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Why the left is afraid of itself

By Aidan Anderson - posted Thursday, 10 September 2015

The very real possibility that a politician from the left will assume leadership of a mainstream political party has sent British commentators into hysterics. Jeremy Corbyn, the union friendly, socialist inclined Labour MP is now the frontrunner for the leadership contest that will be decided on September 12. An MP since 1983, Corbyn has emerged as something of a saintlike figure for disillusioned social democrats across Britain, channelling the anti-austerity rage fuelled by a cutting Conservative government and a non-responsive British Labour Party. Dire warnings have flooded in from sensible centrists and ghosts of elections past. Tony Blair, the man most responsible for Labour's shift from Old (social democrat) to New (Thatcher 2.0), has predicted "annihilation" if the party he once redefined elects Corbyn as leader. "Please understand the danger we are in," he preaches from atop a tombstone of pragmatism, "the party is walking eyes shut, arms outstretched over the cliff's edge to the jagged rocks below."

Simon Tormey has summed up the carnage that has engulfed Britain's left, which has seen commentators sympathetic to Labour coming out "almost unanimously to warn party members that such an outcome would equate to political suicide." Even The Guardian, "normally quite sympathetic to the kind of anti-austerity plain-speaking for which Corbyn is renowned, is full of appeals to its readership (many of them natural Labour sympathisers) to return to their senses."

The hysteria that has shadowed Corbyn's rise can be linked to the concern expressed by establishment Democrats over the popularity of centre-left candidate Bernie Sanders. Sanders, who is beating Hillary Clinton in some states, is perceived as an anti-Washington figure by a mass of citizens fed up with bank bailouts and family dynasties. The situation is of less concern to moderates in the US compared to Britain however, as Sanders will never receive the amount of campaign financing a candidate like Clinton will, effectively placing a timer on the amount of "damage" he can cause.


Fortunately for Australia, there have been no similar warnings of impending suicide for the centre-left's choice of political leader. Unfortunately for Australia, that is because it is virtually impossible for any politician espousing progressive policy ideas to be taken seriously. The centre ground has been firmly rooted out from underneath the left side of politics, placing it somewhere between economic rationalism and anarcho-capitalism. It is little wonder Labor shies away from advocating genuine social democratic reforms. Opposing unfair policies pushed through by a conservative government is one thing; proposing the type of policies that have been championed by Corbyn and embraced by a fed up British electorate is entirely another.

The fact is Labor tried, and suffered the consequences. The original incarnation of the mining tax was a classic social democratic policy, based on the reasonable premise that Australians should get a fair return on the profits generated by the exploitation of their non-renewable resources. What followed was a $22 million attack campaign by the mining lobby convincing many Australians that the policy would send jobs offshore. When Rudd was replaced as leader, a watered down version of the tax was negotiated by a Gillard government anxious to end the media feeding frenzy.

The carbon tax is another example, a policy designed to reduce greenhouse gases by requiring polluters to pay for their emissions. The response was an enormous scare campaign supported by an army of right wing media commentators.

And there lies the rub.

As Tim Dunlop writes, "mainstream discourse is dominated by right wing voices...Huge amounts of money, often filtered through think tanks, are spent on ensuring that certain ideas not only dominate public discussion but are normalised as common sense."

In order to avoid accusations of conspiracy mongering, it is worth simply stating a few facts. News Corp now owns or has key influence over:

  • The vast majority of metro newspapers;
  • The vast majority of suburban newspapers;
  • The majority of regional daily newspapers;
  • Two key radio networks;
  • One of three free-to-air TV networks; and
  • Australia's only pay-TV network.

To quote Crikey, "there has never been anything like this in any mature democracy in history."

When right wing voices dominate the media landscape a new norm is created. We have seen the erosion of Keynesian economic theory and the ascendancy of neoliberalism since the 1980s. What voices like Corbyn represent fall way outside the mainstream. The media do not know how to deal with a potential leader of a major party who champions increased health, education and welfare spending funded by higher taxes on the wealthy. Such proposals are completely outside the contemporary paradigm. Thus, panic ensues.

Whether or not Corbyn can win the BLP leadership ballot remains to be seen. Whether he can then go on to win an election is an even bigger question. What has emerged from this leadership contest, and from political developments in Greece, Italy, Spain and even the US, is that there is an appetite among contemporary voters for progressive ideas. Now might be the time for the left of the Australian Labor Party to stop being afraid of itself.

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About the Author

Aidan Anderson studies political science and works as a high school teacher. He was shortlisted for the 2014 Vogel Literary Award, runner up in the 2015 Questions Writing Prize, and has written for The Sydney Morning Herald and Overland. On Twitter hes @andtheson and his blog can be found at

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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