Loosen the comrades’ hold and reform Labor

September 28, 2012

28 September 2012

By Dennis Glover

Responses to Lindsay Tanner’s Politics with Purpose are already being read in code: those in favour of its publication are for Kevin, those against it are for Julia. Let me confound that: I’m for Julia, but I’m also for books by people who want to talk about the Labor Party’s future.

OK, let’s concede that revisiting the leadership coup won’t impress lot of Labor members. Admittedly, as one of the Gang of Four, Tanner’s insights on the Rudd administration are more valuable than mine. But as a member of, say, the Gang of Four Hundred Or So (the advisers and speech writers) I can assure you that the chaos and frustration described by Gillard supporters during February’s failed leadership challenge rang very, very true with about 375 of us. But I do agree that moving on from that episode probably wouldn’t be a bad idea.

That controversy aside, Tanner makes two strong points about the future of the ALP.

The first is that, necessary though they are, rule changes designed to hand control of the party back to its members can never on their own be enough. I am with Tanner on this. My discussions with some of those pushing democratisation have convinced me that while they want to give Labor Party members new platforms on which to speak, they have no intention of actually listening to what they say.

My rule of thumb would be, if it seems too good to be true that Comrade X is a convert to party reform, it probably is too good to be true.

Democratisation of the ALP has to start from one place: a broadly shared belief system. Too many of those who control the party machinery seem to possess at best a weariness and at worst a form of contempt for the instinctive social democratic idealism of the party’s ordinary members. That is the key problem to overcome.

This makes the second of Tannerâ’s points crucial: Labor needs a genuine re-examination of what it stands for today. Some would silence him on this subject, too. One wit, who reckons that every pet shop galah now thinks it can write a book about the ALP, actually himself penned an elegant essay on that very subject, in this very newspaper, just days before his appointment early this year to the Gillard cabinet.

“Look, you galahs, leave the talking to us professionals; show some discipline; get with the project”: hardly the basis for believing that they really mean it when they claim to be in favour of more rights for the rank and file.

And here’s the problem: practised occasionally, being a disciplined team player is necessary, even for the humblest local branch member. (In fact it’s the humblest branch members who practise this discipline the most.) For instance, it’s counter-productive to begin an internal debate about the merits of party policy during the heat of an election campaign. But in the era of permanent campaigning, when does that period of self-imposed discipline end? When do they stop treating you as a pet shop galah and start treating you as someone who cares deeply that his party is being destroyed by a bunch of bureaucrats who aren’t as smart as they think they are?

In other words, when will Labor Party members ever get to practise the democratic rights that the new-found reformers claim to want to give them?

I think we know: never.

My belief therefore is that books by Lindsay Tanner, James Button or any other Labor thinkers should be welcomed – as long as they rise above petty point-scoring and contribute genuinely to the creation of a new Labor narrative for the modern world.

What’s Labor’s story? How can it make it the nation’s story? Labor needs to answer questions like these, not just to satisfy its members, but to satisfy the electorate, too.

As Tanner has remarked, a genuine discussion about its future purpose is unlikely to damage Labor’s short-term prospects, but without such a discussion Labor’s long-term prospects are bleak indeed.

The time to start it is now; there is nothing to be afraid of.

In fact there is a lot to gain, even in the short term. It can’t be a total coincidence that Labor’s stocks have started to rise now that Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and others have started sounding like the Labor Party once again.

If I were an up and coming leadership aspirant I’d be doing one thing right now: reading Tanner’s book and then writing one of my own in response.