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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John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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