The ALP isn’t dead.
It has just been bludgeoned unconscious, is in a forced coma, unable to open its eyes to make sense of the world.
The party is too monolithic to be declared dead for at least another generation. Two former leaders used two very opposite platforms last week to declare that the party can still thrive, but they only succeeded in proving the opposite. Elaborate think pieces on the ALP’s future have turned into a cottage industry and may be the only thing keeping the Australian publishing industry afloat. I am guilty of this too. Unfortunately my fellow prognostergators lack some much needed insight.
Mark Latham and I go way back. I have argued that he is one of the few sensible voices to be heard when diagnosing the many ills of the ALP. I for one was looking forward to the Quarterly Essay that promised a new way forward for Labor. This time though he was stuck in the mud. Obviously, he positioned himself as ‘the ghost of Labor’s past' to add authority to his conclusions. But he chose to enlighten the reader with statements of a half decent first year university student:
The problem for Labor, with its concentrated base of union affiliations and financing, lies in the organisational imbalance between the new economy and old-style unionism. In the workforce, unions have become a minority influence, whereas inside the ALP, through the strength of the factional system, they have maintained a majority complex, exercising control over party decision-making.
We all know union and party membership are dwindling. The question is what to do about it? Follow 'The McKell Model' appears to be Latham's answer. In doing so he touches on the very point he fails to comprehend. Reaching back more than 70 years to fix today's problems is certainly not the answer. Less than half the retirees in Australia (incidentally Labor’s core membership base) know who McKell was, let alone the model he created. Latham has fallen into the obvious trap. He is thinking inside the existing paradigm. It no longer works.
Unionism as a political force in Australia is gasping for air, dying a slow, painful death.
Ten years from now you can sign its death certificate. Latham fails to acknowledge this and it renders the grand pronouncements he makes on future policy directions meaningless.
The question should now become:
How can a supposed ‘left of centre’ (major) political party survive in Australia without the union movement?
As I continue to progress with my PhD that is the central question I repeatedly ask myself. Nobody inside the ALP is bold enough to ask that question, let alone answer it, as they continue to clutch to the unions for survival. I was hoping Latham may have come up with a well thought answer, but it seems to allude him as well.
For what it is worth, Kevin Rudd is unsurpringsly, in more denial than Latham. Launching Troy Bramston's collection of Greatest Labor Speeches on Saturday, his ironically lacklustre speech essentially said ‘We’ve done more things than the other guys and that’s what makes our party great’. That’s another problem with Labor, history won’t save them as much as they hope it will. Harking back to the days of Curtin, Whitlam and Hawke doesn’t tell them anything about how to approach a post union future.
What exactly does this post union future look like? The easiest and most awful solution would be for the ALP to merge with the Greens, gaining back much of the hard left vote whilst sharing their organisational infrastructure. Going by historical precedence the only thing that will rescue the Centre Left from its own stupidity is a fourth and final Labor split (over what? Immigration? Don’t be silly!) that renders the party rudderless (Pun!). Then a political visionary must pick up the scraps to forge an entirely new path.
Obviously from the above paragraph you can tell that I am not that person. Latham and Rudd though have that potential. However, the first step is admitting you have a problem. How many electoral defeats will that take? Hopefully just the one, but I’m not counting on it.