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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Mark Latham on the ALP « Previous | |Next »
July 24, 2010

In "Labor's Fatal Flaws" in Friday's 'Review' section in the AFR Mark Latham, the former leader of the ALP, argues that the fatal flaw of federal Labor today is that the now policy-lite ALP is controlled by the factions. They understand politics in terms of leadership popularity and polling numbers, rather than good public policy.


This is an argument that I have a lot of sympathy with, and it goes some way to explaining the current policy-lite approach of Gillard Labor, which is run by the 'whatever it takes' NSW Right.

Their political strategy is to back away from any policy reform that is too unpopular or too risky with western Sydney. Western Sydney is their touchstone. It stands for the aspirational outer suburbia Australia, which is the real Australia.

Latham's argument, which reworks to Robert Michels' classic text Political Parties, is that the Labor Party has fallen:

under the control of the apparatchiks, men more committed to the the acquisition of power and social status than the radical reform of economic and social relations....Careerism becomes an end in itself, superseding the policy goals and idealism by which the party was initially founded.This is the irreconcilable nature of the social democratic project....Putting communications strategies ahead of sound public policy, for instance, drains Labor of its core beliefs and purpose. So to, the leadership revolving door, when the highest office holder in the party is so easily tossed aside, destroys traditional notions of loyalty and solidarity.

What the factions have achieved is to have made electoral popularity an all-consuming goal---not for the good of the nation, or even the broader labor movement, but out of self-interest. If Labor is out of power, its factional chiefs cannot access vital networks of patronage and support, the largess they require to to keep their underlings happy and under control. Panic sets in at the thought of Labor losing power, and their sub-faction losing the perks of office.

Latham adds that this is crisis of belief is evident in the current election campaign:

With a high level of policy convergence between the major parties, Labor has switched leaders in a desperate attempt to present something new and interesting to the electorate. With nothing distinctive to say on economic policy, schools funding reform, an independent foreign policy, n border protection, the Republic, community -building strategies, forestry conservation and the introduction of an emissions trading scheme or carbon tax, Gillard, in effect is the campaign. Labor's sole selling point, the only message it has left, is the freshness of its leadership.

He adds that this is no different to the way in which retailers try to entice people to buy their products by re-badging them with new packaging and position on the supermarket shelf.
Stripped of its traditions as a public policy crusader, Labor has become just another brand, another type of soap powder for political consumers---the syndrome Chifley warned against 60 years ago.

What Latham doesn't say is that the policy inherent in the new focus group packaging is conservative. It is more than taking a breather from change, resting for a while as it taking a breath and "step back". It is a substantive shift to right of centre as can be seen in education reform, with asylum seekers arriving by boat; and climate change.This step back is a shift to the Right based on a politics of fear and anxiety. The agenda is being set by the conservatives, and Labor is too timid to resist those advocating travelling down Toxic Lane.

The major exception to fear beating hope is the ALP's national broadband network, which the Coalition opposes because it is a public not a private investment; despite the clear market failure to deliver fast broadband across the nation and that the private sector cannot provide equitable access.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 2:52 PM | | Comments (6)


I think that is all generally true, but the ramifications aren't obvious. Most Australians seem content to leave government and politics in general to a small group of professional careerists, so the consumer branding project is pretty much inevitable.

You only have to read political blogs to understand how uninterested most Australians are in politics. I doubt there are more than 4-500 people who comment with any regularity, out of a population of 20 million. Even allowing for population differences, the level of engagement is much lower than in the USA (the Tea Party for example might be rather nasty but at least it's evidence that quite a lot of people care enough about politics to do something more than vote every few years).

Latham implies that our sorry plight is somebody's fault, or at least that somebody ought to fix it, but it's not at all obvious whose to blame or what can be done to improve matters.

Yo have to wonder how long Labor can keep it up...

I live in a "traditional" old-style Labor electorate. Working class, heavy industry, migrants and unionist. I only know of ONE time when the Labor candidate didn't get the nod at election time.

But now...

Even this early into the campaign, I'm hearing lots of grumbles about Gillard's swerve to the right and the gutless, empty policy lauches.

What's interesting is that these grumbles come from people who only take a passing interest in politics. These are people who are NOT news junkies and who probably always vote Labor because their parents did and because their mates do. These are not people who agonise over the treatment of asylum seekers or greenhouse gas targets. But they've always voted Labor despite the political voodoo, not because of it.

But now... it seems that many of these usually disengaged voters are getting sick of the vapid arguments... now it's obvious even these "traditional" long-time Labor voters can see they are being played for suckers.

Nothing sours a relationship as quickly as being taken for granted.. except, of course, being cheated on.

True as Latham's criticisms are, he is not exempt from them. He joined Howard happily enough on the issue of marriage equality. We could argue whether that was high principle or pandering.

I love the facial expression in the cartoon... Avoiding actually doing something (even accidentally) must be bloody hard work!

what you say is true but that doesn't mean that we should not listen to what Latham is saying--and has been since his diaries. He is shining a light on the hypocrisies and political inadequacies of the NSW Right and the effect of this on federal Labor.

re your comment:

Latham implies that our sorry plight is somebody's fault, or at least that somebody ought to fix it, but it's not at all obvious whose to blame or what can be done to improve matters.

The ALP itself is responsible for allowing this faction to gain so much power, in spite of its track record in NSW.

Clearly the dead hand of the NSW Right needs to be loosened, if the ALP is to re-establish its reformist credentials and ensure that the flickering 'light on the hill' doesn't go out. How do you do that? Latham doesn't say.

Maybe a Green Senate will change the political dynamics?