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

whither the ALP? « Previous | |Next »
April 11, 2011

Mike Pearce in Should the ALP labour on, or is the party over? in The Age offers a realistic assessment of the ALP. It's one of the better accounts I've read and its well worth reading closely and engaging with.

His argument is that both Hawke, with his emphasis on consensus politics, and Keating, with his notion of inclusiveness, took steps towards reconciling Labor's traditions [ie., improve the lot of working Australians by redistributing wealth to them] with its free market reorientation.

Had that direction continued, Labor might have produced a coherent ideology for the 21st century, based on the idea that the market is a good servant but a bad master and reserving sufficient scope for government intervention to underwrite basic living standards.

This is a capitalism with a heart. However,
first under Mark (''ladder of opportunity'') Latham and now under Julia (''alarm clocks'') Gillard, and in response to John Howard's wedge politics, Labor has instead hardened its attitudes. In competing with the Liberals for the aspirational vote, it has abandoned its social welfare traditions, maintained high levels of public funding for wealthy private schools and turned its back on human rights.

He argues that shrinking domain of genuine debate goes a long way to explaining the poverty of contemporary politics.

If the right has won the economic debate (the role of government was to regulate lightly to ensure the efficient function of the market), then the left has just as surely won the social debate. The left's agenda on racial equality, women's liberation and gay rights has largely been implemented throughout the West.

Labor has embraced the managerial task of contemporary government and it struggles to articulate a coherent set of policies relevant to contemporary issues. Gillard's emphasis on value of a good education and the dignity of (manual) work is thin gruel.

Whither the ALP? Pearce says that:

The dilemma for Labor is that to move outside the consensus makes it unelectable, while it denies its history and its raison d'etre by staying within it. As a result, this once great party has become little more than a vehicle for political careerists, drawn mainly from the trade union movement.

The modern Labor Party, for Pearce, is a hollowed-out institution lacking any coherent and relevant ideology, propped up by the increasingly marginalised trade union movement with a dwindling active membership.

It's a realistic account. So can anything be salvaged from the wreckage? Is there anyone willing to do the salvaging?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:45 AM | | Comments (3)


I largely agree with Pearce's description but not his analysis. Who says 'to move outside the consensus makes [Labor] unelectable'? This is just mindless parroting of Canberra received wisdom masquerading as insight.

The conservatives never bother to limit themselves to 'the consensus'. Whether it is attacking union power (the 1996 laws, not WorkChoices), introducing a new tax (GST) or dismantling institutions like public education, the conservatives have never been afraid to take reformist positions and patiently lead public opinion, for years if necessary, until what was once extreme has become part of 'the consensus'.

What is this 'consensus' anyway? It pretty much seems to be whatever the mainstream media pundits decree it is. Yet if we look across the Pacific, we see determined efforts to unwind 70 years of consensus about the role of the state, with every indication that they are making progress. Labor's failure to support public institutions ideologically may soon see it forced to defend them against sustained assaults from small government zealots.

Labor certainly consists of a bunch of principle-free careerists too gutless and unimaginative to have a coherent program, but the idea that we have reached the End of Politics is ludicrous.

Pearce is interesting but makes some sweeping assumption about what the economic mainstream policy is.

His dismissal of the Greens in a sentence odes not attempt to come to grips with the fact as Peter Martin pointed out that on a range of issues Green voters are closer to options supported by mainstream economists than the mainstream parties.

More clarity around what the policy issues and options facing Australian governments and less thinking using stereotypes might b a helpful start.

Pearce is dead right, when he says:

The modern Labor Party, for Pearce is a hollowed-out institution lacking any coherent and relevant ideology, propped up by the increasingly marginalised trade union movement with a dwindling active membership.

So why has it come to this?

Latham talked in terms of civilizing capitalism. Is that different from Hawke and Keating?