Reconstructing Labor: Tales of an ‘aspirational’ shadow ministry

Carol Johnson, Adelaide University

The Tories never did have the best vision for Britain. They just took the best words. Freedom. Choice. Opportunity. Aspiration and Ambition. I can vividly recall the exact moment that I knew the last election was lost. I was canvassing in the Midlands on an ordinary, suburban estate. I met a man polishing his Ford Sierra. He was a self-employed electrician. His Dad always voted Labour, he said. He used to vote Labour too. But he’d bought his own house now. He’d set up his own business. He was doing quite nicely. ‘So I’ve become a Tory’, he said. People judge us on their instincts about what they believe our instincts to be. And that man polishing his car was clear. His instincts were to get on in life. And he thought our instincts were to stop him.
Tony Blair, Leader of the British Labour Party, Speech to Labour Party Conference, October 1996.
[Crean’s] off to a flying start, dumping almost half the Beazley front bench, starting the campaign on Monday for the next election with a recognition that Labor needs to change … Clearly his priority [is] to re-establish Labor contact with the people of suburban Sydney, those he identified yesterday as having aspirations that Labor had not identified.
Dennis Shanahan, The Australian, 23 November 2001.

When Simon Crean announced his new Shadow Ministry, media commentators such as Shanahan hailed it as a sensible choice containing key figures who would play a major role in reforming ALP policy and winning back voters. Those voters included the aspirational suburban ones whose desertion, Crean believed, had contributed significantly to Labor’s defeat (Crean 2001a, 2001b).

However, is this the Shadow Ministry likely to make innovative, electorally successful reforms? What should the nature of those reforms be? There are some really interesting choices in the Shadow Ministry, especially amongst the women, with Jenny Macklin, as Deputy Leader of the ALP, expected to play a major role in policy reform. She certainly performed well as shadow minister for health, although it will be interesting to see what she is like in broader policy debates: Macklin has been much more cautious than Carmen Lawrence on issues ranging from refugees to lesbian access to Assisted Reproductive Technology. Lawrence should be an excellent Shadow Minister for Reconciliation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and for the Status of Women. Similarly, Julia Gillard, Shadow Minister for Population and Immigration, is extremely capable and has already had Minister Ruddock looking uncomfortable over the government’s treatment of refugees. How much scope the leadership will give her to redevelop Labor’s (highly contentious) policy in that area remains to be seen. Kate Lundy, Shadow Minister for Information Technology, is another capable female politician whose skills Beazley failed to utilise sufficiently (except for Labor’s Big Brother rip-off election game website).

Crude forms of economic explanation are still alive and well in today’s Labor Party.

However, the Shadow Ministry’s innovative, reforming credentials in economic policy areas are contentious. Lindsay Tanner, Shadow Minister for Communications, is an appropriate choice who has produced interesting work on Australia’s place in the New Economy (Tanner 1999). David Cox, Shadow Minister for Employment Services and Training is very capable but relatively dry on economic issues and, as a former staffer to both Peter Walsh and Ralph Willis, strongly supported the Keating governments’ economic rationalism.

The most contentious appointment of all in regard to economic policy is Mark Latham, Shadow Minister for Economic Ownership and Labor’s most vocal proponent of a Blairite Third Way. Latham’s open criticisms of Labor’s policy direction had led to him being dropped from the Beazley Shadow Ministry. Yet he has now been given the job of attracting the aspirational working class voters of major cities’ (particularly Sydney’s) crucial outer suburbs, given Labor’s dismal electoral performance there (The Australian, 26 November 2001: 1).

The Blairite construction of aspirational voting as a key issue is particularly interesting for two reasons. First, Labor argues that Tampa and the War on terrorism were crucial factors in their defeat—further fuelled in NSW, one might argue, by Bob Carr’s mishandling of alleged ethnic gang rapes. The question is whether such issues can be addressed predominantly by the economic or education and welfare measures Crean associates with aspirational voting (Crean 2001b). Kim Beazley’s election night Concession Speech and a recent speech by Martin Ferguson, Shadow Minister for Regional and Urban Development, Transport and Infrastructure (The Australian, 17 December 2001), suggest that the main problem is that working class battlers have little energy left to feel empathy for anyone else (although Carmen Lawrence has suggested that she often found battlers were more able to empathise with vulnerable refugees than were wealthier Australians (ABC Radio National, 20 December 2001)).

Beazley and Ferguson suggest that providing more economic security will automatically undermine Howard’s socially conservative appeal to racial wedge politics—an analysis that may seriously misjudge the origins of racism and xenophobia. Unfortunately, crude forms of economic explanation are still alive and well in today’s Labor Party when it comes to understanding social issues. Instead, Labor needs to consider whether by joining in the long-term demonisation of asylum-seekers; by failing to point out that they aren’t illegal; by failing to undermine the idea of the ‘queue’; Labor in fact reinforced, rather than undermined, Howard’s racial wedge politics and helped him to win the election.

There is another reason why interpreting Labor’s poor performance as an issue of aspirational voting is interesting. The September 1996 NSW Labor Federal Campaign Consultative Panel Report into the 1996 election loss found widespread working class dissatisfaction with how Labor governments had reduced real wages and working conditions (Johnson 2001: 151). The August 1996 National Consultative Review Committee Report to the ALP National Executive on the 1996 election also found widespread dissatisfaction with economic rationalism amongst party members who felt that the Labor governments had been putting market forces before people. During the 2001 election campaign, Howard made a point of reminding workers of Labor’s real wage cuts and claimed that the Liberals had a much better record than Labor of delivering wage increases (as well as substantially reducing home interest rates). In a recent address to the National Press Club, Liberal Party campaign director Lynton Crosby argued that Liberal polling suggests that the Coalition’s economic management and claims to offer more economic security were a significant campaign issue.

Latham’s strategy for winning back working class voters is to encourage higher levels of share ownership.

It seems that despite the Coalition’s attacks on unions and working conditions, the ALP may still be suffering from working class distrust of Labor governments’ economic management. Beazley’s 1998 election claim that Labor had changed and eaten ‘humble pie’ when it came to economic policy, and his 2001 election campaign emphasis on ‘security at home’, may not have been sufficient to reassure some traditional Labor voters that a Beazley government really would offer economic security. In short, traditional issues such as wages, working conditions, and provision of public services, may be more important here than newer ‘aspirational’ ones.

Latham’s support for forms of economic neo-liberalism means that he will not be addressing such issues, preferring to see voters’ disillusion with Labor purely in Blairite aspirational terms. This is despite the different ideological positions of the British and Australian labour parties in the eighties and early nineties, when British labour was arguably more left wing. Given their history of economic rationalism, and good relations with the business community, did Australian aspirational voters really see a Labor government as trying to hold back their success in the way Blair suggests was the case in Britain? As well, Latham’s emphasis on encouraging community development through social entrepreneurship may encourage some voters’ aspirations but there are doubts over whether it would encourage their feelings of security in any conventional sense.

Indeed, Latham’s emphasis on lifelong learning is precisely driven by the view that job security and other such features of the old industrial society are things of the past. Latham is deeply critical of measures such as industry protection and extensive government welfare provision. He advocates a society in which the major role of the state is to encourage the development of forms of workforce skills that will (hopefully) attract investment from footloose international capital (Latham 1998, 2001a, 2001b). There are definite limits on what he believes government can do. He argues that globalisation means that ‘the Federal Parliament’s delegation of power on economic matters—to bodies such as the Reserve Bank and the World trade Organisation (WTO)—will remain’ (Latham 2001a: 25). Labor’s links with the union movement are also unlikely to gain much priority from a politician who believes that the new information economy, and the creation of the highly skilled ‘wired’ worker, ‘synthesises capital and labour in the production process. It helps to dissolve the class struggle of the industrial age’ (Latham 1999: 9).

It is therefore not surprising that, as Crean announced, Latham’s major strategy for winning back working class voters in Australia’s outer suburbs is to encourage higher levels of share ownership (The Australian, 26 November 2001: 1). Even the Australian described this as ‘an unorthodox strategy’ (The Australian, 26 November 2001) but it explains Latham’s title of Shadow Minister for Economic Ownership. If disillusioned working class Labor voters are still concerned about issues such as wages, conditions and employment security, then offering improved share ownership seems unlikely to win them back.

Latham isn’t likely to reconsider Labor’s caution on diverse social issues, including refugees. Latham is amongst those Labor luminaries arguing that close links with social movements contributed to Labor’s 1996 election loss (Johnson 2001). He has admitted to being prepared to ‘burn off’ various constituencies of the Keating government such as feminists, Aborigines, and some ethnic groups (Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend, 13 September 1997). Consequently, Latham’s conception of social issues (other than economic inequality) is narrow, focusing on crime, drugs and family breakdown (Latham 2001a: 18). He doesn’t recognise patterns of disadvantage based on ethnic, racial or gender factors, instead arguing that Labor governments should focus on individuals’ economic needs and skill requirements (Latham 1997: 52). Economic inequality is to be addressed through empowerment, training, and social entrepreneurship to generate employment in depressed communities (Latham 2001a). However admirable such measures are, they are only part of the solution to very complex patterns of social and economic disadvantage.

Will Labor counter Howard’s social conservatism?

Given the emphasis on aspirational voters and the key role given to Mark Latham in attracting a crucial cohort of voters, what form will Labor’s policy reconstruction take? Certainly, this direction may create tensions within the shadow ministry on economic and social issues. How will Crean mediate between strong supporters of the social movements like Carmen Lawrence and opponents such as Mark Latham? Will Labor counter Howard’s social conservatism? Will Labor attitudes to asylum seekers be substantially revised? Will Beazley’s partial eating of ‘humble pie’ in regard to economic rationalism fall victim to the dries in the shadow ministry? (After all, Hawke is unlikely to reconsider his government’s economic rationalism when he and Neville Wran undertake their Inquiry into the ALP).

Crean’s emphasis on ‘modernising’ Labor has a very Blairite ring to it (Scott 2000). It is interesting that Australian Labor may be turning so much to Blair’s prescriptions when the Hawke and Keating Labor governments were so influential on Blair (Scott 2000, Johnson and Tonkiss 2002). Kim Beazley has argued that: ‘what others call … the ‘Third Way’—we used to call … government policy, as did our colleagues across the Tasman’ (2000). Beazley is exaggerating and there are always things that can be learned from other labour governments. However, Blair could usefully learn from Australian Labor’s experience of key supporters’ disillusion with economic rationalist forms of neo-liberalism (Scott 2000: 258, Johnson and Tonkiss 2002). As well, Blairite communitarianism has been far less inclusive of social diversity than the Australian Labor governments were, so it seems unfortunate to learn from them in this respect (Tonkiss and Johnson 2002).

There may also be more fundamental problems with adapting New Labour tactics. Australian Labor’s strategy on asylum-seekers was reminiscent of the British Labour Party’s strategy on immigration in 1995. Then British Shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw, was reputed to have argued that ‘We should not allow so much as a cigarette card to come between the Labour Party and the Tory Government over immigration’ (cited in Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain 2000: 226). That strategy may have helped Blair, but here the ALP’s long-term reinforcing of Howard’s wedge politics on asylum-seekers contributed to the role of the so-called ‘illegal refugee’ issue in Labor’s 2001 defeat.

In short, Labor needs to consider whether Blairite strategies, whether on aspirational voting, economic policy, or social issues, are what is required in Australia. A different policy prescription, questioning economic rationalism and countering Howard’s social conservatism, may be more electorally successful.


Beazley, K. (2000) Foreword to J. Claven, The Centre is Mine: Tony Blair, New Labor and the Future of Electoral Politics, Pluto Press, Annandale.

Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (2000) The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, Report chaired by B. Parekh for Runnymede Trust, London.

Crean, S. (2001a) Transcript, Network Ten, Morning News, 26 November 2001.

Crean, S. (2001b) Transcript, Interview, Sky News, 5 December 2001.

Johnson, C. (2001) ‘Labor and the Left’, in P. Nursey-Bray and C. Bacchi (eds), Left Directions: Is There a Third Way? University of Western Australia Press, Crawley.

Johnson, C. and Tonkiss, F. (2002) ‘The Third Influence: the Blair Government and Australian Labor’, Policy and Politics, vol. 30, no.1.

Latham, M. (1997) ‘Social inclusiveness in an open economy’ in G. Jungworth (ed.), Labor Essays 1997, Pluto Press, Annandale.

Latham, M. (1998) Civilising Global Capital: New Thinking for Australian Labor, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards.

Latham, M. (1999) ‘Marxism, Socialism and the Third Way: the Long March of History and the Wired Worker’, Arena magazine, August-September 1999, pp. 9–11.

Latham, M. (2001a) ‘The new economy and the new politics’ in P. Botsman and M. Latham (eds), The Enabling State: People before Bureaucracy, Pluto Press, Annandale.

Latham, M. (2001b) ‘The Third Way: An Outline’ in A. Giddens (ed.), The Global Third Way Debate, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Scott, A. (2000) Running on Empty: ‘Modernising’ the British and Australian Labor Parties, Pluto Press, Annandale.

Tanner, L. (1999) Open Australia, Pluto Press, Annandale.

Carol Johnson teaches in Politics at Adelaide University. She is the author of The Labor Legacy: Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke (Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1989) and Governing Change: From Keating to Howard (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2001). She recently spent 5 months based in London, studying.

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