It’s time the Australian Left got serious about transformational change

One of my big gripes of late has been that there is lots of focus by progressives on capacity building, campaigning tactics and strategies but far less on what changes need to be embedded to change society. When progressives are in power, the focus is often redistribution and providing more funding to services but often what is lacking is deeper thinking about statecraft.

What prompted my thinking was this piece in the New Socialist, written about constructing a new left political economy. In this moment of economic, democratic and ecological crisis, we should not accept tinkering at the edges and a repeat of the past. We need to think about institutional frameworks. Neoliberalism did not come fully formed, its seeds were planted to weaken the existing institutional structures and transform the country. Competition policy, restricting right of entry, new public management, contestability, separating policy and service delivery and allowing free-riding in collective bargaining are all examples of these neoliberal seeds that weakened collective institutions and gradually brought about privatisation. These rules, structures, policies and mindsets were embedded into our institutions and continue regardless of who is in power at the top. They are far more insidious than the overt use of state power by conservative governments.

Many on the Left tend to focus on redistribution and provision of service, the immediate need, rather than the political economy and institutional structures that exist as foundations. The rules and regulations that exist, the way state power can be used and the culture it enforces has massive implications. We need to think about what institutional frameworks are needed to drive the outcomes we want so we do not have to rely on those explicitly on the Left of politics being in elected office, particularly at state and local government levels.

Taxing and spending alone will not be enough to achieve outcomes like eroding away the commodification of housing and other public goods, inserting in new democratic norms into both the public and private sectors, industrial policies that provide training, genuine career pathways and economic development, helping to break up the oligarchies that control our economies, ensuring individual not corporate control over our own information, reducing precarity, changing how we approach care so we acknowledge it is work and decarbonising the economy. Raising additional revenue and more social spending is essential for a fairer society but it cannot be the limits of our imagination. We need to think about the seeds of transformational change at all levels. All the workshops and conferences about messaging and campaigning techniques cannot be a substitute for this. Calls to vague sentiments about a more caring, peaceful, sustainable society are insufficient.

Some more modest ideas are floating out there such as more creative approaches to central banking, employee representation on company boards, full employment underpinned by a jobs guarantee, large scale public renewable generation, campaign finance reform,  changing our industrial relations laws to strengthen workers’ bargaining power and taxing externalities like carbon and congestion but much more is needed.

Without this deeper, harder thinking and a transformative agenda, we will be like Sisyphus. We may make some gains uphill but are condemned to watch it go backwards once conservatives get into power and slash spending.

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It’s time to revisit free education

In an era of stagnant wages, intergenerational divides and increasingly concentrated wealth and opportunities, the current policy consensus is neither fair nor is it working for a growing segment of the world’s population.

A recent Pew Global Poll found 52 per cent are not satisfied with the way their democracy is working. For many, the status quo means a future that is not better, with a majority believing that quality of life for young people will be lower than that of their parents.

Australia is no exception. That same poll found that 41 per cent of Australians are not satisfied with how democracy is working here and that less than half of the country has a lot of trust or somewhat trusts that the national government will do what is right for the country. Over two thirds of Australians believe children today will be financially worse off than their parents.

The dissatisfaction and concern about falling living standards for future generations is leading to longstanding policy assumptions being rethought, and nothing symbolises this more than tertiary education. Across the world over recent decades there was a shift towards user-pays in tertiary education. That is now being reversed.

The platforms that British and New Zealand Labour took to elections this year show this understanding emerging, with both having policies to make education free once more. Even Hillary Clinton took a tuition-free college plan to the last US presidential election. It is time for Australia to follow suit.

In Australia, the argument for income contingent loans for higher education was that it financed the expansion of higher education, and that public funding is otherwise mainly subsidisation of those who are better off, who would go to university anyway and become better off still. The mantra was that a tertiary education would lead to substantially better life financially.

However, with degree inflation in combination with stagnant wages and rising house prices, students are racking up debt without it necessarily leading to a life that is materially better than that of their parents. Many fear that this will result in the first generation that will be worse off than their parents since the Second World War.

Though under the present regime payment only occurs when a certain salary threshold is met, the psychological impact of that debt cannot be underestimated, particularly in light of soaring house prices. It fundamentally damages the compact that private payment for tertiary education means future opportunities that result in a person being substantially better off materially.

It can seem like a future of endless debt without a career path or security. Between 1991 and 2016, the average cost of an undergraduate degree more than doubled. Full-time entry level jobs are increasingly hard to find — even for those with a degree, give that there are an estimated 20 graduates per available job. Some cannot even afford to rent on the wage that entry-level jobs pay in their respective areas.

Housing is increasingly out of reach, with housing in Sydney costing ten times the average annual income in 2015, up from four times the average annual income in 1985. No wonder that almost 40 per cent of Australians who do not own a home cannot currently afford to buy and another 20 per cent do not think they will ever be able to afford to buy.

Falling real wages, increased income precarity and collapsing home ownership rates all strengthen the case for free education. Higher education is no longer the ticket to a much better life because of the precariatisation of formerly middle-class ‘white collar’ professions.

While free higher education is not the only stance worth revisiting in Australia, it is symbolic of many policy areas that require a massive rethink: how we treat housing, the role of government in providing employment opportunities, the operation of social security and the taxation of wealth.

This current era of inequality and insecurity demands a break from the policies of the present. Bold ideas like free higher education for a better future are needed because without hope, there is only distrust and resentment left.

Published in Eureka Street on 9 November 2017

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

Australia won’t have a Corbyn or Sanders but there will be an anti-system response

It’s become a common shtick to ask why Australian politics seems to be very different from the rest of the Western world. Across the world, there is growing disenchantment with politics and existing institutions. Major parties on the centre-left and centre-right are struggling against insurgent challengers on the Left and Right, both internally and externally. It manifests in a common question that gets asked in progressive circles: Why don’t we have the equivalent of Sanders or Corbyn in Australia?

The short answer is that both are products of a particular context. Nothing happens in a vacuum. It does not happen without the broader politicisation that is occurring elsewhere.

Both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn products of particular contexts, cultures and history. Corbyn is the product of a hard left tradition in the British Labour Party no longer exists in the ALP. In part, due to the discipline of the ALP and the emergence of a viable challenger on its left flank in the Greens. Sanders is a former Mayor in a small state, someone who has been outside the Democratic Party for all of his political career, arguing on a platform of democratic socialism as a candidate for Democratic nomination. There is no equivalent for the pathway Sanders took in Australia.

Both took advantage of unique conditions: open primaries in two-party dominant systems combined with a rejection of technocratic centre-left politics by a reshaped party base. It was fuelled by radicalisation that has happened in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, supported in particular by younger votes.

As Jason Wilson has noted, Australia has an outlier to this seemingly global trend of a strengthening Left. His argument is that the economic circumstances is the key difference. A recent Guardian feature on Generation Y seems to affirm this, a graph based on Luxembourg Income Study Database data showing that disposable income for Generation Y in Australia increased over three decades while elsewhere it was flat or decreased.

graph

While there are issues with the data, it does provide a clear picture. Young people in the rest of the world have gone backwards, not just since the Global Financial Crisis but for over a decade. The angers and frustrations expressed have been built up over a long period of time and are directly linked to falling standards of living.

My view is that the radicalisation that has occurred elsewhere will happen but hasn’t yet. There is an underlying dissatisfaction with politics. Young people are particularly concerned about the future, whether they will have a permanent job or be able to afford housing. That undercurrent was shown by the reaction to Richard Cooke’s essay on the boomer supremacy. Income growth has slowed since 2010, the affordability housing is a problem as are difficulties with finding decent secure permanent jobs amongst young educated people. The future they were sold is not appearing. The crunch has not happened and there has not been a catalyst.

Our electoral system, buttressed by preferential and compulsory voting as well as single member electorates, helps to cover up the extent of disengagement and disenchantment. There are anti-system votes for minor parties and support for politicians that seem to buck it but not a systematic challenge. An economic crisis may be what pushes people over the edge. If we do face a full-blown economic crisis, we may see that undercurrent turn into popular anger against a system that represents the state to the people rather than representing social bases.

If does happen here, however, there is no guarantee that it will come through the Labor Party or even the Greens. The closed nature of our parties makes it difficult for that surge to go through any existing well-established party. Furthermore, both Sanders and Corbyn have also been longstanding figures, there is no equivalent in any existing party that could play a similar role.

A new political formation will not be the immediate response. The emergence of social movements and its transmission into politics takes time. It is not immediate. Podemos, Corbyn, SYRIZA, Sanders, the HDP in Turkey, the New Power Party in Taiwan, none of appeared immediately. Arguably it was a defeat on the streets and realisation that they needed to take state power that compelled them to form political parties. It is similar to the decision made by Australian unions in the 1890s after the Maritime Strike. Their success also took years, not months and only gained considerable strength after they seemed like viable vehicles.

If this politicisation does emerge in Australia, it is unclear that it will benefit the Left. The reaction against establishment politics in many parts of Europe have not benefitted the Left but a reactionary Right, particularly in Central, Northern and Eastern Europe. The anti-establishment mood has not taken a left versus right stance but rather a people versus the elites/oligarchs/cartels.

Could we see something more like Trump here? A populist who denounces the corrupt elite but supports public spending is quite possible as Australia has not been immune to those outbursts of right-wing populism – One Nation and Clive Palmer being two notable recent examples. It is hard to predict because national factors play a huge role in how anti-system energies are channelled and barriers to entry are much higher here than elsewhere. Events and the response of strong personalities will play a big role in what happens.

Whatever does occur, it won’t be the same as North America or Western Europe. There is no guarantee that the established Left or the Right will benefit from anti-system energies. We won’t have a Corbyn or Sanders because our recent experience has been considerably different but like elsewhere a people versus oligarchic elites narrative is likely to dominate.

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.

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.