Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kevin Rudd and the Right on the ALP

Launching yet another book on the current malaise of the ALP Kevin Rudd has provided his own analysis. Much of this is confused, and what he calls for is indistinct.

He starts by asserting a distinction between Labor good and the other side evil as;

A Party that has painted most of the nation’s history on a wide and expansive canvas; its economic reforms, its social innovation, the centrality of the environment, the place of indigenous Australians, as well as Australia’s independent place in the affairs of the world.

And just as we have painted this great canvas for the nation, the conservatives’ historical mission has been, wherever possible, to erase it.

Ours, a positive agenda of building the nation. Theirs, invariably a negative agenda to tear down what we have built up.

Because in the end, our creed is about the rights of the many – theirs being about the privileges of the few.

This is blatantly not true at the level of history - a good many of the reforms were introduced by conservative governments, and very few reforms have ever been torn down. Even the great reform of arbitration is only occassionally demolished by conservatives.

But secondly, the conservatives (Rudd's term - as previously discussed the non-Labor side are not always conservative) often just place a different emphasis on the order of redistributing wealth and growing it (to use Button's description that Rudd does). They regard this as a positive agenda of growth, and are especially wary of central planners.

Rudd is right to say that open debate lets the sunshine in. But the enemy is not the factions as such, there will always be groupings, but that the factions align around the way to exercise power not philosophy.

Rudd notes that there are three areas for reform;

It is time therefore for an open debate on the Party’s future. Its values. Its policies. And critically, its structure.

He places great store in "direct election." He doesn't go as far as the call Sam Dastyari is now making for membership election of the State Parliamentary Leader, though in a later interview he says he has an open mind on it.

People who favour this option should look to not only the recent disaster in the UK where they got the wrong brother, but read Alison Rogers The Natasha Factor and see the consequences of trying to impose on the Parliamentary Party a person other than the person they would choose to lead themselves.

Unfortunately on values Rudd is full of the same weak waffle as Gillard. He quotes his own Chifley Research speech.

The speeches are rendolent with talk of opportunity and fairness. At least Gillard's speech talked of the collective orientation of Labor, while Rudd saved this for his spray on neo-liberalism.

The backdrop of the current ALP malaise is a declining membership. However, this is not really a novel issue for the Labour Movement. In 1890 in Queensland there were 54 unions with 21,379 members, which by 1894 had declined to 9 unions and 780 members (McMullin The Light on the Hill P.26). Ten years after that the movement celebrated the (brief) first ever national Labor government in the world.

The history of the ALP is always fascinating reading, filled as it is with larger than life characters like Watson, Hughes, O'Malley, Scullin, Theodore, Lyons, Lang, McKell, Curtin, Chifley, Evatt, eddie Ward, Clyde Cameron, Whitlam, Cairns, Keating , Hawke, both John Cain's, both TJ Ryan's.

An enduring theme in that history has been the tension in the party between electoral politics designed to achieve power and a wider policy aim that variously goes under the name "socialism" but isn't recognisable as socialism in most other parts of the world. It is a very individualistic kind of socialism - a socialism founded more on the assumption of egalitarian values than of attacking the powerful "class".

These debates raged in the early years of the party, especially Federally. But the same debate can be identified as what - until the 1990s - divided Left and Right in NSW. The Left wanted purity of philosophical position, the Right any position that achieved power.

Labor has been at its best when this debate has been allowed to flourish, because it creates the idea of both short term and long term goals otherwise missing from politics. Labor has been at its worst when - like the Victorian ALP post split - it was able to be painted as just a socialist idealist party. Labor has been at its worst when - like NSW Labor over the last decade - it has imagined that politics is all about focus groups and mirroring back to people what you think they want.

The other part of Labor history is the role that early unionists and party members played in education - they took to their fellow workers the concept of unionism, of collective action, of the ideals behind socialism and the need to constrain capital. The rot seems to have set in once the movement could afford paid organisers, rather than merely to start paying existing organisers. Today an "organiser" in a union or the party is an organiser of numbers for internal battles and disputes - rather than an organiser focussed on education and motivating support.

The relationship between the political and the industrial wing of the Labour movement has always been tense. From the very earliest elections where Labor candidates were successful those representatives have found themselves caught between representing the interests of their electors and the interests of the unions. Different states resolved this in different ways - but NSW at least decided at itts conference in 1893 that the Trades and Labor Council that had formed the party would not control it (McMullin P.18). It was not until a 1916 NSW conference that the industrial wing gained control (McMullin P.105). Five years later the socialist objective was written into the platform.

Adding to the melting pot the ALP Right has issued its plan for party reform. It talks long on increasing democratisation, but gives twenty delegates on a new National Policy Forum to representatives of affiliated unions chosen by National Executive. When added to the parliamentarians and other officers they dwarf the twenty directly elected rank and file members.

Nothing else in the document offers much hope. More vague discussion of policy ideas, campaigning and engagement without any re-commitment to philosophy. More shadow democracy, and online tools (these exist already - they just don't achieve anything).

The Labour Movement's origins are entirely embedded in advancing the cause of the workers against those of capital. The origin of democracy was in freeing individuals from the arbitrary power and control of others. In the 21st century we suffer from the fact that too many "workers" don't identify themselves as such. A person running a small plumbing business, an owner-operator truckie, an IT contractor, a salaried professional are all workers. They are not capitalists like the old pastoralists. But capital has also changed - the interests of capital are now advanced by a managerial class not by real business owners.

Labor's modern view of socialisation should not be state owned enterprises - we have seen how these enterprises degenerate into the perception that state ownership's purpose is to over reward the worker rather than to constrain market power. Labor's modern view of socialisation needs to be grounded in the idea that no one in society should be able to acquire and exert power over others - be that physical, coercive or economic.

True reform of the ALP can only begin by removing affiliated unions from having any formal role in the governance of the party. True reform of the ALP needs to start by developing a better narrative of what it stands for. True reform of the ALP needs to embrace a return to the struggle to balance electoral success and long term goals, and to embrace the role of the party to educate not just respond.

So far none of the formal proposals from right and left, or the thought bubbles of various people in leadership roles amounts to anything more than mere posturing.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

1 comment:

Vic N said...

Thats one of the best, most thoughtful commentaries I have ever read on this subject. Should be in the SMH!!