The death of Labor. As in, we need it.

The Real World has had some things it needed me to do for it which has impeded my ability to blog. A fickle mistress, if ever there was one.

In a move in which precisely nobody was surprised, the Australian Labor Party ended a mixed-to-chaotic six year stint as the government of Australia. It was marked by power struggles; factionalism; rushed and poor policy decisions, union dominance, and a leadership coup that installed someone who couldn’t lead. 

(Note: credit must be given to the extraordinary dignity that Julia Gillard showed during the election campaign. An effect legislator she lacked the leadership skills to imprint her personality on the Parliament and to really lead with an articulated vision. In the modern age, she wasn’t cut out to lead but that doesn’t diminish the successes she had in my view).

I would argue that the election highlighted that the Labor party needs to die. As an entity. It has no real idea what it stands for. Its constitution is horribly outdated and irrelevant. It allowed a group that has no business dictating policy to dictate policy (the unions). It selects the least experienced candidates for seats. It does not seek to recruit prospective MPs from the private sector but instead parachutes union officials into seats where they have never lived.

Please don’t confuse this with an argument against a progressive party. That would be idiotic – the progressive/conservative dynamic is essential for any modern democracy and the history of party changes in Australia point to the benefits such an approach yields No, we need a progressive party; but that party is not Labor.

The constitution of the Labor party states that, “The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.”

In the aftermath of the election, as Labor avoids any soul-searching in favour of blaming Kevin Rudd squarely, a repeated refrain from ministers is that the party, and/or Mr Rudd, strayed away from Labor values. This implies to me that had the party been more labour, most closely aligned to the core values of democratic socialism, income redistribution, and collectivist equality then they’d have won the election. Sorry for my foray into English exclamations from the 1970s, but poppycock! Th electorate did not vote Labor out of government because they weren’t adhering to core Labor values in sufficient quantities; they elected the Coalition because Labor was a sinking ship of disunity, confusion, chaos and an inarticulate vision.

So why then do I feel Labor needs to die off as a party and a new progressive party, free from the trade union strangehold which has kept the ALP in the 19th century on industrial relations for so long?

For starters – the world has moved on considerably from the period between when the Labor party was formed, and now. The ideological battle lines, between capitalism and socialism, are gone with socialism being shown as a woefully inept economic system favoured by people with an understanding of economics so detailed you could fit it on the back of a postage stamp. Drawing lines along antiquated class boundaries is of use to precisely nobody – Howard’s battlers, and the Coalition’s success in a chunk of emerging blue-collar seats in places like Western Sydney are proof positive of this.

Secondly, progressive political parties tend to want to represent the most at-risk and vulnerable segments of society. Undoubtedly this was blue collar workers… over a hundred years ago. Now, the mix of people are so diverse and across so many lines that the Labor Party, which would seek to represent them, just misses the mark with their rhetoric. Part of that is the trade unions fault – for example, it’d be hard for a lot of people to sympathise with their archaic view of 457 subclass visas, for example (not the claims of exploitation but rather the notion that it’s “stealin’ jobs”).

But Labor is so linked to the unions, so beholden to them, that it can never truly extricate itself from their grasp. There’s probably support for what I’m saying notionally within progressive ranks, some of whom latch onto Labor as a progressive party (but being a party fundamentally concerned with blue collars workers, in its constitution and its ties to the unions, an argument could be made that it’s not truly that progressive). But so long as you have that framework of socialism, collectivist action and nationalisation as a core tenet of your party, you will attract people who believe in that. 

Much has been made of the “presidential” style of Labor’s campaigns, and how much it learns from Democratic strategists and policymakers in the US. The Democrats would be a sensible role model for a new, centre-left progressive party in Australia – they have ties to the unions, of course, but the unions cannot impose their will on the party any more than the NAACP could. I may of course be biased, given my liberal leanings…

But I just don’t see how Labor can continue. Not in its current iteration, but at all. It does not provide much of a viable alternative in practise to the Coalition. It is more disorganised and fractured than the Coalition. And it has no clue as to what it believes, what it stands for, and how to get out from the domineering influence of the Motherland (sorry, I couldn’t resist a Soviet pun). Meanwhile the electorate is not served, good discourse doesn’t exist, and we have to listen to a bunch of lazy and insipid union officials as to what our best interests are.

No thanks. Australia deserves better than the Labor brand. The battle with modernity is over, Labor lost, it should look to Julia – not Kevin – for advice on what to do next.

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