Labor needs to find a new big idea

January 13, 2015

By Dennis Glover

Almost everyone I know in the political class thinks Labor will win the next federal election. Most surprisingly, this confidence is coming from people with enormous experience who have held positions of considerable responsibility in the ALP. These former party secretaries, ministerial advisers, chiefs of staff and so forth look at the hole the Abbott government has dug for itself and can’t see it getting out. They may be right, but as someone who worked for Kim Beazley back in 2001, I’m going to hedge my bets.

There’s nothing wrong with this sort of optimism. In fact, without self-belief, the job of winning will be even harder, given that in the ALP defeatism invariably breeds destabilisation. But it begs a big question: if Labor is going to win, what is it going to do in government? The optimists have a responsibility to shift their gaze from campaigning to answer this question, and it’s time they made a start.

At present too much faith is being placed in Labor’s superior campaigning abilities, which were evident in the most recent South Australian and Victorian elections. From listening to the party machines, the formula is simple: Big Data + Field Campaigning = Victory.

It’s a tempting proposition, but dangerous, and just a little bit unworthy. Good campaigning helps, but as the Abbott government has demonstrated, it won’t keep you on top for long or do the nation much good.

One thing is clear: given the way things ended in 2013, the next Labor government can’t be a philosophical continuation of the last one. Merely saying, “let’s do it again, but manage it better”, ignores the long-term structural-philosophical problems facing the ALP which are already hitting its vote: it remains labourist in an era of union decline and managerialist when its supporters need inspiration and belief.

There has not been nearly enough debate about this, which is strange given that, internationally, social-democratic thinkers are regaining their self-confidence. If it is the case that the Abbott government’s problems stem not just from poor political management but from the fact people dislike the unfairness of its agenda, then Labor needs to start articulating a new social-democratic program for government.

Overseas names like Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz have devised big-picture critiques of contemporary conservative politics, but little in the way of positive social-democratic programs for government. It is gratifying therefore that an Australian social-democratic thinker has provided something of real practical use to Labor as it grapples with what to do with power.

There is much time left for summer reading, and I suggest every Labor parliamentarian and decision-maker put a copy of Andrew Scott’s new book Northern Lights in his or her beach bag.

Scott’s thesis is compelling for Labor supporters, left or right. Genuinely engaging with globalisation, he says, means looking beyond the English-speaking world, and we could do worse than study the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway for good ideas. Two facts about them, he argues, stand out.

First, the Nordic nations have weathered the global recession far better than most Anglophone economies, confounding the idea that big government, high taxation and comprehensive welfare states are always the problem, never the answer.

Second, that the Nordic nations’ emphasis upon equality has greater potential appeal to Australia, with its egalitarian ethos, than do the English and American ideas dominating our debates. The Nordic nations are widely regarded as more innovative, prosperous, productive and equal than anywhere else, including Australia. Whether it is Sweden’s achievements in promoting gender equality and reducing child poverty, Finland’s schools which combine achievement with equity, Denmark’s emphasis on skill formation to avoid long-term unemployment, or Norway’s success in investing its energy wealth in the country’s future economic capacity, there is much to impress. One can learn without copying.

It’s an obvious point, but with its emphasis on creating greater prosperity through greater equality, the model of Nordic social democracy makes serious moral sense to the members and supporters of the ALP most of all, especially as they begin looking for a new way forward for their party. With Labor’s national conference scheduled for May, and the big-picture direction for the next Labor government yet to be settled, a look at the Nordic countries might be just what Labor needs.