Michael Thompson's Labor without class: Labor with the wrong class

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Labor with the wrong class

Labor Without Class: The Gentrification of the ALP
By Michael Thompson
Pluto Press, 1999
118pp, $20 (pb)

Review by Sue Boland

The Labor Party lost government at the 1996 federal election when a substantial number of working-class voters deserted and voted for the Liberals. While some of these voters returned to the ALP in 1998, many voted for minor parties.

Michael Thompson argues in Labor Without Class that the loss of working-class support had nothing to do with the ALP's austerity policies during its 13 years in government. Instead, he scapegoats the progressive movements and the most oppressed sections of the working class for Labor's loss.

"It is only by a continuation of the economic reforms begun under the Hawke government that the working class can hope for any economic security", Thompson claims. "However, working class support for a continuation of those economic reforms will only be possible if the Labor Party rejects the coercive agendas of the special interest groups and embraces a contemporary working class of blue collar workers and routine non-manual employees such as clerks, bank tellers and shop assistants as its core constituency."

In Thompson's diatribe against "special interest" groups, he does not attempt to explain how the economic "reforms" introduced by the Labor governments led by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were necessary.

While Thompson wants workers to vote for the ALP, he doesn't think the ALP should adopt pro-worker policies. Hence the need to convince workers that their real enemy is "special interest" groups.

Captured or coopting?

Contrary to Thompson's claim that "special interest" groups captured the Hawke and Keating governments, the reverse occurred. The Hawke and Keating Labor governments coopted the leaderships of the social protest movements.

Leaders of movement peak councils abandoned public campaigning for key demands in return for a process of consultation with the government and token reforms. They also tried to convince movement supporters that Labor would "deliver" if they voted for it, even though few guarantees were sought from or provided by the ALP.

This enabled the ALP to blunt public opposition to its abandonment of progressive elements of its policy and the whittling away of reforms.

The ALP dealt with the trade union movement in a similar way. The trade union movement leaders committed themselves to the Prices and Incomes Accord, which meant that trade unions would not campaign for wage rises, a shorter working week or improvements in working conditions.

The penalty for any union which attempted to break the Accord was deregistration. This is what happened to the Builders Labourers Federation and the airline pilots.

In return, the federal Labor government was supposed to increase spending on the health, education, housing, public transport and other government services. However, the government betrayed the deal and drastically cut funding for these services.

With the exception of the Anti-Discrimination Act, most of the "reforms" introduced by the federal Labor government in the 1980s and 1990s were purely token.

The most significant progressive reforms were won in the 1970s, when the union movement organised workers to take industrial action in defence of their rights and social protest movements mobilised on the streets. The Labor Party's goal in government was to reverse these gains.

Scapegoating

Its record includes: the go-ahead for uranium mining; cuts to the youth dole; removal of the supporting parents' pension once a child reached the age of 16; holding down workers' wages; the introduction of university fees; privatisation of a host of public assets, including the Commonwealth Bank and QANTAS; funding cuts to women's and migrant services; the axing of thousands of public sector jobs; retention of anti-union laws; the use of armed forces personnel as scabs during the pilots' strike; and the introduction of enterprise bargaining.

With funding cuts and its national competition policy, the federal Labor government forced state governments to cut drastically basic services and privatise many public services. State Labor and Liberal governments slashed workers' compensation entitlements.

Were workers alienated by "special interest" groups or by such anti-worker policies? Opinion polls throughout the 1980s and 1990s showed huge opposition to Labor's austerity policies.

In the absence of trade union movement campaigns to defend jobs and oppose government cuts, some workers became receptive to the racist views of One Nation, which scapegoated welfare recipients, women, Aborigines and migrants for rising unemployment and the declining quality of government services. However, a 1998 opinion poll indicated that most One Nation voters supported it because of its economic protectionist policies.

Thompson's use of the term "special interest group" to refer to progressive social movements is an attempt to create the impression that these movements are counterposed to the interests of the working class.

He claims the women's movement is counterposed to the interests of working-class women who look after their children full time, but in reality it advocates policies that assist women workers.

Most women are not professionals or bosses but part of the working class. A big proportion of women who work part time would prefer to work full time. A big proportion of women who are looking after their children full time would prefer to be working if they could find work, or afford child-care.

The Hawke and Keating Labor governments attacked the rights of all working-class women by reducing the living standards of the whole working class and through cuts to women's services.

While there are many working-class women who do not consider themselves feminists, the vast majority support the gains of the women's liberation movement.

'All classes'

Thompson rues the fact that so few ALP parliamentarians come from blue-collar backgrounds and so many are tertiary-educated professionals and white-collar workers.

However, this is not unlike the social composition of ALP parliamentarians when the party was formed. Its MPs were once journalists, publicans, businessmen, a squatter, a mine owner, doctors, auctioneers, clerks, chemists and graziers.

Even though the ALP was founded by the trade unions, it wasn't long before its MPs were opposing workers' struggles. In 1892, some Labor parliamentarians supported the government's imprisonment of the Broken Hill miners' strike leaders.

By 1894, some Labor politicians were declaring that close links with the unions were an electoral liability. In 1911, Labor governments were advocating harsh penalties for unionists taking strike action.

George Black, Labor member of the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1891, declared: "We have been told that we have come into this house to represent a class. Well that may be, but that class is the class of all classes. It is a class as wide as humanity."

Black's statement sums up ALP ideology. Because Labor politicians see themselves as representing the interests of all classes rather than the working class, it does not matter whether they come from working-class backgrounds or not. They are just as likely to betray workers as their colleagues.

A party that aims to avoid class conflict by representing all classes will inevitably end up representing the interests of the dominant class. Because the interests of the employers and the working class are counterposed, any rejection of class struggle means opposition to workers initiating a struggle against their exploitation.

Thompson wants a passive working class that will vote for the ALP and not upset the bosses. That's why he is opposed to class conflict. For all Thompson's talk about workers, he advocates anti-worker politics. The pro-worker rhetoric is simply a ruse to con workers into once again voting for the ALP.

Some on the left, such as the International Socialist Organisation, express surprise that ALP "lefts" such as Martin Ferguson support Thompson's views. It should be no surprise, because the ideology of both ALP factions is based on a common underlying premise — avoiding class conflict.

Don't be fooled when Thompson talks about the ALP returning to the workers. He actually means delivering workers, bound and gagged, to the bosses.