Labor flounders rightward

Issue 

BY ALISON DELLIT

If the ANZ bank's advertising campaign is right and "nobody cares who came second", then Australian political columnists, politicians and academics have been wasting vast amounts of ink since the November 10 federal election. The Labor Party could hardly have received more media scrutiny had it won the election.

Everybody has a theory as to why Labor lost. ALP policies have come under fire. Its refugee policy has been deservedly condemned by many liberal and left commentators, and enterprising right-wingers have slammed GST roll-back. However, the discussion has focused increasingly on the structure of the ALP and its adherence to "union" politics.

The theory — best articulated by representatives of the corporate elite such as Fairfax's Michelle Grattan and the Bulletin's Fred Brenchley, as well as NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr and federal Labor frontbencher Mark Latham — is that the ALP lost because it failed to attract the votes of a new "aspirational class" of voters. These voters, living on the urban fringes (particularly in NSW), have supposedly benefited from the neo-liberal economic restructuring of the last few years.

The only option, columnists and politicians solemnly intone, is for Labor to "shift" its politics to re-capture these voters. Immediately, it is being used as a justification for reducing the level of influence that the trade unions have over ALP policy.

Exactly what the "aspirations" of this class are have yet to be spelled out — except, we are assured, they like low interest rates. The implication, however, is that they "aspire" to send their kids to private schools, to own shares (particularly in privatised companies) and want to become managers in the workplace. They generally are not union members.

At a time when Prime Minister John Howard and his faithful lap-dog industrial relations minister Tony Abbott are again attacking the unions, the pressure is on the ALP to move further to the right. New ALP leader Simon Crean announced on November 23 that all Labor policy, except its opposition to the further sale of Telstra, will be re-assessed.

Fantasies

The sudden identification of the "aspirational" voter has more to do with media fantasising than any hard data. It is not new to suggest mortgagees, in particular those paying Sydney's exorbitant house and land prices, want low interest rates. This does not mean they represent a new "class" with interests and beliefs different from the working people who came before them.

No-one has yet presented evidence to confirm that increasing numbers of voters support attacks on the public sector in order to provide them with more "opportunities" to buy shares or make money.

The only other "evidence" presented is falling trade union membership — not surprising when most unions have failed to stem the tide of enterprise-based bargaining, and resulting trade-offs of wages and conditions. If this has weakened workers' solidarity and working-class consciousness, it is not because workers are better off.

The "aspirations" of working-class voters are the same as they always have been: to make ends meet on meagre (and falling) pay and to ensure a better future for the their children. At election time, the major parties battle to mislead workers to think they can deliver policies that will help them to achieve these.

To get the November 10 election result into perspective, the swing against the ALP on a two-party preferred basis was just 2% nationally. Outside NSW, the average swing against Labor was around 1.2%. On the basis of such results, it is impossible to generalise any grand theory to explain anything. In the last few years, voters have been faced with a more and more homogenous right-wing "choice" of government. Small wonder many voters went with the devil-you-know.

Some other voters, particularly in the outer-suburban areas, swung back to the Coalition after having voted for One Nation at the previous election, increasing the Coalition's two-party-preferred vote.

The "aspirational" voter explanation conveniently sidesteps the dramatic impact on the poll of John Howard's attacks on refugees and the racism and xenophobia that was whipped up by the government and sections of the capitalist media.

The most important political intent of the "aspirational" voter argument has been spelled out by Latham, just restored to the Labor front bench by Crean. Latham argues for an "ownership revolution" which includes first share ownership schemes, welfare reform to "help" families save rather than spend and more government superannuation schemes. He openly calls for the ALP to adopt some of British Labour leader Tony Blair's economic rationalist policies.

Latham also advocates a revamped education system in which funding is attached to the individual student, who could then spend it at private or public education institutions of their choice. Such a system would massively shift resources from public to private schools.

According to Latham and his ilk, such policies will benefit "aspirational" voters who want to be free to accumulate wealth and spend it, without propping up an "inflated" system of public education and health.

Unions and Labor

Alongside Latham's policy projections sit the numerous calls from ALP leaders such as Carmen Lawrence, Kevin Rudd and Victorian Premier Steve Bracks to reduce the influence of the trade unions within the ALP.

This was also expounded by the Whitlam Institute's Peter Botsman in an article for the November 28 Australian under the headline, "Old world solidarity is Labor's albatross". Botsman argued that the unions represent just one "section" of the community that the ALP should be "listening" to, and thus should hold less sway within the ALP. Crean has made similar statements recently.

Much of this debate has focused on reducing the number of union-controlled votes at state ALP conferences. In most state branches, affiliated unions control 60% of the votes. Only members of the ALP, elected or nominated to be delegates by their unions, can represent a union at an ALP state conference. Delegates to the tri-yearly national conference are generally elected from state conferences.

It is a myth that rank-and-file unionists control union delegates to ALP conferences. In reality, union officials are the big players in ALP factions. Some union bureaucracies form the core of "left" ALP factions, and others heavily influence the right-wing factions. Rudd's faction, for example, is entirely controlled by the right-wing Australian Workers Union leadership.

This structure ensures that the unions are tied to winning factional battles within the ALP and are committed to supporting the Labor parliamentarians' political goals. The decade of union collaboration with an ALP government under the Prices and Incomes Accords resulted in a drop in real wages and a big rise in company profits.

It would be no loss for workers if trade unions' votes within the ALP were reduced. In fact, it would be a positive thing for the union movement if it helped break the dominance of the pro-capitalist ALP over trade union leaders.

Of course, that is not what the ALP leaders intend. They are distancing the party from the union movement as part of its further rightward shift.

This is occurring just as legislation to implement the Coalition's industrial wish list — including secret ballots before strikes and full exemption for small business from unfair dismissal laws — comes back onto the agenda. The tactic by the corporate media is clear: use the debate to force the ALP into "conceding" something on these issues in order to "prove" it is serious about change.

Latham's argument for cutting the union ties is falling union membership ("60[%] doesn't go into 25 [the percentage of workers in unions]"). Lawrence argues that a reduction will result in more "grass roots" input into the party. Crean simply says that the ALP has neglected small business. All of these arguments imply that the basic worker solidarity that unions represent is no longer relevant to the bulk of the working class.

The opposite is true. At the moment, the ACTU is pursuing a wage case that is attempting to limit working hours, which are the highest in the First World. In the last decade, the substantial shift from permanent to casual work has divided the population into the overworked and the underemployed. Only the combined, militant organisation of workers in unions can reverse this trend.

Anti-racism

More starkly, Howard's refugee-bashing campaign desperately needs to be fought by anti-racist campaigns in workplaces around the country, led by the trade unions, to expose the lie that workers in Australia are worse off because of refugees.

This is the last thing on the ALP leaders' minds. On November 25, Latham explained: "Why should [people in Sydney's western suburbs] support illegal behaviour that is a barrier to their efforts and their aspirations for their family? Labor has to recognise, as we do, that in protecting working people, by blocking illegal behaviour, we are doing one of the most important roles for our party in defending the rights and aspirations of our constituency."

Latham is not yet representative of the ALP leadership as a whole. As the ideologue of the pro-privatisation wing, he is being treated with kid gloves. His "revitalisation" was not to Labor's shadow cabinet, just its shadow junior ministry.

However, as shadow minister for urban development and housing, he has responsibility for the "aspirational classes" (and for shadowing the "left-wing" minister for regional and urban development Martin Ferguson). As shadow assistant treasurer, Latham will have significant influence over party economic policy.

The ALP's further movement to the right — to reclaim the "economic rationalism with a multicultural face" image of the Keating years — is the inevitable step for a party of big business. The challenge now is for the trade unions to finally break free of the ALP and fight for a real, pro-working class alternative.

From Green Left Weekly, December 5, 2001.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.