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Some truth and some fantasy in Latham's Labor account

By Jason Wilson - posted Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The last weeks will have shown any remaining optimists that the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party - the flagship of the labour movement - is all at sea. It's suddenly obvious even to the dullest pundit that there's no iron historical law stating that the ALP has to be a viable party of government, nor even one that says it must continue to exist. Its current national primary vote is at 30%, which is down there with the lowest ever polled, and below even the most pessimistic previous estimates of the floor on Labor's support. The Coalition meanwhile are rampant, with half the electorate saying they'll give them their first preference. Last week's ministerial resignations showed how riven Caucus has been by leadership issues, and the continued control of the factions and unions seems incompatible with a continued capacity to field a leader who might win. There has been much published Labor self-analysis since the electoral wipeout of the last Labor government in New South Wales, a reminder of whose improbity is available in daily updates from the current ICAC hearings. There will be bookshelves worth of introspection and well-meaning advice after the drubbing which is now certain to happen on 14th September. If nothing else the new essay on Labor's troubles by Mark Latham is well timed.

Those who read Latham's Diaries will remember their blending of acuity and delusion. In the introduction, Latham's account of the sicknesses of modern Labor and the political-media complex was detailed and spellbinding. But the diaries proper had enough bombast, rancour and self-deception to confirm that Australians had been fortunate and wise in 2004 when he lost the election. The book showed Latham's combative intelligence, his personal immaturity and their shared source in his ressentiment. That quality was expressed in the boofheaded moments for which many will remember him longest - the crushing handshake with John Howard in the annex at Ultimo in 2004; 2010's mid-campaign monstering of Julia Gillard at the Ekka, talking over her and looking down on her at close quarters, hemmed in by the boom mikes of the travelling media. That he's able now and again to entertain us with iconoclastic columns and Hendo-baiting amplifies rather than dispels our sense that his interior world is structured by grudges and antagonisms.

His new Quarterly Essay, Not Dead Yet: Labor's Post-Left Future like the Diaries puts truth side-by-side with fantasy. His criticisms of Labor's broken factional system and of the far right's media tactics are mostly well-made. His proposals to fix it all are not only, as Matthew Cowgill points out, somewhat out of time. They are riven by a startling series of contradictions. They reveal a more-than-latent authoritarianism directed at the most disadvantaged members of the community. But they are unintentionally useful in gauging the depth of Labor's problems.


His version of those problems will be recognisable in outline to those who are familiar with the genre of ALP self-flagellation - ranging from books by Rodney Cavalier to the party's own internal reviews and reports. But as someone who raised these problems early and publicly, he has earned the right to revisit them. His portrayal is of nothing less than a death spiral. The leaders of an industrially unrepresentative union movement exercise outsized control on party forums and even parliaments by means of nested factions and subfactions, where "the innermost layer of Labor's Russian doll is a cadre of trade union officials – party bosses with the power to endorse and disendorse ALP members of parliament" Thus networks of patronage and reward have displaced even vestigial forms of internal democracy. There aren't many incentives for joining or remaining in the ALP; there are even fewer for labour movement capos to fix things. Indeed, the withering of the grassroots only consolidates their power. The desertion of the membership means a reduced connection with the people, which means that policy cannot organically emerge from electoral concerns. Labor is no longer a community-based organisation, nor will it ever be again. The Party of the common man now finds it difficult to connect with voters. The bizarre spectacle of Julia Gillard going on a listening tour of Rooty Hill is easier to understand if we accept that his account is mostly true.

Latham is relaxed about this. He has no expectation that mass membership will return; economic and social life have changed too much. He thinks that Labor's ranks will now mostly be composed of those building a political career. But he thinks a top-heavy party can be counterbalanced and build community bonds with primary elections for candidates. He happily attributes this idea to others, but he has detailed and - who knows - probably workable plans for their conduct. Even desultory moves towards public participation in candidate selection should probably be welcomed by progressives, just as they ought to welcome any small expansion of democracy within Labor. And Latham's right that there's no indication that mass parties will ever return - in the terms of political theorist Bernard Manin, we have left the age of "party democracy" and entered the quasi-populist era of "audience democracy", where the political process is more than ever mediated, and parties have been displaced by consultants and charismatic leaders. Primaries are a recognition of the exigencies of this new era. But of course bringing off these ideas wouldn't bring us a inclusive process of policy development, and the intellectual framework in one in which minimal, economic, aggregative theories of democracy are taken for granted. As authors like Colin Hay and Colin Crouch point out, the extent to which politicians have accepted this self-defeating conception of politics is the extent to which the public has become alienated from them, and itself adopted a calculating view of liberal-democratic processes.

The first big contradiction opens up when Latham pushes all of this further, arguing that Labor's problems also arise from its unwillingness to carry forward the Hawke-Keating policy legacy. He believes that in not doing this, Labor is missing a chance to appeal to the "aspirational class" (more of which anon). After talking about the haemorrhaging membership, he relates a conversation with Keating:

When Keating retired from parliament, having set up Australia's miracle economy, he was sceptical about the durability of free-market economics inside the party. "I got all those changes through," he told me in his retirement years, "but our people never really believed it, they never really believed in markets and competition.

He never puts this accurate view of members' values together with the fact of their departure. To do this would be to recognise that part of the reason that people have left (or younger people never joined) is that they see Labor as having abandoned its fundamental principles. It would also be to admit that in fact, from MySchool to the QR privatisation, Labor state and federal governments have mostly persisted with the orthodoxy that arises from neoclassical economics and related bodies of thought like public choice theory. It's not just members who are appalled by this. Fresh Essential survey data reveals voters - Labor loyalists and otherwise - also feel that Labor has lost its essence. The lost tribe of progressive Laborites who now vote Green are part of a vanished coalition that Keating, in effect, helped to destroy. Another group have gone over to the Tories because, seeing few remaining ideological differences, they have followed the ineradicable electoral intuition that says that conservative governments are more competent. Following the assassination of Rudd, when Labor can again put together a majority coalition is an open question.

Latham never admits that the Keating program - along with Keating himself - had and continue to have very little electoral appeal. His deregulations, privatisations, public sector interventions and all their consequences were unpopular, and fed directly into Pauline Hanson's reactionary-populist revolt. The incorporation of her ideas into Howardism reframed Australian political debate in a way that permanently advantages the right. Meanwhile, survey data perennially shows that voters think that they've lost out  from privatisation, would like the government to have more of a role in the economy, and that it would be preferable if government ran most public services. Last year's election in Queensland and the subsequent fate of Campbell Newman show that privatisation is still unpopular enough in itself to destroy governments and leaders.


Rather than confront any of this, Latham would prefer to keep company with those who would like to continue to try to excise as much as possible from the scope of public debate. He is frustrated that attempts to depolicitise economic matters by, for example, corporatising utilities, have not worked. He refers to former Queensland minister Rachel Nolan's letter in response to Laura Tingle's Quarterly Essay, Great Expectations. Among other things, Nolan complained, as a Labor minister, about having to adjudicate on workplace issues - that is, she objected to having to make political decisions. She was responding to Tingle's apologia for the political class in the face of recurring public demands that governments do more, where she urged an acceptance of the status quo of diminished public control and restricted political debate. The problem with such attempts to exclude the political, as political theorist Chantal Mouffe reminds us, is that it tends to return in ways that are difficult to predict or control, or are directed at the system as a whole. That's obvious from the fact that people still blame governments for their inability to make ends meet, even as governments try to divest themselves of the relevant responsibilities.

The supposed appeal of all of the Keating agenda to the suburban "aspirational class", though, grounds what must be Latham's oddest and most enduring political daydream. The aspirationals are those who, according to Latham, had their material and lifestyle ambitions permanently awakened by Keatingism. In Latham's suburban pastoral, they care a noble, postmodern yeomanry - entrepreneurial, ambitious for their children, upwardly mobile, "empirical". They are the platform for Labor's future electoral success, but for now Labor's abandonment of Keating's legacy has meant abandoning them as a constituency. In the imagination, they live in Sydney's west, but with faces are turned East towards their future, closer to the harbour. Latham's big idea is that the increasingly obvious effects of climate change will deliver them to Labor, as the right retreats further into denialism, and the cognitive bubble of right wing media seals them off from the electorate and reality. But the "empirical" sensibility of aspirationals is currently most offended, we are told, by the "antisocial behaviour" of an "underclass" whom they must encounter in their suburbs, in public schools, and occasionally on television, in news items about remote aboriginal communities.

Latham always espoused a moral order that favoured them over those who did not quite aspire hard enough to escape the orbit of public housing, "welfare dependency" and intergenerational disadvantage. By now, his attitude to the underprivileged has hardened into a species of contempt. He ignores the realities of structural unemployment, gaping inequality, and the inadequacy of welfare payments to openly blame the poor for their own difficulties:

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This is a review of Not Dead Yet: Labor's Post-Left Future by Mark Latham.

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About the Author

Jason Wilson is an Australian writer and academic who lives in Long Beach, California. He's a visiting fellow at Swinburne University of Technology's Institute for Social Research.

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