Category Archives: Ideology

Why isn’t there a regular broad Left Conference?

A few months ago, the annual ALS Freidman Conference was held in Sydney. It is a get together of hundreds of classical liberals and libertarians regardless of their party affiliation. It got me thinking that though the Left often has conferences, there is no equivalent centrepiece event.

While there are left-wing conferences, there is often a focus on techniques rather than ideas. The largest frequent conferences, organised by Australian Progress, tend to be more about campaigning strategies and tactics rather than ideology. There have been other conferences more focused on ideas but they have been one-offs or party-centric such as Labor’s Progressive Australia, the Greens Reboot or SEARCH’s Left Renewal Conference.

It seems odd that there seems to be a lack of an ideological conference culture on the Left in Australia. Where events about ideas and policy do occur, they seem to be either academic or exclusive and small rather than seeking involvement and a mass audience. Maybe it is because the yardstick for comparison is somewhere like the United Kingdom where the Fabian Society and other organisations host regular conferences and are not held back by geographic distances. Maybe it once existed locally but disappeared as the institutional Left started to shrink.

I do, however, think there is appetite for a regular, pluralist Left conference about future we want that is not bogged down by partisan or factional squabbles or be stuck in the past. Ideas, policy and ideology matter because what is the point of strategy and tactics if we don’t have end goals?

There are a range of topics that need to be debated whether it is the challenge of generational politics, whether we can rebuild solidarity, organising around housing affordability, tackling inequality in all its forms, fighting climate changing, how to get a treaty, aiming for a six hour work week and universal basic income.

Any conference should seek to push boundaries and build better relationships amongst the broader Left. It should also be fun, forward looking and more like a festival, incorporating art, music and culture. Something exciting like The World Transformed rather than the usual talkfests where we hear from the same people who already have a platform. It also needs to be engaged beyond the traditional Left and avoid just having the same older set of speakers we hear all the time.

Organising a big festival-like conference is easier said than done and it will probably be better to start small and scale up but a regular event should be on the agenda for the Left so there can be a proper organised space for debating and exchanging ideas that cuts across the silos that do exist.

Why a book from the 1980s should be read by everyone in the ALP Left

Published nearly three decades ago, Patrick Seyd’s account of the rise and fall of the British Labour Left is a classic of British Labour history. It details how the Labour Left transformed from being a weak minority in the 1960s to being the group that dominated the party in the 1970s, winning a majority and changing how the party permanently.

Seyd identifies a breakdown in the post-war consensus, shifts in the rank-and-file and factional organisation as key factors that helped Labour shift leftwards. Taking advantage of these favourable conditions, the Left was strategic in its decisions, built a broad base of support and organisational infrastructure and skilfully responded to situations and the ineptitude and arrogance of Labour Right opponents. For example, supporting UDSAW’s proposal for a three-section Electoral College to prevent MPs having 50% of the vote.

Yet despite the many victories, the new Left majority fragmented and fell apart over the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. The Left split into two groupings and an alliance of the soft-left and Right resulted in what became New Labour in the 1990s.

Though the book is nearly 30 years old and is about the British Labour Left, Seyd’s assessment feels familiar. Internally, conditions are more favourable to the ALP Left than they have been for many years: the right-wing of social democracy is bereft of an agenda, the Left has championed party reform and its base of support has grown to the point of near parity with the Right at ALP National Conference.

The book offers lessons on how the ALP Left can navigate and push for change in party forums by capitalising on disllusionment, organisational skills, using disputes to add force to its arguments and using to its advantage their opponent’s apparence of arrogance, disdain and ineptitude. According to Seyd:

“Victory was achieved because of a broad base of Party support, Left organisational skills and right-wing arrogance and ineptitutde.”

While there are lessons to be learnt from how the British Labour Left succeeding in winning the party, it is Seyd’s analysis of the limitations of their strategy and their failings that everyone on the ALP Left should heed. In his assessment, he identifies some key issues and challenges that the ALP Left also faces today.

Seyd points to the lack of strategic thinking by the Brtish Labour Left and its narrow focus on the party leadership. He highlights how the Labour Left focused on party reform (specifically the leadership) at the expense of broadening its appeal and developing a coherent programme that had contemporary relevance.

“To be successful the Labour Left needed to concentrate its resources on securing a coherent Party programme which dealt with both ends and means and a Party leadership committed and united behind that programme, and on establishing a solid and continuing base of electoral support. I have argued that the Labour Left concentrated too much on the question of Party leadership at the expense of the two other objectives.”

Seyd goes on to argue:

“The Left needed a coherent programme yet it displayed ideological uncertainty, programmatic weaknesses, and strategic myopia. The ‘revolutionary reformists’ lacked ideological clarity concerning the nature of democratic socialism which left them vulnerable to attacks from both the revolutionary Left and the radical Right. The nature and extent of collective ownership and provision, and the characteristics of socialist internationalism, needed to be defined and stated with conviction. The Labour Left still relied too much on Clause Four of the Party constitution with its commitment to common ownership and popular administration but did not make clear why and how this objective was relevant in the last quarter of the twentieth century.”

Arguably the ALP Left has fallen into the same trap. Direct election and party reform, while important, has been a big focus on the Left whereas a clear vision of what it wants and a coherent programme is lacking, something I have previously written about. The articulation of a clear vision and coherent policy programme rather than a grab-bag of issues is needed. The lack of it gives credence to the criticism that there is little difference between the Right and Left today.

Seyd also highlights another overlooked discussion within the ALP Left, that of praxis. Seyd notes how Left heros often turn out to be traitors once in power as they make decisions that the Left does not support. He argues that the “traitor” or “sellout” mentality was due to the Left’s unwillingness to examine the nature of political leadership and decision-making in detail. Seyd noted that:

 “…consistency in decision-making first requires a strategy for converting principles into practice…the Left devoted little time of thought to this question of strategy”

While Left leaders of the Parliamentary Labor Party have become more common, with almost all states and territories having a member of the Left as party leader, in most cases it has not led to a discernably more left-wing Labor Party in practise. Often they have overseen privatisation or other decisions that are unpopular with members of the Left. The hostility towards Julia Gillard and Luke Foley from parts of the Left for the stances they have taken come to mind.

The Left does talk about being in a party of government, not protest, but despite this praxis is something that is rarely examined. In part, it may be due to the Left’s success in increasing representation and holding leadership positions. Geoff Robinson has pointed out that with the Victorian Left assuming leadership of the party in the 1990s under Joan Kirner, “the Left’s organisation rise was accompanied by an intellectual retreat.” Reversing that intellectual retreat and going beyond principles to thinking about strategy and praxis will be necessary for the ALP Left.

Of all Seyd’s points, the most important (and biting) is his criticism that the Labour Left was focused inwards on winning resolutions and party Conference votes rather than the outward campaigning that is necessary for a radical agenda to be accepted. He states that:

“…the contemporary Labour Left was too much concerned with resolutions and too little concerned with revolution. To secure revolutionary change, as the Conservatives have since 1979 in areas of elite and popular opinion, requires a massive outward-looking campaign addressing the public in a manner and on subjects which concern them and not a small group of resolutionary ideologues.”

The Labour Left assumed that winning the party and adopting a left-wing manifesto was the main game, ignoring the public. It also failed to respond to the changing world and was increasingly seen as a throwback to the past rather than the future. As the philosopher Roberto Unger has noted “whatever forces most credibly associate itself in the future with creation of the new, with energy, with vitality, will in the end command the day.”

“The Labour Left concentrated on the Party militants and ignored the voters, assuming that an electoral majority could be mobilised by distinct ideological leadership. Today parts of the Labour Left continue to believe that this is possible, pointing enviously to Mrs Thatcher’s distinctive politics. Second, the Labour Left made little attempt to reinterpret and develop new ideas in a consistently socialist manner in response to events in the 1980s.”

He adds that:

“Most of the socialist passion still remains concentrated on internal Party affairs when what is needed is a credible socialist current within the Party arguing and developing its position with the object of re-establishing a socialist majority amongst voters.”

From Seyd’s book, three key lessons can be drawn for the contemporary ALP Left and the broader left-wing of social democracy.

  1. The focus on party reform and structure, while important, cannot occur at the expense of a clear ideological vision and programme.
  2. The importance of praxis and grappling with the challenges of being power need to be understood
  3. An outward focus is necessary. The Left must be willing to reinterpret in response to the changing world and it must engage the public on matters that they care about.

While it may be an obscure book in Australia, The Rise and Fall of the Labour Left is a book that should be on the summer reading lists of all ALP Left activists.

Labor must grasp this opportunity to inspire

Labor’s 2015 National Conference is the most important in a generation. Our party is at a critical juncture. The 47th National Conference must set the path both on policy and on internal reform.

After many false starts, real Party reform is now within reach, Now is the time to guarantee rank-and-file members a direct vote for not just the leader but also for delegates to National Conference and Senate candidates. Just as essential is the continuation of our equal partnership with the union movement, the largest social movement in Australia. This opportunity to inspire must not be squandered.

One critical Conference debate will focus on the need for Labor to build a credible economic agenda. As Tom Skladzien argues, that does not mean slashing spending driven by a ‘surplus fetish’ or the imposition of arbitrary tax-to-GDP ratios. Instead we must ask: how can government best pay for the services Australians need and expect?

A progressive fiscal policy for Labor must address the revenue question. This is an absolute prerequisite to realising the society and public services we want to deliver. Jo Schofield rightly points out: if we accept an ever-shrinking tax base, progressives will end up squabbling over the ever-decreasing pool of revenue.

So how can Labor fund the program as that Australians need? Richard Dennis’s outlines four progressive revenue-raising measures.

Labor cannot lock itself into a low-revenue future and nor allow itself to be cast as a pale imitation of the Coalition. As Nadine Flood points out, the ALP must advocate a positive case for the role of over meant as an essential enabler of future jobs and prosperity.

Conference will feature several other key policy debates that will shape Labor’s approach in government. Asylum seekers, marriage equality, a fairer tax system that tackles corporate tax avoidance, housing affordability and tackling climate change are all high on the Left’s agenda.

Conference will also debate Labor’s core objective. It is a debate that seems to have been mainly conducted in the conservative press. While the case for change has not yet been made, we should always have the confidence to debate Labor’s purpose. In that spirit, we are publishing two competing views on the socialist objective.

The British election proved that even incompetent and hated governments can triump on the back of cynical fear campaigns. Being the least worst option will not lift Labor to government. Neal Lawson offers two lessons from the UK election.

Labor must grasp the vital opportunity offered by th 2015 National Conference. Facing a federal election, we must demonstrate our evolution as a modern, democratic movement with a positive policy vision for the future.

Originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Challenge

The debate on the socialist objective shows how stale thinking within the ALP is

Last night at NSW Labor’s Wran Lecture, NSW Opposition leader Luke Foley announced that he plans to move a motion to remove the socialist objective from the party constitution at the upcoming ALP National Conference. The new objective would read:

‘The Australian Labor Party has as its objective the achievement of a just and equitable society where every person has the opportunity to realise their potential. We believe in an active role for government, and the operation of competitive markets, in order to create opportunities for all Australians, so that every person will have the freedom to pursue their well-being, in co-operation with their fellow citizens, free from exploitation and discrimination’.

To acknowledge the attachment that many party members have to the objective, Foley proposes to include it in the party’s origin’s statement so it reads:

‘The Australian Labor Party had its origins in:

  • ‘the desire for the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange’

There are good arguments for updating the objective. The NSW Fabians event on the objective and subsequent pamphlet (which I was involved with) capture the main arguments and there are many valid points both for and against the objective. Yes, federal Labor has rarely engaged in nationalisation, its ambitions limited by the High Court. If anything, the objective has withered to a symbol. Still, to a substantial number of party members, it is an important symbol that represents an important ideal and to many members socialism does not necessarily mean state ownership (a point acknowledged by Chris Bowen during the Fabians event).

Personally I am not fussed about the ‘democratic socialist’ versus ‘social democratic’ debate. However, the manner in which this debate is happening leaves much to be desired and it also highlights how bereft Labor’s intellectual debate is.

Firstly, what is being proposed is a very generic statement that is not distinctively Labor. A socially liberal party, along the lines of the Australian Democrats, could easily accept it as a party objective. The three key things that are missing are:

  • An explicit statement that Labor is a social democratic party;
  • Belief in the primacy of democratic society over markets; and
  • A commitment to creating a good society.

Oddly, those three things are in Chapter 1 of the draft ALP Platform but have been left out of the proposed rewrite of the objective.

Secondly, is it really worthy of a centrepiece debate at the upcoming ALP National Conference? While the language of the objective is clunky and could be updated, rather than encouraging genuine debate, a fight at Conference only serves to highlight how stale philosophical debate is within the ALP.

If the objective is to be updated, it should be a cross-factional process that seeks to get broad support and be a unifying set of principles. There would probably be agreement on most words other than whether the word ‘social democratic’ or ‘democratic socialist’ is used. But rather than a principled and grounded discussion that seeks to find as much common ground as possible, it is being used as a a divisive weapon to show who’s in charge (not the Left faction). It reminds me of the three uranium mine debate at the 2006 ALP National Conference.

If the attempt is to emulate a “Clause IV moment” then it will fail miserably. Arguably the ALP already had this moment under the Hawke-Keating Government when it floated the dollar and started privatising state owned enterprises. A big debate may have been relevant thirty years ago when Labor was torn over the role of the market but to try to make this a major flashpoint now seems like a waste of energy when there are deeper questions facing progressives more broadly.

What are those deeper questions? In a piece for IPPR’s Juncture, Eliane Glasner outlined six big debates for the broader Left. The issues for debate are:

  1. Ideology is not dead, but we need a new political vocabulary
  2. Democracy is not dead, it’s just captured
  3. Authority and leadership are both unavoidable and essential
  4. Be wary of embracing populism
  5. What should the state do?
  6. Digital culture is neither producing equality nor uniting the left

Those are some of the issues we should be debating. I don’t think anyone has a good response to those debates and they will not go away anytime soon.

While some seem to want to invest time and energy to manufacture a fight over the objective, it will only show how irrelevant and out of touch we are, if people even bother to pay attention at all. The result will be changing a few words without really thinking about what it means to be a social democratic party in the 21st century.

If you want to change the objective, fair enough, but let’s have a clear and meaningful discussion about the purpose of social democratic (or democratic socialist) party in the 21st century rather than put forward a set of inoffensive words and have a factional fight for the sake of it. Otherwise we shouldn’t bother with this debate at all.

Blue Labour and the Left

Blue Labour has a bad reputation in left-wing circles. Many perceive it to be racist, conservative, patriarchal and anti-state, summed up with the view that it is about “flag, faith and family”. While there has been widespread criticism of Blue Labour by many sections of the British Labour left, concern not only exists in Britain. For example, I helped organise a Fabian Society event with Maurice Glasman, a key figure in Blue Labour, in Sydney and got the NSW Left to promote. There was some criticism that we should not be promoting such an event.

Understandably a lot of the hesitation comes from what people think of Glasman on issues of national identity and a perception that Blue Labour is about social conservatism. The framing of Blue Labour as a “radical conservative” tradition has not helped win fans on the broader Left. Many are uncomfortable with what he has said about immigration and nationalism in particular, dislike of how he framed the middle-class Fabian and working-class traditions of the political wing of the labour movement in highly gendered terms.

But to dismiss everything Glasman and Blue Labour has said is wrong and foolish. There is a lot from Blue Labour’s analysis to draw on and much of it is already in common use. For example, the idea of community organising and building a relational approach has already taken hold in parts of the Left here, most notably through the Sydney Alliance. Glasman has been heavily involved with London Citizens, the London counterpart to Sydney Alliance. Similarly, focusing on the common good is nothing new with Australian academic David McKnight talking about similar issues and using the same language nearly a decade ago.

Blue Labour’s focus on importance of relationships, place and work also has much to offer. They are all fundamental to personal identity and anchor our lives. Maurice Glasman has also championed ideas of mutuality, reciprocity, solidarity and community ownership, all drawn from important Left traditions that some argue has been lost.

Many in Left may feel uncomfortable with Glasman’s suggestion that it should ditch talk about equality. It is not because Glasman is opposed to equality but rather he argues for most people it is an abstract concept rather than being grounded in everyday life and common sense. This everyday politics and common sense has more in common with those associated with Stuart Hall and Marxism Today than the conservative Right.

Blue Labour also draws on Karl Polanyi, who arguably should be to social democrats what Hayek is to the free market Right, particularly his concerns about commodification. It is most powerful because its language about commodification is something that much of the Left has lost. It is the ‘moral critique of capitalism’ that historian Frank Bongiorno argues Labor has lost. The resistance to the dehumanising effect of the commodification of labour is a fundamental part of organised labour. That is the element of conservatism within the Left, resistance to the radical nature of free market liberalism. The Left has always sought to decommodify education, health care through guaranteeing universalism and rejecting basing value on economic benefits of decisions and actions.

In many ways aspects of Blue Labour could serve as a powerful and useful critique of the politics of the Hawke-Keating era and its top down, elitist and market driven politics. Nostalgia for those politics still runs deep despite it being the source of many of the ALP’s current problems.

While there is much from Blue Labour that is of use, there are many aspects I disagree with, most notably immigration and nationalism. Even supporters have acknowledged its shortcomings in Australia. For example, Nick Dyrenfurth has said this on immigration.

There are also questions about Blue Labour’s vision for the role of the state and communities. David Walker has rightly pointed out that while there is a focus on power, the two unanswered questions are: who pays? and what about professional skill? What happens when the community and those with expertise disagree? Windfarms and floridation are two immediate examples that come to mind. It is also unclear about who gets to define what the ‘common good’ is and how. It reinforces my belief that while Blue Labour has a strong critique but it does not offer a lot of good solutions.

I am also wary of Glasman’s idolisation of Germany. Mark Blyth has highlighted that the German economic miracle is far from one. It has relied on freezes in real wages, an increased labour force from the intergration of East Germany and the impact of the Euro making German exports more competitive. The German social market economy was designed afer the Second World War in response to the perceived threat of socialism. Its basis, ordo-liberalism, seeks a competitive enterprise economy.

Furthermore, he points out that not every country can be a Germany and run a surplus, some need to run deficits, just as for someone to save, someone else needs to spend. This idealisation of Germany risks generalising ideas, policies and institutions that cannot be generalised.

Blue Labour also seemingly has little to say about the challenges we face. It is unclear what it has to say about the impact of technology and how it is transforming the economy and society. Can technology aid its vision of strengthening relationships and a sense of place or is it disruptive? What are its implications of technology for the future of work and what does that mean for its vision? Then there’s challenges across the Western world such as climate change and an ageing population, let alone how to grapple with the waves of mass migration caused by conflict (and soon climate change).

If a Blue Labour approach was to be adopted in Australia, it is unlikely it would look the same as its counterpart in Britain. The historian Frank Bongiorno has argued that we had our own version Blue Labour through Mark Latham. I’m not sure given Latham’s tendency towards neoliberalism, albeit tinged with working-class nostalgia and contempt for anything associated with the New Left.

Whatever the future holds for Blue Labour, there are aspects of it that the Left can draw on. The Left should embrace its moral critique of capitalism which much of the social democratic Left has lost. Rejecting abstract notions and a focus on the everyday (place, relationships, work) to reconnect with people are also important. However, for all that it can offer, Blue Labour does not provide any answers to the bigger challenges we face in the 21st century and it is trapped by its own romanticism and idealisation.

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.