Labor's election post-mortem misses the point

Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten
Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten.

Labor’s federal election post-mortem ignores a giant elephant in the room — culpability for its defeat lies in its decades-long embrace of neoliberalism and abandonment of progressive “traditional Labor values”.

The review effectively blames former leader Bill Shorten for not having a winning election strategy. It notes the party struggled under a persistently unpopular leader who failed to come across as genuine. The Coalition zeroed in on this with its “shifty Bill” label.

The review also makes the startling confession that it could identify “nobody that was empowered to discuss and settle on a strategy or any process to monitor its implementation”. Polls consistently predicted a Labor win, which may have lulled party leaders into complacency about its lack of strategy, the report said.

It argues Labor relied on slogans devised when merchant banker Malcolm Turnbull was Liberal leader, but Scott Morrison successfully cast himself as a “suburban dad”, making it harder for the “big end of town” rhetoric to stick.

Worse, it continued, many workers earning above-average incomes “felt Labor was including them in 'the big end of town'.” This perception was fanned when Labor came up with “negative gearing and franking credits” as a revenue raising measure to “fund large, new spending initiatives”.

The report continued: “Going into an election campaign with unfunded expenditure of more than $100 billion would have exposed Labor to a highly effective attack of massively increasing budget deficits and debt.

“If the extra spending was to be funded by revenue measures, which was the Labor leadership group’s position, then alternatives to negative gearing and franking credit refunds would need to be found.

“Since Labor was already proposing an increase in the top personal tax rate to 49% and opposing the Coalition’s tax cuts for higher-income earners, the only alternative revenue source would be from lower and middle-income earners…”

Despite this, the report noted: "The voters most affected by the franking credits policy actually swung to Labor.

“However, the sheer volume of spending announcements released during the campaign created a sense of risk in the minds of the main beneficiaries of Labor’s policies — economically insecure, low-income voters — about Labor’s economic management credentials.”

In sum, it blames less well-off workers for not knowing what was good for them.

Labor's plan for the next election, therefore, is to keep it simple for these voters, campaigning around a “less-cluttered” and less costly set of policies, focusing on digital advertising and, if possible, having a "popular" leader.

“Labor should adopt the language of inclusion, abandoning divisive rhetoric, including references to 'the big end of town',” the report said.

Further, “Labor should position itself as a party of economic growth and reform, job creation and rising living standards, drawing upon and expanding on its past economic reforms."

As such, the report is a re-affirmation of Labor's neoliberal course, with a perfunctory genuflection to retaining "core values”.

It does not given any consideration to following the alternative course pursued by the Jeremy Corbyn led-British Labour Party of breaking from neoliberal politics and presenting progressive policies that meet working people's needs.

Nor does it contemplate the big public investment needed to confront the climate emergency that, after decades of bipartisan cuts, can be funded without heavily taxing low- and middle-income workers. Such an emergency program could be funded by taxing the corporate rich, nationalising key resources and responsible public borrowing for the urgently-needed capital investment.

And it does not contemplate how to win back the hearts and minds of "economically insecure, low-income voters".

But none of this should be a surprise.

The lack of strategy, the corruption and bureaucratisation of party leaders and reliance on commercial advertising “research” are all collateral damage of Labor's flight to the right.

Labor abandoned its progressive values a long time ago, destroying party democracy in the process — as the NSW Labor’s governance review led by former attorney-general Michael Lavarch is showing.

"This is not the case of one, or even a couple of bad apples," Steve Murphy, the newly-elected NSW secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union said in a submission to the Lavarch review. "This is a case of the entire cart rotting from its core."

[Peter Boyle is a member of the National Executive of the Socialist Alliance.]