Labor needs philosophy, not focus groups

January 22, 2014

Bill Shorten has sprung out of the blocks in 2014, stating he can win back power in one term. Given the polls, who can blame him? For those who think Shorten has an alternative, consider for a moment the likely reaction to any admission that he can’t win the next election and won’t aim to. Of course Shorten must try to win. The next two years, therefore, promise a tough wrestle for power. But does that mean there is no scope for Shorten to lead the sort of organisational and philosophical regeneration that Labor clearly needs? The decline of its primary vote, the disillusion of its members and the state of its union base all point to the need for Labor to pursue a parallel strategy of internal renewal alongside its strategy for re-election. What is the way forward?

Let’s assume there will be some degree of democratisation of Labor’s structure: something almost everyone agrees is necessary. The more interesting issue is Labor’s philosophical direction, because here there are competing ideas. For the sake of simplicity, let’s narrow them down to three, or four if you count the default position of poll-driven pragmatism.

The first would be the social liberalism championed by Labor frontbenchers Chris Bowen and Andrew Leigh. There’s an appealing radicalism about some of this, but its essence seems an attempt to raise the Hawke-Keating legacy of economic reform to the status of the party’s religion. It makes obvious sense to Labor’s economic critics, but one suspects that the overdetermining role it gives to the market robs it of the sort of appeal that makes moral sense to Labor members.

The second would be the light-touch social democracy championed most notably by former Labor Leader Mark Latham, which argues Labor should cut its links to the union movement, distance itself from the Greens, cut public spending and get out of the way of both the market and aspirational suburbanites. We could think of this as social liberalism modified by an obsessive disdain for middle-class progressives – neoconservative social democracy perhaps? Given it runs counter to just about everything Labor supporters believe in, it hasn’t a chance.
Small-c conservatism

The third would be the attempt to translate into Australian conditions the small-c conservatism championed by British Labour peer Lord Maurice Glasman. In broad terms, this sets out to claim the ALP as the inheritor of the nation’s egalitarian ethos, traditions and institutions. The problem is, this Blue Labour philosophy can be read two ways. In the left-wing version, Labor becomes the defender of the ideas of equality, society and nation-building under threat from rampant neoliberalism, something that might appeal strongly to the party’s base. In the right-wing version, the one most likely to be taken up, it becomes an attempt to arm the party’s socially conservative right with a philosophy to attack the party’s progressive left. The potential divisiveness of this ploy renders it dangerous in a party desperately in need of unity of purpose. Labor can seek inspiration from its past, but it can’t afford to become a party living in an invented communitarian past, championing social values at odds with the present.

It’s interesting that almost all the thinking about Labor’s future is coming from the right. Where is the left’s challenge to Labor’s philosophical status quo? This is particularly perplexing given British Labour leader Ed Miliband and New York mayor Bill de Blasio are making strong headway hammering unbridled capitalism. This input is desperately needed, because only serious input from the left is going to give Labor a new philosophical direction that can hold its organisation together.

So what should Labor’s philosophy be in 2016? There’s no easy answer. It is going to take a concerted effort by the leader and the party’s best thinkers to find the philosophical sweet spot where the members’ beliefs come together. One thing is certain: no amount of hollow posturing is going to suffice. If Labor has become a byword for anything in recent times, especially among the young, it is cynicism. Labor’s policies will need to be guided by genuine moral conviction about the direction of the country, not some trite new imported political frame that gets focus-group participants nodding in agreement. If Bill Shorten is to win back government in one term, the best way to do it, and perhaps the only way, is to do it on Labor’s own philosophical terms.