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The challenge for Labor

Neal Lawson

And so the inquest into the dreadful failure of the Labor Party begins. Or at least it should. But even after such a defeat I worry it won’t. Having long watched the ALP and having spent the month before the 2013 election touring the country from Perth, to Sydney, to Queensland and then Melbourne, I fear the worst for the ALP while I still hope for the best. But before the inquest, lets set the bar. The challenge for the ALP is not whether it can return to office. The party can console itself with the fact that it's always governments that lose elections and Tony Abbott could well be a one term Charlie. No, the question is not whether the ALP will ever find itself back in office but back in power. There is a difference.  Being in office means you have the trappings of power and can make a narrow band of decisions to impact on the symptoms of the things we care about but not the causes.

Power, on the other hand, is the ability to change the world – to transform it -- to stop the poor from getting poorer and the planet from burning.  Power demands a vision and then both a program and alliances to make it a happen. Today, as the ALP has found out, power is in the media, in the global corporations, and in the seductive influence of the consumer-industrial complex which daily persuades us that the good life can be bought off the shelf. It means the right sets the frames of debate and Labor follows in its wake. Better, of course, than the Liberals – but far from good enough because the cycles of disappointment intensify, the talent goes elsewhere, and the party dries up. Those left fight for scraps of power and position. An alternative feels not just unfeasible but unimaginable. 

This isn’t just a description of the ALP but every social democratic party in the West. Look at Germany. It has gone down to another crushing defeat. The Nordics no longer offer a successful model. In Britain, Labour is ahead in the polls but just about everyone privately fears winning almost as much as losing given the poor intellectual and organisational state of the Party.The half-life of Labour's power decays – from Attlee, to Wilson, to Blair and Brown. It gets weaker and weaker. In truth, the forward march of Labour was halted long ago. New Labour applied go-faster stripes to a clapped-out vehicle but won elections only by telling the country it wasn't really the Labour Party any more. The sugar rush simply accelerated the long-term decline. In France, Hollande flounders badly. In Greece, PASOK has been wiped out. Nowhere is social democracy thriving.

The ALP is part of the systematic downturn in the fortunes of social democracy – a crisis brought about by a heady mix of globalization and an inability to modernise state and party organisations that are essentially vertical and top down in a world that is increasingly horizontal and bottom up. But circumstances apply to the ALP that makes its situation especially troubling. 

First, the depth of the crisis is masked for the ALP by the electoral system. The two party preferred system inflates the focus on Labor when the real mood of the electorate is one of a cultural and emotional disengagement with the whole democratic system. The crisis is masked again by compulsory voting when representative democracy itself is now part of the problem as new horizontal and more direct forms of democracy permeate our lives, often online. But in Oz, while you are legally bound to participate in a system that, to say the least, is losing its legitimacy, democracy becomes more and more just an edifice. Of course, the same applies to the Liberals, but it matters more for the ALP because the right is always in power, regardless of whether it’s in office. Democracy is the only tool Labor has, the only source of power and influence. A sham democracy just results in the illusion of power when in office. 

Secondly, the ALP suffers from the geographical and intellectual remoteness from deeper social democratic discussions about the crisis. It isn’t yet part of the tentative renewal conversations going on amongst European social democrats around the theme of a good society.

Thirdly, its deep, bitter and, as far as I can see, politically meaningless factional divides deny the possibility of fresh thinking and the chance to form powerful and imaginative new intellectual alliances. The personalisation beyond any purpose, the hubris, the jobs for the boys and a few girls, instills rigidity and conformity when the very opposite is so clearly required. 

Fourthly, the Party operates in thin soil. It doesn’t have sufficient think tanks, campaigning groups, public intellectuals, and on and off-line media to stir a debate. Meaningful renewal is always spurred by ideas and people from outside.

Finally, the short three-year electoral cycle mitigates against deep reflection. There is so little time to think. But think the Party must and deeply. My strong advice is to resist the temptation to get on with being an effective opposition. Baiting Abbott might be fun, but the Australian people don’t yet need an opposition; they need a vision of a good society, the broad outlines of a program to achieve it, and the political power to make it happen – in which the ALP is a necessary but on its own insufficient vehicle to make happen.

The tragedy is we need a radical party – that can set limits to the free market and democratise the state; that knows sustainability and equality must go hand in hand; that has answers to the anxiety and insecurity of modern life; and that prefigures the good society by trusting in people, empowering them and practising an everyday politics of love and compassion. The tragedy is not just that so much more is needed, but that so much more is possible

There are sources of energy to draw on. Black Inc provide the space to think culturally about politics and the Drum and the Guardian provide on-line space. Places for policy also exist like the Centre for Policy Development, though there are dangers of rather vapid managerialism. One of the biggest sources of energy and ideas should be the Green Party. The animosity Labor feels to the Greens has to be overcome and only makes sense if winning a majority in parliament is the be all and end of all of politics. It no longer is. If the ALP finds itself in the wrong side of debate like that over the Great Barrier Reef – then its little wonder they find themselves in opposition. 

It will be a long haul because this is no run of the mill defeat for Labor – it demands more than a run of the mill response.


Neal Lawson is the chair of the UK's good society pressure group Compass, and the author of All Consuming (Penguin, 2009). He serves on the boards of UK Feminista and We own it!, is a contributing editor of the social democracy journal Renewal, and an Associate Member at the Baumna Institute at Leeds University. He writes regularly for the Guardian and the New Statesmen. In the past he has worked as a trade union researcher, an advisor to the former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and managed a communications company. These are notes following his Australian visit and reflect his address 'The interlinked crisis of inequality, the environment and democracy', presented to the Evatt Foundation on 23 August 2013.


Suggested citation

Lawson, Neal, 'The challenge for Labor', Evatt Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, April 2014.<>


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