What would a successful Australian left-populism look like?

I have previously written how I think the desire of some in the Australian Labor Party for an Australian Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn is likely to unlikely occur within the current institutional set-up. That desire for an Australian equivalent is not limited to Labor members though.

There are some on the Left outside the major parties who think they could be the beneficiaries of this current populist mood. For example, Senator Lee Rhiannon has been arguing that the Greens should tap into this populist moment by becoming more radical and anti-establishment.

Personally I don’t think the Greens can pull off a populist reinvention, left-populism will only come through a new political vehicle. The Greens aren’t seen as anti-establishment by those disillusioned with democracy and generally disinterested in politics as usual. They aren’t seen as representatives of the people or of the working class. They are more a vehicle of civic responsibility, the exact opposite of radical left-populism.

Furthermore, the belief that the Greens can change some policies to reinvent itself ignores that successful populist vehicles are very much centred around charismatic individuals who people believe are genuine outsiders. I don’t think many would see any elected Greens MP in that way. I would also add that much of the jargon and many of the actions (of not just those in the Greens but also the broader Left) are not what people do, use or talk about, it has no real mass populist appeal.

So what would a successful new left-populist vehicle look like and what would their platform be? I have a few thoughts.

Firstly, it requires some charismatic leaders who people believe are genuine insurgents (even if they are flawed). Successful populist parties are a personification of the leader. The leader would be dominant but the party would need to be seen as very democratic. Primaries would seem to be the obvious method of doing it, riding on the coattails of the leader.

For a platform, I wouldn’t talk about socialism or capitalism or left or right or the political centre. It is irrelevant jargon to most people. If it was me, I would talk about the need to break-up the cartels that control our country and how you don’t really have a voice. Everyone knows what you mean. In most major industries, you can count the main providers on your fingers. Virgin or Qantas, Woolworths or Coles, the big four banks. The rhetoric would be “the cartels have rigged the system and it’s time to give power back to the people.”

Policies could be using the state to take on the cartels that screw over Australia such as by setting up a people’s bank to challenge the big four and building a high speed train line to give people a choice when travelling.

A left-populist would go after people and corporations who avoid tax very hard. The line would be that tax avoidance is theft because every dollar in tax they don’t pay means one less dollar for pensions, one less dollar for Medicare, one less dollar for kid’s education, one less dollar for disability services. Subsidies and tax breaks for corporations that avoid taxes would be cut and CEOs would be jailed for defrauding the public and avoiding tax.

The anti-system stance would emphasise how the classes that control Australia all went to the same universities and they have a different life, detached from everyday people, and they have all know each other for years. If something is wrong for the connected, they can pay people off with favours. Them and “the cartel” need to be cleared out by banning lobbyists, requiring MPs to be accountable for every public dollar they spend, slashing public funding for political parties and restricting political expenditure.

The framing narrative would be Australia can be better than what we have now. It was once a place where you could get a good job, a house with a block of land, you could relax on weekends. It was possible once to have a good life and we can make it that way again but “the cartels” and self-interested political class are stopping it. We need to do the right thing by other Australians because we haven’t been, those in charge have just been doing what is convenient for them.*

That vision would be tied in to rebuilding Australia because those in charge have given up on parts of the country. Rather than focusing on a post-work agenda, there would be a job guarantee so whoever wants to be employed will be and contributing to the community.

The structure, platform and narrative I outlined have their problems but broadly I think it would be necessary for a left-populist party to be successful enough in Australia to get parliamentary representation. Kickstarting it is another question though. The environment currently is conducive to anti-establishment politics but there is no spark (as yet) to set it off and then someone who take advantage of the momentum. It would require some kind of movement to really get off the ground and we have not seen anything like that as yet.

* (This framing narrative is problematic because of the oppression and dispossession of Indigenous Australians but a variant of it is needed).

UPDATE: Reinforcing my point that the Greens are not seen as the vehicle for left-populism, Essential polling shows Greens voters are even less likely than Labor supporters to believe the system needs fundamental change. 

ACT Labor wins a historic fifth term

ACT Labor’s decisive victory on Saturday in the Australian Capital Territory took many commentators by surprise. The predicted backlash and much touted “It’s Time” factor did not occur nor did any independents or other minor parties get elected. The campaign by ClubsACT and Canberra Community Voters fizzled.

In an election where there were no public opinion polls, the commentary was dominated by feelpinions. Former Liberal Senator Gary Humphries and former Minister Michael Moore were predicting a Liberal Government with non-Green cross-benchers. The vocal minority opposing Labor mistook having a platform through a supportive Canberra Times and institutional support through the clubs with public support.

Labor not only ran a strong campaign but was strategic in making Civic to Gunghalin the first stage of light rail. Gunghalin has traditionally not been the strongest base of support for Labor, however, its vote surged, making it the electorate with the highest Labor primary vote. Furthermore, the second stage of the light rail will go to Murrumbidgee where Labor and the Greens must improve its vote to entrench three out of five MLAs.

It was the third election in a row where the Liberals have attempted to get into power through anti-Labor forces establishing a front party. In 2008, it was the Community Alliance Party. In 2012, it was the Australian Motorists Party. These parties have not come close to winning. The reality is reaching a quota is hard and the fact that they are a front with little community support means they do not get many votes. On reflection, it makes the decision of the Liberals to support five member electorates quite strange.

Post-election there are a number of things to watch beyond which candidates win. Firstly, Labor will elect a new Deputy Leader. The caucus is likely to be six Right, five Left and one unaligned, however, factional considerations means the Left’s Yvette Berry will become Deputy Leader. Secondly, how the Greens manage if they have members outside the Ministry and one inside will be important.

While some praised the ACT on social media as a model for Labor and Greens co-operation, there are unique factors that make it difficult to emulate elsewhere. Labor and the Greens have no major disagreements on social issues, resource extraction is not a big issue, minority government is the norm and it is not a zero-sum game over seats under Hare-Clark.

By the time the next election comes, Labor will have been continuously in power for 19 years and will be the longest serving Government in Australia. Despite claims it was a “pyrrhic” victory, the fact is ACT Labor is a different creature to NSW Labor. 2020 will be difficult but unless the political landscape drastically changes, it is hard to see how the Liberals win.

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.

 

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 Coalition Government is not “moderate”, it is privatising NSW

One of my biggest gripes is about how the Coalition 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.

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 areas in regional NSW and the Eastern Suburbs and North Shore of Sydney controlled by the Coalition.
  94. Privatising Inner West bus routes.
  95. Selling off $9 billion of government-owned property.
  96. Ramming through legislation to force the homeless from Martin Place.
  97. Putting a $110 levy of Parramatta residents to pay for its light rail but not on Eastern Suburbs residents to pay for theirs.
  98. Effectively subsidising private toll roads by giving free car registration to those who pay $25 a week in tolls.
  99. Spending $1.6 billion on rebuilding stadiums when neither gets anywhere near capacity on a regular basis.
  100. The former Water Minister sharing confidential documents with irrigation lobbyists and offering assistance.

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

Three observations about the Labour leadership election

For weeks Jeremy Corbyn had been expected to win the British Labour leadership race but the sheer scale of yesterday’s victory has shocked many.

While some thought it would go to a second round, Corbyn won in the first round with 59.5%. His closest competitor, Andy Burnham, only received 19%. It was a larger victory than Tony Blair’s in 1994 who won with 57% (although the selectorate was far larger in 1994).

It has left no doubt about Corbyn’s mandate amongst the Labour membership and the sheer number of registered supporters have quelled concerns about entryism.

Personally I am sceptical that Corbyn is the long term answer for Labour but neither were the other candidates. His victory does highlight, as Tim Lyons has noted, that the centre-left needs to deal with its inability to seek with moral clarity and a clear purpose. I can only hope that the disruption that his victory brings may force many within Labour to rethink and move on which it sorely needs to do.

There will be a plethora of thinkpieces about what Corbyn’s victory means over the next few weeks and months. It’s too early to tell what the long-term implications of his victory are but there are three quick observations I have from the leadership election based on the results.

1. The landslide victories were built on recruitment campaigns

Corbyn won 49.6% of the membership in the first round but he absolutely dominated the registered supporters section with 83.8%. The size of his victory amongst registered supporters is staggering but not a surprise.

Unlike the other leadership candidates, his campaign team actively recruited. Similarly Sadiq Khan actively recruited registered supporters and it helped to secure a landslide win over Tessa Jowell who was seen as the favourite to become the London Mayoral Candidate. She was well-regarded, had a good public profile and was associated with the successful London Olympics.

The moves by winning candidates to expand the selectorate reminds me of Canadian leadership elections. In the three major parties, members directly vote fo the leader and party memberships are actively sold to supporters during leadership contests by each campaign team. Those who can often recruit and organise the most supporters win.

The lesson for future Labour leadership elections will be the need for genuing organising and fieldwork and to bring potential supporters into the tent.

2. Union turnout was low

I have been sceptical of opt-in affiliation for unions and whether it would actually engage members of affiliated unions. While initial registration figures made me question my scepticism, the low turnout suggests that union member engagement, even amongst those who opted-in, was not high.

While turnout has not been officially revealed, based on those who registered to vote, only 48.2% of union members who opted in did. In contrast, 93.6% of registered supporters and 83.8% of members voted.

In the end, affiliated voters constituted only 16.9% of total votes (down from 27%) with 71,546. Rank and file members were 58.1% (up from 53%) and registered supporters made up 25% (up from 20%).

If there is no greater Labour Party engagement amongst affiliated union membership, it raises questions about what opt-in affiliation has really achieved beyond reducing funding from unions.

3. There will be a rethinking of support for primaries

The great irony of this result is that that the New Labour Right were the biggest advocates of primaries. They have admitted that it was an attempt to dilute left-wing member and union influence (through opt-in affiliation and primaries). Meanwhile the Left opposed the Collins Review that suggested recommended.

The problem is that their understanding of how primaries would work relied on America and the idea that a significant portion of the general population would participate. A better example to study would have been the party primaries run by the Italian Democratic Party (PD). The model was the same with a small fee and a pledge that voters needed to sign.

Academic studies have been done on participants in PD primaries, profiling them and their attributes. These studies found that participants have been more political than the average voter and more left-wing with no guarantee of party loyalty.

It is quite likely that the Labour Left will become converts to primaries whereas elements of the Labour Right will rethink their support. Already Dan Hodges has admitted that the Labour Right got it wrong.

There will be ripple effects here. It is likely to strengthen opposition to further democratisation of the Labor Party and the use of One Member One Vote being used to select leaders. Nick Dyrenfurth has already highlighted concerns about such a direct election model and is unlikely to be the only one to do so. The global trend, however, seems to be towards greater democratisation and primaries which poses a challenge for opponents.

Whatever does happen next, British Labour and social democratic politics will never be the same again after Corbyn’s victory.

Why we need a Labor for Civil Liberties

Over the past few years, we have seen the emergence of a range of different Labor interest groups. These groups have contributed a lot to the direction the party has taken. They have provided a collective voice that has pressured Labor for better approach on a range of policy matters.

We saw it at the ALP National Conference where the Labor Environment Action Network got a commitment of a 50% renewable energy target by 2030 and where Rainbow Labor achieved an end to the conscience vote on marriage equality. On a range of issues, these groups are being heard and making a difference.

But there is one voice that is missing and sorely needed inside Labor. What is missing is an internal party group that will fight for and campaign for our civil liberties.

There are voices that have stood up for civil liberties within the parliamentary caucus and at Conferences but there needs to be a permanent internal party group that will consistently and constantly push the party towards a better position on civil liberties.

Historically, the Society of Labor Lawyers has played that role but it is not just lawyers that care about our civil liberties. An internal pressure group fighting for civil liberties would not only complement the work they do but would also show that there are many (non-lawyer) members in the Labor Party that are committed to defending civil liberties, a fight that is happening right now.

In the same week that we celebrated the 800th anniversary Magna Carta, the Abbott Government was trying to ram through anti-terrorism laws that undermined the rule of law. Labor’s response to left much to be desired. To many, it looked like Labor did not want a fight and sought to avoid being painted as “supporting terrorists”.

These draconian anti-terrorism laws aren’t the only example of our civil liberties being rolled back by governments. There have also been attacks on our right to digital privacy, our access to justice and our freedom of association, just to name a few. These attacks by the Abbott Government are unlikely to stop any time soon.

As the Abbott Government seeks to use national security as a wedge issue for electoral gain and Labor tries to be a small target, it becomes all the more important that within Labor, members fight for civil liberties. Those within Labor who support civil liberties may not always win but we need to be heard. 

It has always been a battle within Labor to defend our civil liberties. You see it in state Labor Governments that go to extreme lengths to never be outflanked on law-and-order by their right-wing opponents. Even as Doc Evatt valiantly fought to oppose the constitutional banning of the Communist Party, there were some within the party who did not support him. It demonstrates the importance of fighting for civil liberties within the Labor Party. It is a contested space. 

At the 1967, ALP National Conference, future Attorney-General and High Court Justice, Senator Lionel Murphy argued that: 

Every generation has to fight over and over again the battle for our fundamental rights and liberties and this generation has to do that also. We Australians tend to think that our civil liberties are beyond question. Almost every one of our fundamental rights and liberties has been either trampled on, whittled away, challenged or ignored in Australia.”

His words still ring true today. This generation of Labor activists needs to step up and fight for our rights but we can only do it collectively. We need to fight because the alternative is surrendering and ceding our hard fought rights and liberties.

Published at the Labor Herald on 14 August 2015

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