The ghosts of Labor’s past

Rob Manwaring, Flinders University

Troy Bramston Looking for the Light on the Hill: Modern Labor’s Challenges, Melbourne, Scribe Publications, 2011 (279 pp). ISBN 9-78192184-437-9 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

‘History …’ wrote James Joyce, ‘… is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake’. The same, it might be said, applies to the modern Australian Labor Party (ALP). Troy Bramston’s Looking for the Light on the Hill: Modern Labor’s Challenges is the latest book to mull over the history and future of the ALP (see also Cavalier 2010; Dyrenfurth & Soutphommasane 2010; Bramble & Kuhn 2011). Bramston sees a crisis in Labor politics. The ALP, unable to rule outright, is the first minority government in Australia since 1940; and party leader Julia Gillard remains unpopular with an electorate unwilling to forgive or forget how her predecessor was removed. The ALP lacks what George W Bush called ‘the vision thing’, and Bramston makes a compelling case that the public are unclear what the party stands for (p. 43). Labor’s crisis runs deeper than this. The ALP is hollowed out with membership at record lows, and many local branches forced to close from atrophy. On this reading, it faces a bleak future.

If we lift our gaze from Australian politics, we see a clear picture that the family of Western European social democratic and labour parties is in a slump. As reported in The Economist (7 June 2011) in 2000, nearly half the 27 EU member states were ruled by centre-left governments, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. Today, the centre-left—the broad family of social democratic and labour parties—is only in charge (or dominant governing partner) in Slovenia, Austria, Cyprus, Denmark and most recently Belgium. A snapshot of the state of these parties offers little solace to supporters of the centre-left. The EU sovereign debt crisis has already scalped the Greek and Spanish socialist governments.

In the United Kingdom, after thirteen years of dominance, the ‘New Labour’ project imploded under the embarrassingly inept leadership of Gordon Brown. In Germany, the SPD—once the heartbeat of Western social democracy—is caught between taking support from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and ‘Die Linke’ a loose coalition of socialist and left parties. In France, there are some grounds to believe that, after languishing for a decade in opposition, the Parti Socialiste has a real shot at the 2012 presidential elections. Yet, the French left is still haunted by the 2002 election, in which it abjectly failed to make the second round. It speaks volumes that the Italian Left is unable to unify and offer a credible alternative after the downfall of Silvio Berlusconi. In Sweden, another former bastion of social democracy, Mona Sahlin’s SAP failed to unseat the right coalition in a record defeat in 2010. Most worryingly, the far-right Sweden Democrats secured seats in the Parliament for the first time. Similarly, the Dutch labour party (the PvdA) lost the general election, and after talks broke down, the centre-right party eventually formed government with Geert Wilders populist far-right party. Outside Europe, the picture is equally grim. At last year’s election, the New Zealand Labour Party was handsomely beaten by the National Party. The left mustered less than a third of the vote compared to the 47.3 per cent won by the Nationals. In Canada, the Conservatives moved from being a minority to a majority government, with the Liberals recording historic losses.

Increasing numbers of the public are turning to the right rather than to the left to govern.

Where the left has taken office in recent times, the current signs are not particularly healthy either. After a record breaking 589 days without government in Belgium, the charismatic Elio di Rupo became the first socialist prime minister since 1974, but with a fragile ragbag of coalition partners. In Denmark, the social democratic leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt became the country’s first female prime minister, but like Julia Gillard, since the election the party has been floundering badly in the polls. Perhaps only the Norwegian red-green coalition, headed by Jens Stoltenberg, which took power in 2005, and won re-election in 2009, remains the most credible and popular centre-left government across Europe.


So, increasing numbers of the public are turning to the right rather than to the left to govern. As The Economist (7 June 2011) reports, the left tends to do poorly in times of economic downturn, and generally it has failed to offer a compelling response to the 2008 economic crisis. Given the left’s longstanding opposition to the inherent instability and inequality of capitalism; it should have been better placed to offer a credible alternative to the brand of ‘casino’ capitalism most evident in the United States and United Kingdom. Indeed, New Labour is seen as having some degree of culpability for its inadequate regulation of London’s financial sector (Rawnsley 2010, p. 481). It’s interesting to re-read Kevin Rudd’s article on the GFC in The Monthly in this context. Rudd argued that the neoliberal paradigm of the last 30 years had failed, and that social democracy had to step in to stop liberal capitalism from ‘cannibalising itself’ (Rudd 2009). Yet, despite the accuracy of many of his observations, his article is better remembered as part of his leadership push rather than marking a distinctive break in Australia’s model of economic growth.

There are other common factors in the current poor showing of the centre-left. There is a fragmentation of support for the left, in part, facilitated by the rise of Green parties since the 1980s. Green-red coalitions have taken place in Germany and Norway. In Australia, the Greens have replaced the Democrats as the third party. Multi-party systems in some countries have also facilitated a break between the socialists and social democrats.

The issue of immigration remains a real Achilles heel in centre-left politics. Populist, far-right parties have emerged, and the claim is that they draw support from sections of the working class who traditionally support centre-left parties. While Pauline Hanson’s One Nation may have receded as an electoral force in Australia, immigration remains a problem for Labor. This links to the rise of globalisation where rapid, unsettling changes in the economy leave some groups trying to find solace in former fixed identities. Higher flows of capital (or rather the influx of cheap consumer goods) are acceptable, but there is more unease about increasing flows of labour (Jacques 2006).

This links to the under-pinning structural problem facing centre-left parties since the 1980s—the dominance of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has a powerful internal logic with popular appeal: economic growth takes place when tackling inflation is prioritised over securing full employment; taxes are low, the welfare state is minimal, and privatisation and marketisation are rife (Crouch 2011). The centre-left has struggled to adopt a sufficiently distinct and electorally appealing alternative to this agenda. The so-called ‘European social model’ is seen as unsustainable (Auer 2011). What demarcates the Hawke-Keating and Blair-Brown Governments is that, for critics, they embraced neoliberalism too heartily, at the expense of securing wider traditional social democratic goals such as wealth and income redistribution (Battin 1997; Maddox 1989; Wood 2010). Centre-left governments are struggling to find adequate policy responses since they have mostly all abandoned state ownership as a civilising force for capitalism.

Social democratic politics has drifted much further form its original moorings.

The dominance of neoliberalism came at the same time as the other significant challenge for the left—the fall of the Berlin Wall, which heralded a new era of deep scepticism about the role of the state to deliver public goods. The collapse of state socialism heightened the suspicion of state power. This is a particularly difficult problem for the left. As David Marquand has noted, social democrats have often tended to see the role of the state as a ‘surgeon’ operating on the ‘patient’ of civil society (Marquand 1999). There is an inherent strain of paternalism in social democratic thinking and practice, which can have suffocating and adverse consequences. A common response to the ‘big’ versus ‘small’ government debate was embodied in the Third way call for an ‘active’ or ‘enabling’ state.

Since the 1980s, there is also a perceived shift from government to ‘governance’, and the series of reforms enacted under the broad agenda of the ‘new public management’ (Stewart 2010). At its most simplest, this shift to governance suggests that the machinery of the state has fragmented and ‘hollowed out’, as the work of government is increasingly done through networks and markets. The lack of faith in the state sees a corresponding reverence for the efficiency of the private sector. Performance measures, targets, marketisation, PPPs, ‘partnerships’, contracting out, all diffused traditional bureaucratic activity. For Rod Rhodes (1996), the shift to ‘governance’ presents a range of difficulties, most crucially a lack of steering capacity.

Unlike conservative, or indeed much liberal thought, social democratic politics has drifted much further form its original moorings. The goal of these early social democrats was, through parliamentary means, a transformation towards a fully socialised economy. From Eduard Bernstein through to Tony Crosland, the revisionists have been steering the parties away from these goals. Chris Pierson suggests that is an inherent law of ‘perpetually diminishing expectations’ in social democratic thought and practice (2001, p. 145). Over time, the goals of the socialist and labour parties have narrowed. The focus is on employability, rather than full employment. Equality of opportunity supplants greater equality of outcome. While parties of the right have had to adapt (indeed many social conservatives resent an undiluted neoliberal agenda); the transformation for the centre-left has been greater. These are the ghosts of Labor’s past.


This survey of the glum state of the left in the advanced industrial world brings us back to Bramston’s book and his prescriptions for the renewal of Australian Labor. Crucially, while there is much to admire in Bramston’s book, it lacks a comparative view on these wider structural pressures. The challenges of governance and neoliberalism are not acknowledged in the book. Labor’s crisis in this reading is mainly an internal one, and specific to Australia. For Bramston, the crisis of Labor is underpinned by three sets of problems: identity crisis, leadership anxiety, and the need for internal reform. It should be noted that Bramston’s focus on federal Labor, and the lost decade of 1996–2007, tends to distort his analysis of the ‘crisis’. During this time, Labor was busily dominating at the state level.

Labor’s identity crisis taps into the wider debates about the changing goals of social democratic politics. Controversially, Bramston asserts that, ‘Labor was never dogmatically socialist at its birth’ (p. 140), and that the definition of socialism was never clear. Given that socialism has a variety of meanings, this is not surprising. As Donald Sassoon outlines in his epic One Hundred Years of Socialism (1997), the Western European left was historically torn between more radical ideals and pragmatic gains. The same can be said of Australian Labor. Bramston’s aim is to down-play the influence of socialism, in order to clear the path to re-write the ALP’s core objective (which was drafted in 1921 and commits the party to democratic socialism). Bramston hopes that, like New Labour, the ALP can have its own ‘clause IV’ moment, and rewrite the party’s constitution to forge a New Labor, as Tony Blair did when he erased British Labour’s traditional commitment to ‘common ownership of the means of production’ and replaced it with a more generic call that ‘… power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few’ (Beech 2006).

Bramston hopes that a more vigorous leadership will provide greater clarity of vision.

However, it is unlikely that even if Julia Gillard had the appetite for such a change it would have the same impact. Indeed, the 1921 ‘Blackburn Declaration’, which dilutes the ALP’s socialist objective, is a classic fudge between the more radical and centrist wings, and has served the party well enough. There is also a clear difference between British New Labour and the ALP. When New Labour took office in 1997, it was a remarkably different beast from the party that lost power in 1979. Labour heavily lost the 1983 UK election, with a manifesto once cited as the ‘longest suicide note in history’; which called for re-nationalisation of key industries, withdrawal from the EEC and unilateral nuclear disarmament. This is the very antithesis of New Labour. But the Rudd-Gillard Government’s economic agenda is arguably not that different to Hawke-Keating’s Third way (Pierson & Castles 2002, p. 683). It is striking that many of Bramston’s interviewees do not see a pressing need to reform the party’s constitution (p. 47).

For Bramston, if the party can be fully purged of its socialist past, then it can regain hegemonic power. Yet, socialism, in its broadest set of meanings, is the tradition most likely to offer responses to neoliberalism, and anchor the party to its defining motif—equality. A fluffy commitment to ‘social justice’ is insufficient, not least as the centre-right is also committed to this idea in some form. In a poll commissioned for Bramston’s book, 24 per cent of the voters closely associate the idea of ‘social justice’ with Labor. The same proportion (24 per cent) also associates this idea with the Liberals (p. 263).

Bramston argues that there are three key strands to the ALP’s tradition: social democracy, labourism, and (as recently advocated by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen) social liberalism. Yet, his account of these traditions is not even-handed and his overview of social democracy is perfunctory and less than a page long (pp. 148–149). Bramston suggests re-writing the Party’s objective around seven values: economic justice, social justice, environmental sustainability, internationalism, nation-building, equality of opportunity and democratic liberalism (p. 152). While this is commendable, these are a rather broad and vague set of values. His focus on social justice links to the ALP’s social inclusion agenda, partly inspired by New Labour. Yet the analysis does not note the widespread problems with this concept (Wilson 2009). While it is morally appealing to help ‘difficult’ individuals or groups (for example, the homeless) to help themselves, it has limited impact on removing structural barriers of inequality and disadvantage. By pursuing a diluted ‘social inclusion’, Labor can be friend to business and all social classes alike. Like New Labour, it seeks a ‘politics without adversary’ (Mouffe 2000). This is an underpinned by an age-old ghost for the left—the risk of capital flight.

Bramston stakes a claim to make environmental sustainability a core Labor value. Yet this does not acknowledge the ambivalent history of social democracy’s relationship with environmentalism. While some early socialists such as William Morris drew upon such ideas, it was largely neglected in mainstream centre-left thinking. It also sits uneasily with Bramston’s position that Labor should not have formed a formal agreement with the Greens. This is a real tactical and strategic dilemma for the left. There is, at times, a debilitating tribalism on the left. Yet, in the face of fractured support, engagement with the green-left maybe the way forward. On a number of areas of social policy, the Greens out-flank Labor from the left. When the Labor factions were ideological rather than tactical, the ensuing creative tension drove forward new ideas and agendas. In lieu of this, the creative process of reconfiguring centre-left politics may now lie with wider external engagement—an idea hinted at in the ALP’s National Review from last year. New progressive policy ideas may result from more direct engagement and exchange of policy ideas with the Greens, organisations such as Get Up!, and other groups.

The ghost of Labor as a ‘mass party’ continues to haunt.

Bramston hopes that a more vigorous leadership will provide greater clarity of vision. Yet, neither Gillard nor Rudd compare to their predecessors. Labor’s contemporary leadership does not tell us what it stands for. So, a popular policy such as overturning WorkChoices, was defined by what it wasn’t. The leadership was unable to cut through the noise of the roof insulation drama to sell the stimulus package. (Again, this taps into general public scepticism that government can spend money wisely.) Crucially, none stand up to the omniscient ghost of Labor’ recent past—Bob Hawke. As a former speechwriter for Kevin Rudd, Bramston has a keen eye for lessons from former Labor leaders, but there is a lack of analytical bite. His prescriptions for strong leadership (pp. 121–124), such as ‘Labor is at its best when it is bold’ (p. 122), are rather bland.

Bramston calls for a reform of the party in the face of changing patterns of civic and political engagement. Today, membership of a political party is something of a minority sport. Trade union membership has declined, and there are ongoing debates about what should be the extent of trade union influence over party policy (Cavalier 2010, p. 31). Increasing numbers of people are less likely to ‘strongly identify’ with one of the major parties (Manning 2010, p. 289). In addition, as Gerry Stoker notes, ‘most of the real politics is done in a space where we are spectators. It is the sphere of professional not amateurs’ (Stoker 2006, p. 11).

How should Labor respond to these changes? The ALP has not been short of recent reviews suggesting ways to adapt, and Bramston laments its deadening silence in this regard. The most recent ALP Conference rejected the vast bulk of the recommendations in last years’ National Review (Crook 2011). The key issue of why someone would join the ALP remains an open question. As Rodney Cavalier points out, the party wins elections without members. Yet, the ghost of Labor as a ‘mass party’ continues to haunt, including Bramston (p. 205). Historically, the ALP was not just a political party, but part of a ‘movement’. While many Labor stalwarts still cling to this ideal, the party is not generally seen this way in the wider electorate. In a neoliberal setting, supporters who identify with broadly social democratic values are dispersed across other parties and interest groups, opting in and out of campaigns and activities.

Where does the leave the wider Western European Left and it sister parties in Australia, Canada and beyond? In the short term, it faces an even harsher set of economic pressures in 2012. Pierson may well be right about social democracy’s law of diminishing expectations, but a focus on incremental change breeds cautious government. A useful case in point, as noted by a former advisor to Tony Blair, is Steve Bracks’ Victorian government (Barber 2007, p. 81). Bracks’ government was electorally successful, competent, but ultimately failed to reverse the neoliberal thunderstorm of Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett’s reign. Labor and social democratic politics should be more than just being a competent manager of the economy. To pursue a more transformational form of politics, it cannot afford to abandon hopes of making new models of economic and social growth that break free of neoliberalism. Bramston is surely right to suggest that Labor needs to rediscover its idealism, but the ALP needs to look beyond New Labour, and perhaps Stoltenberg’s Norway might well be a start. If the centre-left has traditionally fought a trade-off between pragmatism and idealism; then arguably its embrace of key tenets of neoliberalism has taken it further away from its vision for a more egalitarian society. As Oscar Wilde observed: ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. Progress is the realisation of Utopias’.


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Dr Rob Manwaring is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University.