BackgroundAbout 12 months ago I wrote a long form essay pushing back against the hysteria that was accompanying the precipitous decline in Labor's Primary Vote after the 2010 election. Understandably, 7000+ words on Labor history isn't everyone's cup of tea and the (general appeal) publication took a pass.
But, with the latest Nielson Poll showing Labor's Primary Vote still languishing at 28%, I still think the piece is relevant and would appeal to the True Believers in the audience of this blog. So, I've updated the piece to take into account developments over the past 12 months and have chunked it out so that it's digestible on a blog.
I publish this in knowledge that a few thousand words on Labor's relationship with The Greens won't do anything to dispel the notion that I'm obsessed with The Greens. So let me say this: I get it - they aren't the main enemy. To paraphrase Albo words we need to be fighting Tories. Our political strategy should not revolve around combating The Greens. But that is the ultimate message of this piece. Labor has faced and seen off a series of challenges from the left in its history. But we saw them off by fighting not for ideological purity, but for the centre ground of Australian politics. It's this fact that we need to keep our focus on when confronting the electoral catastrophes in Queensland and New South Wales and when preparing to fight the next Federal Election.
The End of the Party? Labor History and the Rise of the Greens.
- Introduction: The End of the Party? Hysteria and History
- Historical Context: Electoral Challenges to Labor from the Left
- Historical Context: A Direct Historical Parallel - The Lang Labor Split
- Lessons from History: The Limited Scale of the Threat
- Lessons from History: The Risks of an Ideologically Isolated Labor Party
- Lessons from History: The Risks of a Divided Progressive Movement
- Responding to the Challenge of the Greens: Political Philosophy And the Case for Government
- Responding to the Challenge of the Greens: Progressive Policy Making in the Real World
Part 1: Introduction - Hysteria and History"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan, In accents most forlorn”. Self-flagellation and teeth gnashing have long been favoured pastimes of members of the Labor Party and its fellow travellers. Angst-ridden debate about what Labor ought to stand for and the extent to which the Party has abandoned its founding principles have been standard fare in progressive political discourse since before Federation. However, since the 2010 Australian Federal election, the focal point for ALP navel gazing has shifted from ideological ennui to an existential panic. Just as Hanrahan, the protagonist of John O'Brien’s iconic Australian bush poem, glumly predicted that his district’s dry spell would foreshadow collective doom, so too have progressives begun to talk (sometimes in accents most forlorn, sometimes in open glee) of the terminal roon of the ALP. The dramatic collapse in Labor’s primary vote since the formation of minority government by Julia Gillard in 2010 and the parallel rise in the prominence of The Greens has led many to speculate on the Party’s very viability within this ‘New Paradigm’.
In this vein, The Greens’ former Parliamentary leader Bob Brown has predicted that:
"I believe the Greens as a party are in a similar position to what the Labor Party was 100 years ago. We represent a widespread view of the community and our support is geographically widespread. I think that within 50 years we will supplant one of the major parties in Australia."
This idea is not just a Greens talking point; it has even being publicly entertained by some of the most senior figures in the ALP. Former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd has stated that given the prevailing electoral and organisational situation, he believes that Labor risks becoming a“diminished political rump” and a “marginalised third party of Australian politics given the opportunism of the Greens”.
Party elder, Senator John Faulkner, has similarly told colleagues that Labor is:
“facing our first electoral challenge in history from the left, in the Greens. And we are a declining political force”.
While the left has always incorporated electoral pessimism into its electoral worldview, these statements should not be lightly dismissed. One should always be careful to avoid the assumption that the status quo reflects the natural order of things. Societies and systems of government continually evolve and so too do the actors and their roles in them. Political parties come and go. Since Federation, Australia has seen the rise and fall of both minor parties (eg the Democrats, One Nation) and former parties of Government (eg the United Australia Party, Free Trade Party, The Commonwealth Liberal Party, the Protectionist Party). Similarly, just last year in another stable democracy, the Liberals, a former party of Government, were usurped by the New Democratic Party as the official opposition party in Canada. As such, the primacy of the ALP as the dominant party of the left in Australian politics should not be taken for granted.
So are the Hanrahans right? Is Australia currently approaching an inflection point in which the nation’s oldest political party could be usurped at the ballot box by a new progressive force? If so, how should the Party’s leadership, and its ever diminishing number of members, respond?
To answer these questions, Labor should look to its past. As Graham Freudenberg wrote in “Cause for Power”, the official history of the New South Wales branch of the ALP,
“The Australian Labor Party was born with a sense of history. That sense of its past has always been, and remains, one of its great sources of strength and its confidence about its future.”
Freudenberg, G. (1991), “Cause for Power: The Official History of the New South Wales Branch of the Australian Labor Party”, Pluto Press.Labor’s history shows that the Party’s current dire position is far from unique and further, that the threat posed by the Greens is nothing new. Like poor Hanrahan, those proclaiming the demise of the ALP are merely heralding the ebb of a long-term cycle. For more than a century, Labor has been pushed and pulled between forces of electoralism and those of ideology both within and outside the Party. However, in the long run, the ALP has always responded to bouts of ideological extremism that threatened its long term viability by successfully reaffirming its commitment to electoralism. Viewed in this way, Labor’s history offers not only solace that the rise in the prominence of The Greens as an ideological challenger to the left of the ALP does not signal the decline of the Party, but also practical lessons for how it should go about responding to this challenge to its electoral prospects.
Part 2: Electoral Challenges to Labor from the Left in Historical Context