Category Archives: Policy

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 we need Comment is Free Australia to be better

I’ve been a fan of Guardian Australia since it launched in 2013 and think it has shifted the tone of public conversation in Australia. Its coverage of federal politics and investigative journalism has been great in the short time it has existed and has improved as time as passed. It may not be as well resourced as News or Fairfax but it has punched above its weight and it was why I decided to start paying for it. One thing I have noticed though is that I am far less enamoured that I used to be with Comment is Free Australia.

When it first launched, I really enjoyed Comment is Free Australia because it provided an outlet for a range of voices that weren’t heard that were both articulate and interesting. It still does that and provides some great perspectives, for example, voices like Van Badham, Jason Wilson and Jeff Sparrow. It was refreshing to see voices to the left of social liberalism and other very different perspectives in the mainstream media but it feels far less common than it once was.

Maybe it was the different focus of the previous Comment Is Free editor or a decision by Guardian Australia to focus on a set cohort of regular writers or maybe it is just a reflection of op-eds more generally devolving into a kind of clickbait to get more hits, I’m not sure as to why but more often than not it feels like it now plays to the same old audience. Whereas the op-eds used to be more thought provoking and challenging, it feels like I have heard it all before.

This is not meant to be an ultra critical post, I have no doubt that the Guardian Australia gets inundated with lots of pitches for op-eds and has limited resources but I miss the diversity of voices that were thought provoking and whose impact lasted more than 24 hours.

I know things can’t stay the same but with the disappearance of The Drum and the increasing number of op-eds that are obviously click-bait that you read published by News and Fairfax (even in hard copy papers), it makes it even more important for there to be quality op-eds from a diversity of contributors. You can set up blogs or online magazines but they don’t have that same reach that the Guardian Australia has.

Op-eds are important because they can set the agenda and shape public debate but if there’s only a similar cohort that get that opportunity, it means our public conversation will continue to be narrow and shallow. Comment might be free but its role in public debate is sacred.

 

A new year, a new Bill?

The last few weeks have been good for Bill Shorten. He’s been increasingly bold, has set the agenda and gotten favourable public response, putting the Coalition government on the backfoot. The polls have tightened, with two (Newspoll and Essential) recording 50-50 2PP.

Malcolm Turnbull meanwhile has been struggling. While expectations about Shorten have been extremely low, even among the party base, for Turnbull expectations are sky-high — and he is not living up to them. He is constrained by trying to keep the peace in his party room, fending off leaks and backbench revolts. In the last few weeks alone, there have been leaks about the Defence White Paper and conservative uproar about the safe schools program.

Turnbull’s tax reform agenda, which was to be the centrepiece of his re-election campaign, is in shambles. Internal opposition led to the dumping of GST changes, and even modest changes to negative gearing are unlikely to get party room support. Bereft of a tax reform agenda, the government is caught between indecision and reaction.

Even with all this going on, Labor knows that a small-target strategy would not work against Turnbull. The negative gearing announcement made everyone pay attention because Shorten took a position that might be unpopular with some swinging voters in the electorate, challenging assumptions about his aversion to risk. Similarly, calling Senator Cory Bernardi a homophobe and replacing Joe Bullock with Patrick Dodson has caused people to start reassessing Shorten.

Negative gearing has been particularly potent because it is a policy that the party base really likes. Communication expert Anat Shenker-Osorio has argued that progressives should engage their base and persuade swinging voters, rather than cater to them and alienate their opponents. The Coalition’s policies on immigration and refugees did this; negative gearing does it perfectly for Labor.

It’s a sensible strategy. Since the Second World War, Labor has only won from Opposition three times, and in each case did so by having, a positive agenda with clear and distinctive ideas. With doubts growing about Turnbull, it gives Shorten an opportunity to outline clear and distinctive ideas.

The big danger here is that big policy announcements this early open Labor up to attack and give the Coalition time to respond. In addition to its proposed changes to negative gearing Labor has made big commitments on Gonski education reform. If Turnbull can create enough doubt about Labor, he can get re-elected. With the conservative wing of the Coalition making it difficult for Turnbull to outline and focus on a bold policy agenda, resorting to a fear campaign may become his only option.

But Labor needs to be bold and continue strengthening its narrative. A clear lesson from the British election is that a shopping list of appealing policies is not enough. Labor has sought to establish a narrative about the future and science, focusing on jobs of the future by announcing policies on coding, renewables and start-ups. But while this has potential, as evidenced by Turnbull’s attempts to neutralise it with his innovation statement, it has not been convincing, as yet.

People increasingly understand that change is necessary. They are worried about the future, not only out of self-interest but also out of concern for their children’s future and living standards. They want someone to be straightforward about the challenges we face, and have a plan.

Shorten’s speech at the National Press Club this week showed signs that he recognises this underlying public mood and that determining how to ensure a just transition in the face of big structural forces is shaping Labor’s thinking.

Digital disruption, the ageing population and climate change will have profound effects on Australia and the world. Most people understand we need to innovate and adapt, but they also want some security and certainty for themselves. Not everyone will benefit equally from disruption. There are some big risks, and intervention is necessary to ensure opportunities and burdens are fairly shared.

While Turnbull may be ahead as preferred prime minister, the Coalition has yet to demonstrate the principle of fairness — in government, let alone in their future plans. That principle of fairness is deeply held and widely felt across the electorate, as shown by the reaction to the 2014 Budget.

If Shorten can capture this mood, he has a chance of winning. Labor’s narrative needs to be not only that it is the party best equipped to deal with the challenges we face, but is the only party that can ensure any changes will be just and equitable. A plan for the future that is both convincing and seen as fair may end up being the difference between being in government and opposition.

Published in Eureka Street on 18 March 2016

The danger of generational politics

Released yesterday, Richard Cooke’s essay in The Monthly has really touched a nerve. Lots of friends have shared the essay on social media, saying how it captures how they feel about the dominance of the Baby Boomers.

For many young people, it is increasingly hard to find a secure, well paying job. Many rack up big debts to pay for their education but still can’t find a permanent job. At the same time, housing is increasingly unaffordable with any hope of home ownership disappearing. At the same time, they feel patronised by an older generation who condescendingly say they just need to make sacrifices like they did. Yet it was a different age, an age of secure jobs, free education and more affordable housing, something almost inconceivable today.

This resentment at Boomers isn’t anything new, it has been bubbling away for awhile. While Generation Less is being released next month, a decade ago Please Just F* Off, It’s Our Turn Now was released. The young sticking it to older generations isn’t anything new, the Baby Boomers rebelled against their parents, but something makes the current situation different. There is a pervasive sense that young people today will be the first generation since the Great Depression that will be worse off than their parents.

What’s more is that young people are increasingly angry and frustrated that they have been sold a lie. They have grown up in an individualised, consumer-driven world where it was about their choices. The idea that you can do anything you want to do, work hard and you’ll be successful and the future would keep improving was uncontested. There was an emphasis was on social mobility and equality of opportunity, “growing the pie”, not redistribution. Post-GFC, people are starting to realise that it is utter bollocks.

The strange thing is that it has taken the form of intergenerational rather than class conflict. Young people are railing against an unfair distribution of resources, privilege from the ownership of capital or having wealthy parents, a system rigged against them. And yet it does not manifest as a form of class consciousness, even one that is intersectional. A single female pensioner that does not own her own home is in a similar position to a young renter with insecure work except with fewer options. Essentially timing has meant that it is more likely to be the Boomers who have accumulated wealth and capital but it is mostly about class. But why is generational politics rather than the politics of class the dominant narrative?

I would argue that the erosion of traditional institutions and forms of identity, particularly class, has played a big role. Structural changes have meant the demise of traditional career paths, declining union density, decoupling of where you work and live have all played a part in the breakdown of traditional sense of class identity. With many people no longer living and working in the same community or staying in the occupation for long periods of time, the strength of class identity has eroded away.

At the same time, there has been the rise of identity politics. Age fits quite well within an identity politics framework. While not the same as other manifestations of identity politics, there is a sense of institutionalised disadvantage and there are common experiences that unite a disparate group of people, creating a common identity that resonates with many people.

This growing intergenerational conflict is not unique to Australia. It is happening across the world. The big danger for progressives it that unless addressed properly it becomes a right-wing vehicle for dismantling the welfare state and pursuing anti-tax individualism, based on resentment.

Fundamental to the welfare state is the idea of intergenerational solidarity. Solidarity is about feelings of sympathy and responsibility for others. Welfare spending is essentially a compact of intergenerational solidarity. Younger workers pay taxes to support older workers’ pensions and healthcare costs but they benefit from previous generations’ investments in infrastructure, innovation and environmental protection. The understanding is that everyone benefits from the support of others and that we are part of a larger community of shared interests.

Intergenerational conflict undermines that compact, particularly when fiscal pressures caused by an ageing population has meant a push to rein in support for the young, particularly as the old become a larger proportion of the population. Any sense of reciprocity is destroyed because while the older generations get or maintain support, the young lose theirs and thus do not have a stake in social supports. While older generations have a (rightful) sense that they should get support as they contributed financially, younger people ask, “Why am I subsidising the old when I don’t get any support?” It is a recipe for a highly divided and stratified society.

Shifting the focus to class and rebuilding intergenerational solidarity won’t be easy. It requires a cross-generational understanding there is a shared interest in tackling inequality and entrenched privilege but it needs to be done. If it isn’t, the intergenerational conflict will only get worse and it will further breed resentful, toxic individualism.

 

The Baird Government is not “moderate”, it is privatising NSW

One of my biggest gripes is about how the Baird Government in NSW is portrayed. It has been called “centrist” and “moderate” when its agenda is clearly driven by vested business interests.

It is mistaken as “moderate” because it is contrasted against the socially conservative and reactionary federal Coalition. The fact is that it would be impossible for a Coalition Government to get elected in NSW if it was seen as a bunch of bigots. It understands that it cannot be seen as too overtly socially conservative or racist.

Unlike the federal Coalition, the NSW Coalition is playing the long game and has sought to avoid overtly antagonising key groups. The use of the “asset recycling” narrative is their way of doing this as they pursue widespread privatisation. The history of New South Wales being a naturally Labor state and the failure of the last NSW Coalition Government undoubtedly played a role. The decisions it has made are strategic, seeking to gradually change New South Wales over many terms, not a single term.

As a result, there are many decisions that the NSW Government has made which have flown under the radar, assisted by a lack of scrutiny. Resourcing to the Opposition is pitiful and the media is focused on federal politics. If the same level of scrutiny was applied to the NSW Government that has been applied to Auburn Council, there would be community uproar at Baird.

Below is an ongoing and incomplete list of things that show how the NSW Coalition Government is privatising the state and delivering for its base of property developers, big business and conservative interests. Feel free to share this list and let me know if there is anything I have missed:

  1. Privatising the electricity network.
  2. Privatising the Northwest Rail Link & beginning the privatisation of our rail network.
  3. Selling the land the Powerhouse Museum is on to developers.
  4. Exempting the casino and a range of pubs from the lockout because of pokies.
  5. Evicting tenants from public housing in the inner city and selling off their housing in Miller’s Point.
  6. Using the Metro to demolish public housing in Waterloo.
  7. Slashing funding to womens’ shelters, leading to closures & transferring remaining shelters to faith-based providers.
  8. Ending one person, one vote in the City of Sydney.
  9. Gerrymandering local government boundaries.
  10. Watering down the powers of ICAC.
  11. Destroying TAFE by introducing contestable funding.
  12. Using the NDIS as an excuse to shut down all publicly run disability services by 2018.
  13. Changing strata laws to make it possible for developers to force people to sell their home.
  14. Allowing James Packer to take public land from Barangaroo to build a casino through an unsolicited bid.
  15. Privatising all public transport in Newcastle.
  16. Shutting down the Newcastle rail link because developers wanted it.
  17. Privatising ports in Newcastle, Port Kembla and Port Botany.
  18. Privatising the land registry, which is a natural monopoly.
  19. Selling off historic public service buildings in the CBD to hoteliers and Australian Technology Park.
  20. Selling the land Hurlstone Agricultural High School is on to developers
  21. Imposing a wage cap on public servants and taking away power from the Industrial Relations Commission to determine wages and conditions
  22. Demoted the Department of Environment to an office under the auspices of the Planning Department
  23. Allowed councillors with a pecuniary interest to vote on planning controls that effect all or a substantial part of a local government area as long as they declare the interest.
  24. Outsourcing public sector jobs in IT, corporate services, construction & maintenance that will undermine public sector capacity.
  25. Impose additional and reintroduce tolls on the M4 & M5 to pay for WestConnex
  26. Allowed shooters to hunt in national parks.
  27. Cut all funding to the Welfare Rights Centre.
  28. Introduced donations and expenditure laws to make it impossible for unions to run political campaigns.
  29. Promising to repeal legislation to allow the clearing of native vegetation like the Newman Government did
  30. Pursuing an anti-cyclist agenda by tearing up bike lanes and making it harder to cycle.
  31. Making it more difficult for children to enrol in ethics classes at school.
  32. Privatising HomeCare by stealth by transferring it to Australian Unity with no transparency.
  33. Selling off and closing regional TAFE campuses.
  34. Setting up the Greater Sydney Commission to override local council planning controls.
  35. Privatising ferry services in Sydney.
  36. Introducing ‘three strikes’ laws to evict public housing tenants with little recourse to natural justice.
  37. Rezoning a potential World Heritage site in Parramatta to allow developers to build apartments on it.
  38. Wasting $38m on a little used pedestrian bridge over Anzac Parade while refusing to fund the Iron Cove to Cooks River GreenWay.
  39. Carving off parts of Sydney Park to make way for WestConnex.
  40. Using the legalisation of Uber to water down taxi regulations such as vehicle standards and deregulate fares.
  41. Using the promised “one-stop shop” of Service NSW to shut down service branches and call centres and force people to use digital transactions.
  42. Compromising the safety of Sydney’s water by axing the jobs of five of the six top scientists responsible.
  43. Bulldozing a major arterial road through the historic Thompson Square and Windsor Bridge.
  44. Forcibly relocating a long-standing community  pool in Parramatta to make way for the corporate redevelopment of Parramatta Stadium.
  45. Cutting down 100 year old trees along Anzac Parade and Alison Road for a light rail route so Randwick Racecourse can keep a bus lane and 150 car spaces.
  46. Seeking the power to shut down rail lines without Parliamentary approval for the benefit of developers.
  47. Increasing usage of the “Cabinet in Confidence” excuse to block Freedom of Information requests.
  48. Environment agencies getting their budgets slashed by $20 million, with National Parks and Wildlife and the Royal Botanic Gardens among the hardest hit.
  49. Examining the privatisation of Sydney Trains.
  50. Refused to support a pill testing trial as part of a drug harm minimisation strategy.
  51. Failing to invest in our urban water infrastructure, forcing Sydney Water to pump sewerage into our waterways.
  52. Expanded police powers to use against protestors, including removing restrictions on move on powers and extended search and seizure powers.
  53. Reducing penalties for companies that explore or mine illegally.
  54. Pursuing a contestability agenda in prisons to drive down wages for staff and conditions for prisoners.
  55. Resourcing shortfalls pushing Western Sydney public hospitals in Penrith, Westmead and Blacktown to breaking point.
  56. Giving police the power to ban individuals from public places for 72 hours without a judge’s approval.
  57. Banning schools from being show a documentary about gay parents during school hours.
  58. Supporting the gutting of the Safe Schools program.
  59. Calling for a GST increase to pay for tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.
  60. Planning to turn open parkland at Moore Park into car parks and stadiums.
  61. Concealing illegal donations and refusing to reveal their identities.
  62. Accepting cuts to federal funding to public schools.
  63. Closing down ticket offices at rural and regional railway stations.
  64. Effectively pushing for welfare quarantining for public housing residents by supporting deducting rent directly from Centrelink payments.
  65. Cut funding to ICAC.
  66. Imposing an extremely harsh penalty regime on cyclists.
  67. Making fines for protesting illegal mining greater than fines for illegal mining.
  68. Privatising education and training in prisons.
  69. Establishing a Commissioning and Contestability Unit to come up with new ways to privatise public services.
  70. Pursuing outsourcing of the operation of school and recreation facilities.
  71. Destroying critically endangered woodland to provide temporary parking for WestConnex.
  72. Privatised foster care services.
  73. Transferring a third of public housing from the public sector and demolishing estates which will be rebuilt as majority private residencies (70:30).
  74. Selling off the Sirius Building in the Rocks and opposing heritage listing to allow its demolition.
  75. Increasing land registry fees by 25% prior to its planned privatisation.
  76. Getting the NSW inter-city train fleet built overseas at the expense of local jobs, investment and skills.
  77. Privatising five regional public hospitals in NSW.
  78. Planning to use proceeds from privatising the land registry to pay for a stadium upgrade.
  79. Closing Service NSW shopfronts and reducing opening hours.
  80. Temporarily relocating Ultimo public school to a site contaminated with lead.
  81. Seeking federal government “reward payments” for privatising public services.
  82. Letting councils outsource the running of local government elections.
  83. Proposing changes to Compulsory Third Party insurance that would remove motor-accident victims access to fair compensation and legal representation.
  84. Seeking to get rid of licences that strictly control the number of native animals killed.
  85. Spending $150m per annum on consultants, significantly more than the previous government.
  86. Outsourcing fleet management.
  87. Selling off prime real estate in the CBD to pay for an upgrade of Circular Quay and refusing to say how much revenue will be foregone.
  88. Selling off a historic house to a wealthy private school when local public school enrolments are surging.
  89. Offshoring public sector shared services and using 457 visas to do IT work.
  90. Changing legislation to make it easier to privatise public spaces like beaches and parkland.
  91. Privatising the state superannuation administrator.
  92. Planning to privatise all public transport within the next fifteen years.
  93. Forcing council amalgamations in Sydney but not in regional areas controlled by the Coalition.

We must be smart, open and modern to win

To succeed, Labor must engage with the world as we find it, not as we might want it to be.

Australia’s economy is in transition. We cannot ignore the rise of the sharing economy or the threat posed by climate change. We need to grapple with the revenue crisis engulfing our governments. The digital age is transforming our lives but how do we protect our fundamental rights to privacy? Longstanding policies on drugs are failing and leave a great social cost.

The Left welcomes debate on these issues and more. Strong and effective policy can only emerge from a robust contest between competing solutions. Labor, and Australia, need bold, innovative, tested ideas that address our most pressing challenges.

That is why the Left is supporting a move towards a broad-based land tax.

In a world where wealthy is increasingly concentrated and capital increasingly mobile, land tax offers state governments stable revenues to fund vital services. Unlike the regressive GST, it does not shift the burden from the wealthy to low-income earners.

Australia must leverage our existing advantages to achieve social outcomes. We need an industry policy that backs our world-class research and innovation as we transition to a clean economy.

We need to generate winning policies but we must also call out failed policy when we see it. The human cost of our drug laws is unacceptable. Drug law reform is long overdue.

Labor has a proud record when it comes to the big reforms – and in managing the impact of change in line with our equitable values.

But today in NSW there are self-inflicted challenges to our credibility. The community we seek to represent needs a modern, professional party. In some important respects, we fail that test.

Urgent reforms to our internal governance must ensure the utmost integrity of NSW Labor. We must remove factional cannibalism from Party offices. We must boost women’s representation at all levels.

But smart policies and good governance are no longer enough. There is a growing mood of discontentment with politics. As internal contests on both sides of the Atlantic have shown, there is a yearning for a more transparent, responsive and democratic politics. Labor must accept and embrace this mood or suffer a fate similar to many of our European sister parties.

The philosopher Robert Unger once wrote: ‘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’.

For Labor to win the day, we must be a smart, open, modern party poised to respond confidently to the challenges of the future.

Originally appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of Challenge

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.