Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Policy Gap of the Left: A Problem the ALP Can No Longer Ignore

Following yesterday's post on the decline of transformative leadership, it is necessary to point out that the problems that the ALP face are not just confined to the top echolons of the party. The more pressing concerns for the party's long term future are policy based.

Over the last decade, egalitarian and social democratic parties of the 'Left' such as the ALP have experienced tensions between individual leadership concerns and ideological objectives. A clear example of this occurred in the British Labour Party (BLP) under the leadership of Tony Blair during the 1990s. When Blair assumed the leadership in 1994, it signalled a change in the way a British leader interacted within in the party evoking the term ‘New Labour', which signalled a break away from its traditional working class base. This was an attempt to move towards the political right and gain a larger cross section of voters to gain a larger majority of voters at election time. British psepologist Colin Hay explains that the term ‘New Labour’ was an exercise that went beyond branding and demonstrated the changing political climate that the BLP confronted:
In declaring itself “new”, Labour is… seeking to distance itself from associations with aspects of its more immediate period in opposition. Where it previously stood to suffer from its perceived associations with this period of “unbridled Leftism” and “socialist extremism” it can now, it appears only benefit from emphasising the paranoid protectionism, unguarded opportunism, and suicidal disregard for public opinion held to characterise this period.
This was achieved by using the ‘Third Way’ model of governance developed by sociologist Anthony Giddens, the Third Way aimed to control the centre of the ideological spectrum, to gain the maximum amount of swinging voters. As Giddens explains:
Government exists to provide means for the representation of diverse interests, offer a forum for reconciling the competing claims of these interests, create and protect an open public sphere in which unconstrained debate about policy issues can be carried on, provide a diversity of public goods including forms of collective security and welfare, regulate markets in the public interest and foster market competition when monopoly threatens, foster social peace through control of the means of violence and through the provision of policing, promote the active development of human capital through its core role in the education system, sustain an effective system of law, have a directly economic role as a prime employer in micro and macroeconomic intervention plus the provision of infrastructure, have a civilising aim, foster regional and transnational alliances and pursue global goals
Blair sought to carry out these objectives in order to move the BLP back to the political centre and redesign ‘social democracy’ to combine the legacy of socially inclusive policies that the party was built upon, and merge it with the economic rationalist policies of his Conservative predecessors. In a speech to the European Union in 1999, Blair outlined his method:
Social democracy has found new acceptance – but only because, while retaining its traditional values, it has begun in a credible way to renew its ideas and modernise its programmes. It has also found new acceptance because it stands not only for social justice but also for economic dynamism and the unleashing of creativity and innovation.
Critics of the Third Way claimed that such ideological fence sitting was in fact betraying traditional 'social democratic values' for the sake of winning a large voter base. In 1998, The Economist quoted a British Labour Party ‘…strategist and pollster, (who) summed it (The Third Way) up by writing an internal memorandum with the succinct title: "Winning the Trust of the Centre Without Betraying the Left". Another more lasting criticism of the Third Way by ideologues suggests that it is ultimately devoid of a philosophical touchstone, thus rendering the concepts of social democracy and the political spectrum extinct:
The Third Way has not been a new principle that can lead us to a dimension of the political cosmos that is beyond left and right. It is primarily a rationalization for political compromise between left and right, in which the left moves closer to the right. Political compromise is built into electoral democracy, but principled compromise starts with the principles, not the compromise.
This contradiction was both present within the party’s ideological outlook and its decision making structures. The BLP was caught between taking a more populist approach aimed at capturing the political centre, whilst still trying to identify with its traditional working class base. While this strategy proved electorally effective, it left the British Labour Party ideologically neutered:
Two stances can be discerned within the party’s public discourse… on one hand nearly all the leading figures in the party and the Cabinet have asserted at some point… asserted that there is nothing wrong with the core values of the labour tradition… yet something more ambitious has also been hinted at. At times, members of the inner circle present the political programme that they are carrying out as representing the transcendence of “labourism” and indeed of political traditions of Britain altogether, a claim that is yoked together with the belief that Labor has been repositioned as the natural custodian of the centre-ground of British politics. 
This criticism goes to the heart of modern political culture. Instead of ideological concerns, leaders have become much more pragmatic. This suggests the need to develop electorally palatable policies maintains primacy over the ideological needs of political parties. Such a change in objectives presented a challenge for parties of the ideological left. Built upon the traditions of supporting collectivists traditions, the BLP exemplifies the trend in party politics of showcasing its leader rather than all areas of the party structure equally. This has led to criticisms that leaders have abandoned consultative leadership styles which have characterised successful leaders of both the ALP and the BLP leaders in the past. Instead this individualised style of leadership has led to:
Critics claim[ing] (in 1998) that the Labor Party increasing became an autocracy under Blair. Strict control of the party all the way from Parliament to the local authorities and the local branches prevailed. Annual conferences were ruthlessly stage-managed. The policies announced by the leadership were ran counter to previous commitments, with little prior consultation
Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev noted this trend as well and has referred to the later part of the last decade as Europe’s ‘populist moment’, as many governments including Poland and Slovika, have spurned ideological concerns in favour of adopting a more leader based approach. Such a trend across Europe speaks to a broader pattern for political parties across the world as they attempt to own the political centre:
The outcome is politics where populists are becoming openly illiberal, while elites secretly harbour anti democratic resentments. This is the real danger of the populist moment. In the age of populism, the front does not lie between Left and Right, nor between reformers and conservatives.
In the months after Latham obtained the leadership in December 2003, he developed his own set of policies based that were a mixture of 'The Third Way' and the social welfare ideology of Whitlam that encouraged. These theories were based around  ‘opportunity’ for all citizens, the free market economic philosophies characteristic of Keating’s Prime Ministrship,  Latham’s ability to target the aspirational voter and provide a coherent political narrative that directly appealed to the ALP's traditional working class voter. Academic Carol Johnson noted at the time that ‘Latham has made a substantial effort to be less of a maverick individual and more of a unifying force that can pull disparate sections of the party together’. Unfortunately for Labor this judgement proved to be premature that echoed the criticisms of the BLP.

Below the surface, Latham's economic policies contained contradictions and lacked detail. He needed to negotiate with business groups to produce policies that would lure his ‘aspirational’ voters away from the Howard Government but he was unable to undertake effective negotiations with business groups. He failed to confront the Howard Government’s economic credentials and was forced to accept a coalition-driven agenda on the economy. He also failed to engage effectively on the issue of interest rates because his policies lacked suffiecent detail.

Much of Rudd's popularity in the beginniing of his Prime Ministership stemmed from the fact that he appeared to be the 'Anti Latham'. Rudd went out of his way to recast 'traditional social democraic values' in an attempt to add depth to Latham's initial policies, providing the ideological way forward to combat 'The Global Financial Crisis' (GFC). As I wrote in February 2009, in response to his essay on the GFC for The Monthly:
Whilst decrying free market fundamentalism Rudd uses its terminology to describe his new brand of social democracy. Passages such as ‘…harnessing the power of the market to increase innovation, investment and productivity growth - while combining this with an effective regulatory framework’ are used to describe the legacy of Labor Governments. This legacy is characterised with language that is laced with free market fundamentalism. In essence, social democrats have ceded valuable ground in the ideological argument without even noticing.
Labor had not created its own ideological vision, but rather adapted it from their opponents to make its 'values' a kinder, gentler version of free market ideology and then disguising it as 'social democracy'. This is a worldwide trend that parties of the 'Left' struggle to grasp. This is because the foundations of this ideology were built around government intervention in the economy, which can no can no longer be sustained within the current free market paradigm. Ashley Lavelle in particular argues quite resaonably that 'social democracy' as the ALP knows it no longer exists.
Social democracy is dead for many different reasons. From a Marxist perspective, it nominates as a chief cause of death the collapse of the post war economic boom. A return to low growth in the 1970s removed the economic base of social democracy, which relied on high revenues and incomes associated with the boom in order to fund social reforms. On top of the fiscal impact, the end of the boom rendered impossible the simultaneous pursuit of policies that reduced inequality and raised living standards and which did not undermine capital accumulation
Ideological differences have become tougher to distinguish and have ultimately become a casualty in parties of the Left, so they can win or maintain popular appeal. This has lead some to conclude the end to traditional ideological disputes that have dominated the last century. David McKnight argued in 2005 that: ‘The meaning of Right and Left has been destabilised over the last two decades by a growing number of issues which cannot be understood and analysed in traditional Right-Left terms.’

Combined with the leadership problems on display yesterday, the ALP is in very ill health like most of its counterparts internationally. Its failure to evolve significently over the past fifteen years has meant that the ALP has operated in a policy vaccum in a constant state of reaction rather than developing its own ideas. This problem will remain unressolved, and will likely render the party extinct unless drastic action is taken no matter who leads the party to the next Federal Election.

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