Why the loyalties are fading

Wednesday, June 26, 1991

By Steve Painter

Fading Loyalties. The Australian Labor Party and the working class
By Andrew Scott
Pluto Press. 1991. 74 pp. $6.95
Reviewed by Steve Painter

Andrew Scott makes a useful contribution to discussion of the Labor Party, starting from some hard facts facing those who hope for the survival of Labor as some sort of force for progressive social change:

  • The party's 1990 election victory was achieved despite its proportional support in the electorate being at its lowest for 60 years, and amid a series of serious electoral reverses including the 1988 NSW elections, the 1989 South Australian elections, the Thomastown by-election of 1990 and the Geraldton by-election of 1991.

  • The party is facing a deep crisis as a result of the steady decline of trade unionism.

  • "The actual incomes of the great majority of Australians have declined under this [Hawke's] government, once housing expenses have been taken into account", and Labor's federal electoral victories since 1983 have been achieved despite a steady decline in support "in both working class and middle class areas".

Scott traces changes in Labor thinking in recent decades, including the acceptance that class divisions were superseded in the postwar period. Today, although economic inequality is greater than it was in the late 1940s, this is now "understood not in terms of class, but as a question of poverty".

He argues that the party in the '50s and '60s was slow to respond to changes in the working class, clinging to its traditional base among industrial workers, and only belatedly and grudgingly taking on board the interests of the new "professionals and para-professionals" as the old base eroded because of broader social changes. Because the new forces had to push aside the old, they then proceeded systematically to marginalise the old-time working-class supporters.

The new layers, who make up "one of the more privileged sections of the contemporary labour force have succeeded in redefining Left politics to reflect their own interests, and in a way which marginalises the more 'boring', bread-and-butter concerns of the less privileged. The language of contemporary politics, the centralised, bureaucratic character of decision-making, the reliance on experts, and the emphasis on professional

administration are entirely consistent with their own approach."

One result is that "there is now widespread acceptance of the debilitating notion that politics is a career pursuit for suitably qualified people".

Scott takes issue with those who claim that Labor should base its strategy on "middle-class" voters: "They have not even explored the possibility that Labor's more even spread of votes could be the result of residential shifts by working-class voters", due to broader demographic changes.

He argues that the party's crisis "does not arise inevitably from social change so much as from the ALP's failure so far to diagnose the nature of this change and to act against its negative effects".

He opposes weakening the party's links with the union movement. "The first misconception is that broadening Labor's base means nothing other than moving away from, or reducing the importance of, trade union affiliation."

But he adds that the unions must also clean up their act. "For the ultimate outcome to be positive, unionists need to insist that industry-based structures are a means to an end, the end being a broader, more democratic movement in which grassroots input by ordinary members is constantly maximised."

Of course, this is a far cry from ALP and trade union practice for at least the past decade. Is this all just a litany of faint hopes, albeit clear and interesting ones, or is there really hope for change in the ALP?

Scott points out that "the official agenda for organisational reform within the party includes many commonsense proposals, such as greater uniformity between states in their rules, simplified procedures for joining, incentives for recruitment, and closer contact between the party's local and national structures. However, it also includes some manifestly retrograde steps, such as a proposal to allow the national conference to meet only once every three years, and for the conference's powers over policy to be diverted to a national executive several stages removed from the full party membership."

The ALP has lost about a quarter of its membership in the past 10 years. Few will envy the remaining members their task of cleaning up the wreckage of their leaders' decade-long affair with monetarism, but Scott argues it is possible: "The path to ALP renewal proceeds from a recognition that the malaise of a small, volatile membership and shrinking electoral support will ultimately be cured not by vague or superficial attempts to regain support from 'the community' in general, but rather by a genuine

attempt to put power in the hands of those particular elements of the workforce which, since the war, have been alienated from any real democratic role".

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