John Menadue. What does Labor stand for. Part 1

Jan 17, 2015

You might be interested in this repost .  It was part 1 of a six part series. Part 6 will be reposted tomorrow.  John Menadue

Labor’s constituency

The Labor primary vote has declined from about 45-50% fifty years ago to 35-40% today. Labor has lost its clear identity with the ‘working class’ and what it stands for. Its natural constituency and membership has declined. To contain the loss, Labor has increasingly committed itself to focus groups, marginal seat strategies and ‘whatever it takes’. Values, principles and ideas have given way to marketing of products .Money has replaced membership as the driving force of campaigns. The trade unions remain the most important institutional Labor supporter. The unions have a proud record but their influence is out of proportion to their role in the community and the ‘Labor constituency’.

Principles as the basis for policy

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 is adept at conveying the misleading impression that it is the ‘natural party of government’, particularly because of its supposed competence in economic management. Joe Hockey’s performance as Treasurer shows that this supposed competence is a myth but conservative commentators still persist with the myth.

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 policy and health care 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 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.

Just as Labor governments provided leadership to face great challenges in the 1980s, so too today Australia faces even greater challenges – climate change, population ageing, dilapidated infrastructure, commodity based exports, deficits in human capital and a weak base for 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 Labor 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.


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