Labor’s future is not back in the past

June 5, 2013

By Dennis Glover

One of my favourite political stories is Howard Spring’s 1940 novel Fame is the Spur, about a poor boy from Manchester, Hamer Shawcross, who becomes a firebrand Labour MP, famous in his youth for brandishing at party rallies a sabre used in the massacre at Peterloo. As he ages, he chums up to the aristocracy, thinks the workers should be more understanding of capital, and drifts to the right, to the disappointment of his old left-wing friends. The fabulous 1947 movie adaptation ends with Shawcross, played by Michael Redgrave, dying whilst unsheathing the long-unused sword which has rusted firm to its scabbard.

This novel came to mind when watching Martin Ferguson’s valedictory speech in Parliament last week.

It may have been a dignified affair that rightly applauded Ferguson’s considerable service to the ALP and the nation, but it wasn’t hard to detect deep bitterness in Ferguson’s parting words. First there was his noticeable failure to mention any of his current colleagues aside from Simon Crean, not even his Prime Minister. And then there was his caustic comment that, “Creating opportunities by working with business is not the same thing as pointless class rhetoric”. It’s not difficult to see why the only genuine tears came from Tony Abbott.

The idea of a once-left-wing union leader expending his final parliamentary words deriding Labor’s wealth redistribution objective as “class warfare” is the very definition of a Labor Party tragedy.

Even the most shameless novelist would surely have edited out a final scene in which a much-despised right-wing conservative leader cried over the old comrade’s retirement.

In truth, Ferguson had long outlived his usefulness to the Labor Party, just as the Labor Party had outlived its usefulness to him. It has been obvious to all for some time that the marriage was irreconcilably broken.

Yes, Ferguson still cares for working Australians – he is in some admirable ways a good old-fashioned Labor conservative – but his contempt for the progressive nature of much that his party stands for these days is plain to everyone.

How do we explain it, apart from the literary cliches about age and proximity to wealth dulling the edge of even the sharpest blue-collar radical?

I think the answer lies in Ferguson’s own parting speech, which may have been intended as a valedictory for himself, but unintentionally became a valedictory for the program of the Hawke and Keating era.

Grand economic reform through working with business, getting business costs under control, pursuing micro-economic reform, staying true to market principles, and toughing that program out even when it meant the loss of his old union members’ jobs – these are the direct achievements of which Ferguson seems most proud.

It’s true that these things may sometimes be necessary to promote economic modernisation, but do they really constitute the heart of an agenda capable of re-animating a flagging Labor Party in the years to come?

It is no disrespect to the past to call it history, so I mean no disrespect to Ferguson when I say that his agenda for Labor reads like the ossified program of a generation whose greatness lies well behind it.

To a young idealist contemplating joining the ALP in 2013, the agenda pursued with such vigour and moral intent by Ferguson’s generation is what the agenda of Ben Chifley must have sounded like to young idealists back in 1983.

While conservatives may urge Labor down Ferguson’s proposed path, they do not have Labor’s best interests in mind. Labor has to look ahead to a fresh formulation of ideas capable of giving new life to its philosophy and aims.

In that job it is going to need some smart and tough-minded new thinkers in its leadership ranks.

And that is going to require re-visiting another ossified feature of the Hawke and Keating era that is holding the party back: the excessive role still played in caucus by factional warlords.

Is replacing Ferguson with a consummate backroom operator really the way ahead for the ALP?

That’s the first big question it must now resolve.