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Labor & the future

Where to now?

Sol Encel

This essay is prompted by my experience as a member of two committees of inquiry into the electoral prospects of the Labor Party, and the underlying factors which account for its series of defeats between 1975 and 1983, and again since 1996.

As we all know, Labor's loss in 2004 was one of its very worst defeats. Labor had also performed badly in 2001, and two review committees were appointed to examine the reasons - a national review chaired by Bob Hawke, and a NSW review chaired by Neville Wran. There have been no similar reviews since the 2004 election, perhaps because the shock was too great. However, such a report would probably reach the same conclusions as the national review of 2002, which described the challenge for Labor in the following words:

"The 2001 election saw only 37.8 per cent of voters casting a first preference vote for Labor, lower than in any of the big defeats of 1975, 1977 and 1996 and the lowest primary vote for the party since 1906. The decline in the primary vote has increased Labor's dependence on being the second choice of minor party voters.

This is partly attributable to the decline in 'party identification', experienced in comparable democracies elsewhere, and is evidence of what has been called a pattern of 'partisan de-alignment'... attributed to rising educational levels, more accessible political information, and dissatisfaction with politics and the democratic process. This trend is most concentrated among the young.

The 2001 Australian Election Survey showed that major party identification in this country - those who indicate that they identify with one of the major parties - reached a low of 77 per cent in 2001. Australia's major political parties can no longer rely on a large base of loyal electors: support must be gained and carefully maintained, and no one can be taken for granted. For Labor, this invites some serious consideration of the best strategies to maintain a support base from which to reach out to swinging voters.

Many submissions received by the Committee of Review argued that the ALP is failing to differentiate itself sufficiently from the Coalition. Some suggested Labor had lost touch with its traditional blue-collar base, while others argued not enough was done to win the support of the 'aspirational' voter, however defined. All agreed that Labor must act to gain the long term support of new voters, cement the backing of swinging voters and prevent previously loyal ALP voters drifting away to the other parties.

The process of rebuilding Labor's voter base must begin with a thorough restatement of the Party's values, and consideration of the most appropriate ways to transform these values into policy. We must also consider our processes for preselecting quality candidates and maintaining effective community relationships."

This analysis remains as relevant as it was in 2002. It only needs updating by quoting the 2004 election results, which were even worse. The ALP gained 37.64 per cent of the primary votes - a negative swing of 0.2 per cent over 2001 - but experienced a larger swing in the two-party preferred results, which were down by 1.79 per cent over 2001. The result was a loss of five seats. Most of those lost votes would have gone to the Greens, who gained 2.23 per cent of the primary vote over their 2001 performance - although, ironically, it did them no good in terms of seats.

The national inquiry of 2002 was matched by a similar inquiry in NSW, one of whose recommendations was for the appointment of a 'task force' on demographic change, in order to analyse the decline in Labor's primary vote. The report of the task force, of which I was a member, was presented to the State conference of the ALP in October 2003. It received virtually no discussion, and has not been distributed to party branches. I shall quote some of its significant findings, particularly those which apply at the national level.

The report emphasises the need for "new policies that restore the centrality of fairness, the importance of social capital and environmental issues at both local and global levels, and the need to reduce the dominance of neo-liberal economic policies. To retain its edge on social issues that affect most Australians, Labor must strengthen its policies that advance our foundation commitment to equity and fairness, ensuring that they are clearly distinguishable from the policies of other parties. Articulating the benefits of ALP policies in a way that demonstrates their progressive appeal may well involve imaginative thinking and even the forging of a fresh vocabulary, rather than relying on British New Labour terminology."

The report also identifies relevant social changes. "Labor achieves the highest primary vote in electorates where there is a predominance of employed persons, whether white or blue-collar. People who work as private contractors are less likely to vote Labor. In other words, whatever the changes in the work force, Labor's votes continue to come from the 'workers'. Changes in the distribution of work need to be acknowledged in policies that respond to changing social needs resulting from adjustments to occupational patterns ... Political fallout from employment insecurity - created by casualisation and short-term contracts at one end and threats of redundancy and the increased pressure to perform at the other - must be anticipated. To build its primary vote Labor needs policies responsive to the needs of the unemployed, the self-employed, contractors, small to medium enterprises and self-funded retirees. Commitment from both the Party and the trade union movement to secure just employment conditions remains crucial to stem the socially divisive and anti-family trend of overwork and underemployment."

Such inquiries are, of course, nothing new. When Bill Hayden became parliamentary leader in 1978, Labor had just suffered its worst defeat since 1949, gaining just 39.6 per cent of the primary vote. Hayden persuaded the national executive of the ALP to set up a committee of inquiry to investigate the significance of social , economic and demographic changes relevant to the ALP. This was the most ambitious inquiry of its kind. The committee, chaired by John Button, numbered 15 people, including two women, four MPs, three trade union officials, a Young Labor representative, and three academics, only one of whom was a party member. The inquiry received 320 written submissions, consulted a number of interest groups, and some members travelled extensively to meet party members and trade unionists. It published eleven discussion papers, covering topics such as the composition of the national conference, the role of women in the party, the role of the local branch, regional issues, relations with the unions, and the effects of demographic and social changes. The papers were published in a monograph by the Australasian Political Studies Association. The foreword noted the rarity of such a frank and open discussion of party affairs. As John Button has recently observed, it was "all about getting light and air into the party."

Old hands will not be surprised to learn that only a few of the report's recommendations were acted upon. One of the committee's central proposals was the creation of a 'national Labor Party', through the direct election of rank-and-file members from each Federal Electorate Council to the national conference. This proposal, as Button sardonically observes, threatened too many hostile fiefdoms. As a member of the committee, I was dispatched to address the NSW executive, and the hostility in the room was palpable, not least from the recently appointed State secretary, Graham Richardson.

In the end, a compromise proposal resulted in the enlargement of the national conference, which has not changed the basic structure of the party. There were some positive results. Affirmative action for women dates effectively from this report. (Some of the best submissions which I read came from women's groups). More attention was paid to regional interests, and it is significant that four regional seats in Victoria and Queensland were won by the ALP at the two subsequent general elections.

It is ironic to recall the words of the introduction to the APSA monograph, written jointly by Hayden and Bob Hawke, then national president. The papers, they said, should provoke discussion of issues which might otherwise be "swept under the carpet". But under the carpet they went. The recent inquiries found that they were still there.

Where to now?

The findings of these reports, and other analyses both here and overseas, are essentially the same. We can break them down under a number of headings.

1. The electoral hurdle. Since 1996, the ALP has failed to gain 40 per cent or more of the primary vote, which appears to be the threshold required to win an election. (The remarkable success of the Coalition in 2004 was due to the fact that they reached this threshold - the first time since 1975). This low percentage reflects a long-term trend. Between 1943 and 1975, the ALP's primary vote declined slowly, from 50 per cent to 48 per cent. Since 1975, there has been a catastrophic decline of 11 per cent.

These figures should be seen in perspective. The Coalition parties have experienced a similar decline, reaching their lowest primary vote (39 per cent) at the 1998 election. Similar trends are apparent in other countries in Western Europe. In Ireland, the combined vote of the two main parties - Fianna Fail and Fine Gael - dropped from 84 per cent in 1982 to 64 per cent in 2002. The ALP is not at a unique disadvantage, but in order to win it has to overcome the double whammy of declining party loyalty and a lack of attractiveness to its own potential voters. The fact that it can do so was illustrated by the result of the WA State election in February, when the ALP won 42.4 of the primary vote and achieved a 5.2 per cent swing.

2. Shrinking party membership. When Neville Wran presented his report to the NSW State conference in 2002 he observed, "We must give the Party back to the members". John Button puts the issue more picturesquely when he describes local branch members as the party's 'foot soldiers'. Unlike real foot soldiers, however, they are "starved of weapons, imaginative leadership and good communications". Although exact figures are difficult to come by, there is general agreement that membership has declined sharply. Button himself estimates national membership at 50,000. The NSW demographic task force notes that party members are alienated by "small target, media and polling dominated, sound bite campaigning driven by large corporate donations". Again, Australia is not unique. Similar trends in the UK have seen Labour Party membership fall by 130,000 over five years - almost one-third of the membership at the time the Blair government was elected in 1997. In particular, the party has failed to attract young people, who express their political commitments in other ways.

3. Lack of clear-cut party differences. This is a well-worn theme. It requires both strategy and tactics. As Geoff Gallop said after his election victory, it is essential to "get out and dictate the agenda". Mark Latham attempted to do so, but apart from tactical errors like the Tasmanian forests policy, he was handicapped by the fact that the ALP had not established a clear alternative vision or strategy. This issue has attracted a lot of attention in Britain. An essay on '21st Century Citizenship', published by the think tank Demos, identifies three basic values which should characterise a progressive party in tune with contemporary realities:

· to offer a basic level of security and social fairness which equips each individual to develop and contribute to his or her full potential;

· to promote and enable forms of collective action which contribute to the overall vitality and fairness of society as a whole;

· to create countervailing institutions which limit the power of the state and the market, and align the energies of capitalist wealth production with human need.

The theme is also taken up by Michael Jacobs, former national secretary of the British Fabian society, who deplores the failure of Labour politicians to argue in favour of changing the structures which perpetuate social inequality. Instead, the aims of New Labour are managerial, confined to the better administration of society. Within the Labour Party, he argues, this has had a devastating effect on the morale of members. "When Labour wanted to change society, it was, at heart, a campaign; it needed members. But if it just wants to manage things better, why bother?" As our own Barry Jones remarked after the 2004 debacle, the electorate, faced with a choice between two conservative parties, chose the genuine article.

4. Party structure. The move to a national structure based on FECs, recommended by successive reviews, was actually proposed by Gough Whitlam as far back as 1963. Instead, in John Button's words, the party has retained a colonial structure into the post-colonial era. In addition, it is increasingly dominated by party professionals, who rely on factions and union affiliates for their career advancement. He also notes the growth of 'dynastic succession' which, by his calculation, accounts for 10 per cent of ALP members of the House of Representatives, and the excessive power of 'factional warlords'. Rodney Cavalier, formerly a minister in the Wran government in NSW, gave a speech in Canberra in 2001 where he described the ALP as "one of the most undemocratic and unrepresentative parties in the world of parliamentary democracy". This is probably unhistorical, since Robert Michels said much the same about the Social-Democratic parties of Italy and Germany in 1912, but the bite of the criticism is unmistakable.

One of the major structural issues - the relation between the party and the union movement - was examined at length by the 1978 review, but its suggestions have remained under the carpet, apart from Simon Crean's botched attempt to change the 60-40 rule when he became parliamentary leader. The prices and incomes accord which sustained the Hawke and Keating governments is unlikely to be repeated, but it provides a precedent for what is possible.

5. Electoral appeal. All the reviews stress the need to attract specific sections of the electorate, including women, young people, baby boomers, and older voters. The NSW task force points out the anomaly of a situation where 75 per cent of people over 65 are pensioners, but only one-third of them are likely to vote Labor. This was also the case in the UK until 1997, when Labour gained a majority among older voters, and also among women - the first time since women were enfranchised. Given the rapid growth of the older population, this should be a priority for the ALP. One of Mark Latham's speeches floated the idea of '65 at 65' - i.e. a combination of pension and superannuation which would provide 65 percent of average weekly earnings at age 65. The speech was given to an audience of financial advisers, and the idea never went further, although Latham recognised the need to appeal to older voters with his 'Medicare Gold' scheme.


To quote John Button yet again, he is absolutely right in saying that the ALP needs both new ideas and a more democratic structure. It must give political expression to the hopes of progressive groups. It must honour the true believers, but it also needs new believers who can feel that they are part of a movement for change.


Sol Encel is Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Honorary Research Associate at the University's Social Policy Research Centre, and a member of the Evatt Foundation.


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