Latham’s intonations from the political grave

Mark Latham.
Monday, May 27, 2013

Quarterly Essay
Issue 49 2013
'Not Dead Yet: Labor’s post-left future'
By Mark Latham
Black Inc 2013

Margaret Thatcher may be dead, but Thatcherism is alive and well and living in the bowels of social democracy if Mark Latham’s contribution to the latest Quarterly Essay, “Not Dead Yet: Labor’s post-left future”, is anything to go by.

Under the guise of “new thinking”, Latham serves up a rehashed neoliberal formula which would see Labor recapture “the Keating economic legacy [and] help Labor appeal to the new aspirational class, the electoral majority the party created in the 1980s and '90s.”

Latham is no new-comer to the campaign to “reform” social democracy (i.e. to it make even more amenable to capital at the expense of working people). He is credited with popularising the very term “aspirational class” in his 1998 book Civilising Global Capital. Coming from the same “third way” stable as former British Labour PM Tony Blair, Latham seeks to return the ALP to what he sees as its salad days ― the “Keating Settlement”.

At the heart of Latham’s analysis is a bleak outlook for socialists. “The working class has gone the way of record players and typewriters”, he claims, “a social relic irrelevant to the shape of the Labor movement”.

Latham goes on to claim that the social space for left ideas has largely “disintegrated” over time, such that, “organised labour, working class solidarity and mass meetings of a political nature”, have gone. “There is no longer any central mechanism for bringing together progressively minded people in local electorates.”

But where has Latham been hiding? The coal seam gas issue ― to name just one ― has begun to galvanise whole communities across the country into action. The campaign includes methods even older than the record player ― public meetings, rallies, pickets and blockades.

Even Latham’s old seat of Werriwa, public concern and anger at proposals to allow AGL to mine for CSG in their back yards led to hundreds attending public meetings organised by local council, with hundreds more rallying against CSG in the heart of Campbelltown.

Latham’s successor as MP for Werriwa, Laurie Fergusson was in attendance ― yet this campaign, among others, seems not to have registered with Latham.

Latham shows just how out of touch he really is with his comments on welfare provision, particularly for those he describes as “the entrenched underclass”.

“The problem for this group is not the adequacy of income support,” Latham intones ― as if he had a clue. “The Australian welfare system is generous enough for recipients to cover basic living costs. Indeed, since the mid-1980s, people on government benefits have experienced an increase in real disposable income of 11.9 per cent.”

Latham’s ignorance of Australia’s welfare shortfall is simply willful. On the day of writing this review, the Salvation Army ― hardly known as a socially progressive force ― was quoted in the media as criticising the government for expecting it to cover the real shortfall in income support for those on welfare.

The Salvos surveyed over 2700 of their regular clients, according to ABC online, and found that 66% have cut down on basic necessities, 58% can’t pay utility bills on time, 35% can’t afford prescriptions and 28% are missing at least one meal a day because they can’t afford it; hardly a description of a “generous” welfare system Mr Latham?

The Salvation Army particularly pointed the finger at the federal Labor government’s decision to push single parents from the pension to the Newstart when their youngest child turned eight.

So what is Latham’s answer to poverty? Transportation! “The starting point for reform must be a policy of dispersal,” Latham intones, “of moving disadvantaged people out of underclass suburbs”, privatising public housing and isolating disadvantaged communities somewhere out of sight.

The central message of Latham’s essay, however, concerns the “aspirational class”.

Latham correctly identifies the fact that the neoliberal deregulation of the Australian economy, begun under the Hawke and Keating administrations from 1983-1996, greatly increased the “aspirational” layer in Australian society.

Privatisation, outsourcing, and downsizing led to the rise of the independent contractor in the Australian suburbs, whether it’s the tradie subcontractor who owns their own ute and tools, or whether it’s an individual technician who contracts their labour to the employer for a fixed price.

Sections of this “aspirational class” have done well for themselves, as Latham insists, at least in terms of the provision of consumer durables, as the rise of the McMansion, the SUV and the low-fee private school all show. However, cut adrift from the organised working class, this layer also suffers long hours of work, insecure working conditions and largely floats on a sea of debt.

For this layer, Latham says: “The most pervasive public belief is economic aspiration. The sons and daughters of the working class have had a taste of financial success and they want more.”

And according to Latham, this means greater deregulation.

Latham poses as the advocate for the aspirational ― a layer that once Marxists may have called the “aristocracy of labour”.

And his greatest beef is with public education. Latham claims: “The statistics do not lie; comprehensive public education in Australia is struggling ... The recent benchmarking results will further encourage aspirational parents to move to the non-government sector.”

But the problem of public education is not underfunding, according to Latham. Rather, “Archaic industrial agreements have produced a sheltered workshop environment” for teachers. What’s needed is “performance pay. In return, outdated work practices should be abolished.”

Latham goes on to call for a voucher-based tuition system to hot-house students, the complete devolution of responsibility for schools to principals and the establishment of school boards, including representatives of industry, as occurs in Western Australia since the development of “independent public schools” by the Barnett government in 2010.

Fundamentally, Latham offers nothing new ― just a return to embracing neoliberalism, or Thatcherism by any other name. For socialists, Latham’s treatise just reaffirms the fact that there really is nothing “left” in Labor.

[Graham Matthews is a member of Socialist Alliance Sydney west branch.]