Labor adrift without intellectual firepower

July 16, 2012

The Age, 16 July 2012

By Tim Soutphommasane

The ALP has failed to grasp the value of ideological renewal.

Imagine the leader of a political party today appointing a radical thinker to head its policy review. Well, that is exactly what British Labour leader Ed Miliband did in May.

Last month I had the chance to spend some time with Labour figures in Westminster. While the usual caveats apply, it struck me that the British experience sheds some interesting light on the Australian.

There was a surprising boldness in the appointment of Jon Cruddas, an MP from East London, as the party’s policy chief in the shadow cabinet. Cruddas has been described as an intellectual attuned to the romantic power of politics. He isn’t your usual policy wonk or technocrat, even if he holds a doctorate in philosophy.

He also takes a deep interest in Australian politics, having worked as a young trade union activist with the Builders Labourers Federation in Sydney. He counts Ben Chifley and Paul Keating among his key political influences and regards Keating as an exemplar of a patriotic, social democratic reformer.

The reason for Cruddas’ attraction to such figures, especially Keating, is clear. He believes that politics should be about ideology.

Once a political secretary to Tony Blair when he was in Downing Street, Cruddas is critical of New Labour’s legacy. During the years of Blair and Gordon Brown, he argues, ”politics became transactional, allocative, rational” and ”its language, cold”. Labour began losing touch with its ethical roots and historical traditions.

It’s early days for British Labour’s policy review, but the ambition is unmistakable. Labour is positioning itself to rebuild Britain after austerity, should it win government.

Cruddas sees the task as a narrative one – to ensure that his party has an overarching story to tell.

For Australian observers, we may just detect something of Keating’s romanticism in this approach: leadership as being about a big picture, reform as a project of nation-building. Such intellectual clarity among leading politicians is, these days, rare.

And so we turn to Australian Labor. It is hard to think of many in the ALP federal caucus who could be regarded as being of similar ilk to Cruddas. Just who is the working-class philosopher crafting a distinctive Labor story?

This lack of intellectual firepower highlights some of the reasons for the ALP’s current malaise.

In time, much more will be written about the Rudd-Gillard governments. Barring a transformation in fortunes, historians and political scientists will try to explain how it was that a Labor government elected in 2007, seemingly poised to govern for a decade, has suffered such a dramatic decline.

Yes, the abrupt replacement of Kevin Rudd was critical. Yes, the Gillard government has been handicapped by the perception of a broken promise not to introduce a carbon tax. Yet Labor’s troubles lie deeper.

In opposition, it fell short of doing the difficult work of ideological renewal. Certainly, the kind of radical thinking being led by Cruddas in Britain – and generated by those associated with the so-called Blue Labour movement – never occurred.

Some may say that this reflects the differences between Australian and British political cultures. Ours has perhaps always been a more utilitarian one – pragmatic and deeply suspicious of grand schemes. Though our politics often does involve a battle of ideas, we frequently reduce them to mere clashes of interest.

The British political culture, for all of its empiricist pedigree, has never been afraid of reflection about the philosophical foundations of politics. Commentators and politicians there aren’t afraid of asking, ”What is the purpose of the state?”

Whatever the case, there is a problem for some sections of the contemporary Australian centre-left when it comes to ideas. It seems the only big picture that exists is the economy.

It is telling that many Labor politicians seem to believe that vision merely means having a plan for economic growth. There are constant appeals to the legacy of ”Hawke-Keating reforms”, as though saying the phrase is enough to count as a program. Reform has become an end in itself, and separated from ideological identity. Only rarely does someone pause to ask: reform for what purpose? And for whom?

Indeed, for all that the Rudd-Gillard governments have achieved – economic stability amid a ”contained” global depression; a massive building program for the nation’s schools; the beginnings of a national broadband network and a national disability insurance scheme; the establishment of a carbon pricing mechanism – their policies resemble a set of disconnected initiatives.

Labor, at least for now, suffers from something of a diminished capacity. Their British cousins, led intellectually by Cruddas, remind us that in politics you can only be persuasive if you actually have a program in the first place. And a story to go with it.