What is the point of the Labor Left?

There has been a fair bit of controversy both outside and within the Labor Left over NSW Upper House MLC Luke Foley and his stance on marriage equality. He isn’t the only one. At the federal level, a number of Left MPs in NSW and Victoria voted against marriage equality to the dismay of rank-and-file members of the Labor Left.

Undoubtedly marriage equality is an important issue for the Labor Left and one that I, like many others, support. The Left has led the case for marriage equality within the ALP but it does not have a monopoly over the issue of marriage equality. It is important but it is not the sole defining issue. It seems that the actions of some MPs are so unsettling because support seems to be linked to the identity of being in the Labor Left. Is what defines the Labor Left so fragile that it can come down to a single issue? The bigger question it leads to is what defines the Labor Left, what is its ultimate aim?

Socialism is not one of its defining purposes anymore, at least publicly it seems. It has been a long time since any prominent members of the Left have talked about socialism. The Left shies away from it, for example, the NSW Left does not refer to itself as the Socialist Left anymore (though in Victoria the name remains). While there are socialists in the Left, the Left is not necessarily socialist in its aims or language.

Equality and social justice are often put forward as aims but are they explicitly Labor Left ideals? Equality can be supported by liberals, social justice can be supported by conservatives. Both are often articulated by the Left in terms of social issues but on many social issues and even on party reform, the divide is not necessarily Left-Right, particularly amongst younger members. Stances on refugees and marriage equality, two issues strongly associated with the Left, aren’t necessarily determined by faction as we’ve seen by the votes on marriage equality and those who have spoken out about refugees like Anna Burke.

On most policy matters, the Left often argues for more money for public services and opposes privatisation and deregulation but are any of those actually a distinctly Labor Left position? Parts of the union Right and non-aligned members share those views.

If anything the current purpose of the Labor Left seems to be generally opposing power for the sake of power, more internal party democracy and a willing to speak out, be more critical and work with social movements unlike the Right. That is not a good enough end in itself (and a problem when discipline does re-assert itself e.g. on refugees under Rudd). A focus on process and means is no substitute for a long-term defining goal. Without a goal, when in power, aimlessness will creep in. The crisis of social democratic parties has been the lack of such a goal since the late 80s. In many ways the crisis of ideas in social democratic parties is most keenly felt on the left-wing of those parties as they are not as willing to embrace neoliberal and conservative ideas.

There are no shortage of problems that the world faces. As Neal Lawson has pointed out there are crises of climate change, inequality and of democracy itself. The world is also different to that which the Labor Left formed in. Capital has gone global, consumerism has become embedded and we have a more horizontal approach to involvement in civil society. Solving these crises and adapting to the new era require knowing what you want instead and how you will get there. The Labor Left must outline this and have confidence to confront these doubts.

To really challenge the view that the factions are merely a product of the Cold War and are now meaningless, there is a need for the Left to sketch out what transformative change is wanted when Labor is in power. It cannot occur just through moving motions at Labor Conferences and branch meetings but about articulating a vision of society and building alliances with groups inside and outside the party.

The Left needs to articulate the limits of the market and the good society that it wants. It needs to break out of the language of economism and talk about what as a society we want to prioritise and why. It needs to sketch out what kind of equality and what kind of social justice in concrete terms. It needs to spell out how to encourage participation, deliberation and openness, strengthen society by addressing pressures like growing insecurity and inadequate work/life balance and challenge the commodification of our everyday lives. To put it more simply, it needs to pursue what the political economist Karl Polanyi defined as socialism:

…essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilisation to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to democratic society

That should be the defining aim, the point of the Labor Left, to prioritise democratic society over the market. To achieve this, it needs a long-term agenda as a starting point.

An agenda should be developed by the Left outlining what its priorities, its hopes and what it wants but it also must reach out to others who share similar ideas. The Labor Left on its own cannot win inside or outside Labor. Tribalism is deeply ingrained in Labor politics but as less and less people become involved, a more open and plural approach is increasingly necessary to establish a longer settlement. It means building coalitions and trust with those who share some of your goals and trying to move beyond fractionalism. Without it, the working majority needed to win will not exist. Any agenda cannot therefore be overly prescriptive but focus on some themes and put forward ideas that can build a majority with the Left leading it.

The point of the Labor Left must be that it does not just oppose but seeks power to bring about transformative change. A long-term agenda must be a starting point but the goals that are set will only be achieved through a more pluralistic, less tribal and more open approach to politics. The alternative is aimlessness and a base that continues to be eroded away by challengers on its left flank.



  1. Interesting. I think left was thrown into disarray by demise of socialist project, until 1980s as Lindsay Tanner put it the practice of Labor govts was compatible with the party’s socialist objective even if progress was non-existent or glacial. It seems to me ALP left has to be something different from the right wing of the Greens, although not withstanding Foley’s silliness it does this fairly well. This means an agenda as you say of society over the market. This does reflect a belief that the socialist critique of capitalism was on the right track. I will write more on this.


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