties of the right lost touch with their traditional upper income heartlands? Are the socially progressive really opposed to income redistribution?

A careful examination of the Voice Referendum, the Marriage Equality postal plebiscite and the 2019 and 2022 election results certainly confirms the role of education, age and gender but is less explicit about income.

The Marriage Equality plebiscite “was won most strongly amongst communities with lower levels of religiosity, higher levels of wealth and education, and socially progressive communities with relatively low levels of marriage” tallyroom.com.au. The electorates with the highest Yes vote in the Marriage Equality plebiscite tended to also have a higher proportion of Yes votes in the Voice referendum.

There were earlier hints of what was to come in the 1999 Republic Referendum. In both Referendums the strongest NO votes were in coalition seats and the strongest YES votes in seats now held by Labor, the Greens or the Teal Independents. In this sense the movement of voters in the wealthier, and better educated, seats to support progressive issues is not new – it has been going on for close to quarter of a century. Although the overall Yes vote for the Voice was lower than for the Republic there is quite a tight correlation between how electorates voted in the two referendums:

Chart from tallyroom.com.au

The same pattern can be seen in both the 2019 and in particular 2022 elections. In the 2022 election it is clear that the strongest swings against the Coalition were in the districts with a high proportion of university graduates and top quintile income levels. However, those in the bottom socio-economic quintile with a diploma level or no qualifications also swung strongly against the Coalition. Conversely “tradies” with higher income levels had among the lowest swings away from the coalition. Districts with higher proportions of first and second generation migrants swung strongly against the Coalition, while those with a higher proportion of third generation (predominantly Anglo-European) Australians didn’t move as strongly against the Coalition. Women and younger Australians moved more strongly against the Coalition than men and older Australians.

But what influenced those who shifted away from the Coalition which had won a surprise victory in 2019? The ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods (Policy Priorities and the 2022 Federal Election Result June 2022) identified four issues which were particularly important to those who switched votes: dealing with climate change; improving disaster relief; improving governance (including an anti-corruption watchdog and the treatment of women); and addressing issues around race. All of these are important issues, but mostly relatively abstract. It is clear that the last of these, addressing issues around race in a positive manner didn’t resonate strongly with lower socio-economic voters in the Voice referendum.

The 2019 election saw Labor campaign strongly on addressing the increase in income inequality, including by opposing the Stage 3 tax cuts, tightening negative gearing tax concessions on rental housing and ending the cashing out of dividend imputation credits for those who paid no tax. In this sense it was a traditional campaign aimed at inspiring lower socio-economic groups. It was a failure. Paradoxically the voting results suggest that poorer people are not strongly motivated by the marked increase in relative income inequality, or at least not enough to offset other issues. Poorer electorates and those with a higher level of unemployment swung to the Coalition. Unexpectedly those electorates with the most to lose from canning the stage 3 tax cuts and tightening tax concessions swung most strongly toward Labor. Nick Evershed THE GUARDIAN 22 May 2019

Voters are not necessarily economically self-interested. But how can we understand the lower socio-economic groups failure to respond to a campaign that was designed to advance their interests? Fear is the best explanation. And financial hardship is the great generator of fear of any further loss. Those in the most vulnerable socio-economic position are particularly susceptible to scare campaigns which link redistributive tax reforms, or social justice ones like the Voice, with possible loss of income, jobs or opportunities.

Some on the right see the Voice referendum as showing we are a nation fundamentally divided with a populist majority resentful of a minority elite. While it is true that education, age, gender and income are all important drivers of voting behaviours the closeness of the 2019 and 2022 election results and the powerful performance of the Yes vote in the majority of electorates in the Marriage Equality poll suggests that the socio-political division in Australia is nowhere near as great as in the US.

But should Labor pull back from socially progressive issues such as climate change, gender equality and diversity and multiculturalism to heal social divisions and solidify its vote among traditional lower socio-economic groups? Or would that simply increase the rate at which it loses influence to the Greens and the Teal Independents? Should the elites more broadly pull back from trying to impose their morality on the broader community? Should they be prepared to move only at the pace which is comfortable for those with lower levels of education and income?

I think it would be a mistake for the parties of compassion to turn their back on socially progressive causes. Those causes might be most attractive to those with higher levels of education, but, as the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum put it: “knowledge is not a guarantee of good political behaviour, but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behaviour” – to turn our back on science and to self impose some national template of “Australianness” in the interests of securing national unity would be a tragedy. We live in a complex, messy world and it is totally unsurprising that we have seen a blossoming of “identities” beyond the simple class distinctions so beloved of our neo-Marxists. The trick is to sort through what sort of identity politics is positive and helpful in negotiating a multicultural pluralistic society – one where there is less religiosity and more expressive individualism than in the past; and what sort of identity politics is negative – encouraging and amplifying competitive tribalism which I fear is Peter Dutton’s aim.

We can surely accept a richer history with many stories woven into our national fabric, obey the second great commandment, widen our circle of empathy and do it all without embracing the more bizarre post-structuralist pseudo-philosophies of the woke movement. In parallel the parties of compassion should work hard to reduce the temperature of social divisions by reducing our levels of income and wealth inequality. That should surely be a goal front and centre for the next government. It won’t necessarily win votes, but it will reduce fear and thus the susceptibility of lower socio-economic groups to scare campaigns and the seductions of the hard right.

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