Jeremy Corbyn can inspire us but he was an accident, we can’t duplicate what happened in Labor

Last week the debate about Labor Party reform in the lead-up to ALP National Conference really kicked off after ALP National President (and Shadow Minister) Mark Butler gave a speech to the Victorian Fabians on party democracy. Butler highlighted the lack of Labor Party democracy compared to sister parties and also pointed to the British example of Labour growing significantly after party reform, urging those with power within Labor not to fear it.

Unsurprisingly it resulted in a number of responses. One of the better responses was in the Guardian Australia which published an op-ed by academic Liam Byrne commenting on Butler’s speech. Byrne argued that it is not party reform that will encourage people to join Labor but rather ideas that make people think it is worth participating within Labor.

I agree with him that ideas and a reason to be involved is essential. Many joined Labour because of Corbyn and I have written extensively about the Labor Left’s need to reform its ideas. However, there is a wider problem when trying to compare and contrast British Labour and Australian Labor.

It was the interaction of party reform, Corbyn as a candidate and ideas he represented that underpinned the growth of British Labour. None of it was planned though and it cannot be easily replicated or transplanted. Even the intellectual contours of Corbynism, “the ideas”, right now are quite sketchy and without strong institutional infrastructure. I have previously written about why a Corbyn is unlikely in Australia due to our electoral system and political culture but the extent to which Corbyn’s election was an accident and organic is not grasped by many people. There is a reliance on the benefit of hindsight, especially after the 2017 British election result.

To really understand how British Labour got to where it is, we need to go back to the 2010 Labour leadership election when Ed Miliband was elected leader over his brother by a tiny margin because of his massive victory in the union section of the Electoral College. The left-leaning unions had endorsed and actively supported Ed over David. There was animosity towards the unions from the Blairite wing of the Labour Right over the result.

The following year, the Blairite pressure group Progress started a campaign urging Labour adopt primaries. The seeming success of the Parti Socialiste Presidential primary in 2012 added weight to this belief that it should be adopted. It also followed a number of MPs (including Ed Miliband) suggesting primaries in the lead-up to Labour’s defeat in 2009.

Everything came to a head in 2013 in the parliamentary constituency of Falkirk where the Unite union was accused of “rigging the vote” to get its preferred candidate preselected. In response to this manufactured political crisis, Miliband committed to a range of party reforms including opt-in affiliation and the adoption of a leadership primary and he commissioned the Collins Review to examine how to implement it. The move towards primaries was about distancing Labour from the unions under the guise of “reforming the Labour-union link”. It is worth remembering that Tony Blair was a big supporter of this move.

In 2015, Labour unexpectedly lost the election with the Conservatives winning a majority. Ed Miliband quit as leader and in the leadership election that soon followed, Corbyn barely got enough MPs to nominate him, some “loaned” from the Labour Right to allow a broad church debate. He ran but he did not expect to win. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper were the frontrunners.

In the beginning, his campaign struggled though it started to gain support from unions. The surge in support was unexpected. It was organic and it happened around June around when the debate about the benefit cap happened. Corbyn was the only leadership candidate to vote against it.

Corbyn was the beneficiary who tapped into a mood that already existed both within Labour and outside in the extra-parliamentary movements. From that, he built momentum because he seemed genuine, took advantage of the new electoral system and his opponents campaigned badly. One classic example of how bad the opposing campaigns were was that Corbyn was the only candidate to include join and registered supporter links on his website.

Corbyn won in the first round and his campaign list was turned into the organisation Momentum to bring together all the parts of the Left that backed him in a formalised institution. He had difficulties with chaotic Cabinet reshuffles, poor polling and local council losses.

After the shock victory of Brexiteers in the 2016 European Union membership referendum, Labour figures blamed Corbyn for the result and planned to get rid of him. After he sacked Hillary Benn, they attempted to blast him out by resigning from the Shadow Cabinet en mass. When that failed, there was an attempt to hold a new leadership election with Corbyn not automatically included. Again that failed.

The problem is they assumed they should pressure Corbyn out of the leadeership so had not determined which candidate they would fall behind: Angela Eagle or Owen Smith. Smith ended up as candidate but not after an aborted leadership launch by Eagle. Smith ran a Corbyn-lite candidate, focusing less on his agenda but that he would be a better messenger who could work with the rest of the party. Despite new restrictions on participation in the election, Jeremy Corbyn again won.

While there was talk of a split, his critics concluded that they would wait out until the next election, hoping a large defeat would discredit Corbyn and his agenda amongst the party. With Labour infighting and the Conservatives polling well, newly elected Prime Minister Theresa May sought to hold an early election, believing it would result in a landslide victory.

The subsequent campaign was the worst run by an incumbent government in living memory. Labour’s manifesto, which was leaked in an attempt to damage the party, was received positively and Labour surged in the polls as Corbyn embraced a populist rebrand with the now well known slogan “For the many, not the few”. National security was not the electoral liabilities many predicted and there was polarisation with those aged under 45 shifting to Labour. Labour recovered in northern seats where immigration was an issue until the Brexit vote, UKIP’s vote collapsing, and won educated socially liberal constituencies.

The Conservatives lost their majority in a shock result that few expected, leaving Corbyn in a strengthened position and May as well as Corbyn’s internal critics in a weak position. His critics acknowledged he would remain leader with potential challengers like Yvette Cooper, who planned to run for leader, not challenging. He was also able to make ground on the threshold for nominations being lowered, something his opponents previously opposed. Along with the subsequent collapse of Carillion and the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it all seemed to symbolise a shifting landscape. What everyone had assumed would occur had been turned upside down with Jeremy Corbyn seemingly now Prime Minister in waiting.

There are a few things that we can conclude from all this.

Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn was accidentally elected off an already existing mood within Labour combined with a surge of radicalised support from outside the party, shaped by years of austerity.  The party which grew under Miliband had already shifted to the left on a range of issues, to the anger of the Blairites. In fact, much of Corbyn’s manifesto could be said to be Milibandism with a different tone.

The broader context is that since 2007, Britain has experienced the second worst real wage growth in the OECD (only Greece was worse), there is endemic low pay and university degree debt is the highest in the English-speaking world. The economic situation in Australia is getting worse but it is not comparable.

Secondly, the Labour Right, the Blairite wing, in particular, made a huge mistake. The Blairites mistakenly thought open primaries would benefit them but instead were wiped out. They continue to misread the mood. Furthermore, what remains of the Labour Right (both old Right and Blairite), bereft of big allied unions, do not know how to recruit and organise. They have no distinctive agenda. Instead they rely on campaigning in the media against the leadership.

It is clear that all of Corbyn’s victories have been because opponents underestimated him and his team. This is not to say that they always had a well oiled machine or fantastic strategy. His opponents were arrogant and failed to understand why people might support him. They all thought he was unelectable or he was not a nice shiny suave politician.

But what happened in Britain cannot be replicated here. It is not a single event or factor but multiple unplanned things that led Britain to its current situation. The path to where we are is full of arrogance and missteps by Corbyn’s opponents. Even if a primary was to be adopted in Australia, the result would not be the same.

That all said, ideas on their own are not enough. It is not an either or proposition. A party structure that is open and flexible is necessary. While it would not cause an upsurge alone, it makes it possible. Party reform is important in this regard but it is not an end in itself.

South Australia might herald the breakdown of Australia’s two party system

The South Australian election in March this year has the potential to break the traditional two party system that has existed in some form in Australia since the 1910s. While much of the focus had been One Nation on winning the balance of power in last year’s Queensland election, the Labor majority victory has meant public concern about One Nation’s “breakthrough” has dissipated. South Australia, on the other hand, is far less predictable and it is unclear what will occur.

With Nick Xenophon resigning from the Senate and running for the House of Assembly seat of Hartley, the campaign will be focused on him. Nick Xenophon has skilfully avoided being associated with any major party despite his deal making at a federal level, portraying himself as the anti-establishment choice, and he seems likely to benefit from public dissatisfaction. It is of little surprise that Labor is trying to paint Xenophon as a ‘Liberal in disguise’.

According to some polls Xenophon is preferred Premier and his ‘SA Best’ party is ahead of Labor and the Liberals on primary votes. It seems very possible that Nick Xenophon endorsed candidates will win a swag of House of Assembly seats. His party has already recruit a number of high profile candidates including a former TV journalist and the mayor of Port Augusta. Xenophon candidates have already shown their capacity to win Lower House seats, winning Mayo federally and coming close in Grey at the 2016 federal election.

South Australian Labor has been in power since 2002 and has lots of political baggage but the public does not seem sold on the Liberal Opposition who have a range of their own problems such as former sitting Liberal MPs running as independents and concerns that former party leader, now independent MP and Government Minister, Martin Hamilton Smith, will keep his seat. There is a distinct possibility the South Australian election may result in a genuine three party system where the largest party is allowed to govern in minority but it will not have a majority and there will also be a considerably sized cross-bench.

For the most part, the success of anti-political parties has been mostly confined to Upper Houses but South Australia may be the first site of Australia’s existing political order buckling under public dissatisfaction with the political class. Rather than in Queensland, South Australia may be where the populist revolt truly breaks through and upturns Australia’s two party system.

This period may be the beginning of the regionalisation of Australian party systems. The success of Katter, the Shooters and Fisher, the Greens and Xenophon may herald distinctive state party systems over the next few years as minor parties start to win multiple lower house seats in certain geographic localities.

Another world is possible, but only if we seize this moment

We are on the precipice of a moment of transformation. The orthodoxy of the last forty years feels as if it is exhausted and on the verge of collapse. What fills the vacuum is yet to be seen.

There is hope. The predictions of a calamity for British Labour did not come to pass. The public is tired of being told their future will be worse than their parents’ generation and they cannot enjoy what past generations took for granted: security, stability, an improvement in their material circumstances.

The British election had a global impact for social democratic movements. Here in Australia, many even asked who our home grown answer to Jeremy Corbyn is. That, however, is the wrong question and lesson. This isn’t about personalities or individuals – for progressives it never is. Rather the lesson of the British election for those on the Left should be to challenge what ideas we think are possible and to put forward a transformative vision for a better future.

The times call for a bold platform for a better future for the many and we must not hedge on it. We need to be unapologetic and hopeful. People are not happy with the status quo and established party systems are being overturned across the world.

The conservative side of politics has no answer to the crisis of housing affordability and the growing precariat, other than mindless appeals to xenophobia and the politics of division. They are in denial about the realities of climate change and comfortable with entrenched inequality.

Within Australia, inequality is growing. It is growing within our capital cities, with those living in rich and poor suburbs experiencing substantially different health and educational outcomes. It is growing as well as between urban and regional communities. It is a challenge that social democratic parties at all levels of government must face head on.

This moment is a time to articulate that another world is possible. Imagining a better future requires a dash of utopianism to consider bold ideas, as well as meticulous attention to the nitty gritty of policy and legislation. The Left in Australia is capable of both – but we must be smart, united and determined.

The alternative is to cede the future to a xenophobic nativism where the majority are pitted against each other, with an increasingly wealthy and disconnected elite making decisions about who is deserving and how to distribute the scraps they are prepared to share. The PASOKification that has torn apart sister parties in Western Europe is the future if Labor does not put the interests of working people front and centre.

It means a vision for better future for the generations to come, rather than the fear of a future in which our lives are worse than those of our forebears.

It means tax settings that fund the public services we need to build a good society that can stop the growth of inequality and ultimately make our society more equal.

None of this will happen naturally or automatically. It will require our ideas and our hard work. We have a better future to create and do not have a second to lose.

Originally appeared in the 2017 NSW Labor Conference edition of Challenge

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.