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The centre-left in an identity crisis

By Tim O'Hare - posted Tuesday, 1 March 2016

With the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and with Bernie Sanders a strong contender in the US Democratic Primary, the tribal Left are counting their chickens before they hatch. Without these ideas being put to a test in a general election, these unabashed socialists have declared a new Eden for the insular, cultural and economic authoritarianism that characterised the 1950s Left.

Just how this eccentric era will be remembered is subject to significant conjecture in the media. My personal prediction is that this period will be judged similarly to how historians evaluate the Democrats in the Nixon and Reagan years, UK Labour in the Thatcher years and the Australian Labor Party in the Menzies years. In all three cases, the Left allowed the more extreme voices to control their public policy to the detriment of their electability.

So why is it a problem if the Left-wing parties are sabotaging themselves electorally? Well for one thing, it means that the insipid Cameron/Turnbull model of governance might actually be sustainable. But the other reason is that I, unlike most right-wingers, actually believe there's a place for the centre-left in the political discourse.


As Noel Pearson recent said about Tony Abbott's unsung efforts towards indigenous reconciliation, the debate about Aboriginal reconciliation 'had to be started by a conservative bull.' Likewise, economic reforms are often easily made by governments of left-wing persuasions as they can manage any internal fallout and keep the union movement on side.

It was Hawke and Keating in Australia that floated the Australian dollar. It was Bill Clinton, not Ronald Reagan, who repealed the Glass-Steagall Act. Tony Blair led the Labour Party out of the wilderness, abolished the Socialist clause from his party's manifesto and, some say, gave a more nuanced principled justification for the Iraq War than George W. Bush could ever dream of.

But today's centre-left lacks the calibre of a Truman or a Blair or even a Kim Beazley. Just look at the leaders in the right faction of each of the major Left wing parties- Hillary Clinton in the US, Bill Shorten in Australia and the barely distinguishable Chuka Umanna, Liz Kendall and Tristram Hunt in UK Labour.

Each of them have underwhelming support with their party's base despite, in most part, surrendering policy to the Left of the Party. Listening to Hillary Clinton debate Bernie Sanders, is hearing her say 'Me too' to the kind of rhetoric that would have you ridiculed in the Democratic Party just ten years ago.

Canadian conservative Mark Steyn said that if it's true that Lincoln Chaffee didn't leave the Republican Party… the Republican Party left him, then it's equally true that Bernie Sanders 'didn't join the Democratic Party… the Democratic Party joined him.'

Nothing illustrates the decline of the once monumental Democratic Party more than the rise of Bernie Sanders. Sanders is an unreconstructed socialist who once honey-mooned in the USSR. He deserves to be admired for his conviction, holding unfashionable views for forty years, never compromising and rising to become a contender for the nomination of a major party for President of the United States. The Democratic Party however does not. His rise represents only their loss of cultural relevance. The fact that the Democratic establishment's Plan A was to run a campaign based on the premise that if you don't vote for their candidate you're 'sexist' shows that they have only themselves to blame for the vacuum that created Bernie Sanders.


Clinton has responded to the surge of Sanders by trying to out-left him. She has campaigned against tuition fees at university and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, dispelling all remnants of her previous 'moderate' image

Then there's Bill Shorten, whose ten year, supposed destiny of becoming Prime Minister has less certain since he came to the Labor leadership. Unlike seemingly everyone else in Australia, I like Bill Shorten. His problem is that, as someone of thirty years' experience as a product of the Labor machine, he is so prone to internal political fixes that he is often politically removed from the rest of Australia.

Despite paying lip-service to the Hawke-Keating legacy, Shorten is facing an election year with the policies of gay marriage, a Republic, re-introducing the Carbon Tax and abolishing negative gearing. Gone are the days where Labor acknowledge that Australia has a spending problem. The Shorten Opposition has relentlessly opposed the cuts of the Abbott-Turnbull government, even cuts Labor advocated when in government.

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About the Author

Tim O’Hare is a Sydney-based, freelance commentator, originally from Brisbane. He has written about a range of subjects and particularly enjoys commenting on the culture wars and the intersection between politics, culture, sport, and the arts.

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