Class War Is For Us Not For You: Australian Labour and the 2019 Election

The Australian Labor Party lost the 2019 federal election because it is a victim of its own success. It was, after all, the Labor Party that initiated the neoliberal reforms that have increased inequality, led to the further concentration of media ownership, seen the significance of unions decline sharply, and facilitated the hollowing out of the Labor Party into a centralised electoral machine dominated by mediocrities like Bill Shorten.

In the election that just passed Labor offered a tepidly mild redistributive agenda something that would barely dint the coffers of the well to do. The mega rich, who Wayne Swan correctly argued in a seminal essay for The Monthly have an outsized influence on Australian politics, would have none of it. They were determined to put Labor in its place as they had done previously with the mining tax and that they did. It is they who rule Australia, and they don’t won’t you to forget it. The instant commentary on election night that had the “ambitious” policy agenda of Labor at fault was essentially correct although not for the reasons cited. It was said that Australians were too dumb arsed to understand it, when in reality the oligarchs understood full well that power and privilege can brook no compromise unless forced to. The election of 2019 was therefore dominated by class war, but that was joined by the oligarchs and their lackeys not the Labor Party. That the consensus appears to be that Labor lost the election because it was too given to class war is not a descriptor of reality but rather signifies that Labor must bend its knees and kiss some North Shore and Manhattan arse before its allowed to have the keys to The Lodge.

Bill Shorten admitted as much when he blamed the election loss on big spending oligarchs and the corporate media, especially the Murdoch press. The oligarchisation of Australian politics is a natural consequence of the rising inequalities in Australian society made possible by the neoliberal reforms Labor itself began and which the Liberals took further. For the sharp political operators of the Liberal Party, evidence for this goes back at least to the 1980s, one of the key rationales of neoliberal restructuring was that it would make it difficult for Labor to win elections on a redistributive platform as power progressively shifts even more toward capital. You can see here how neoliberalism has functioned to further entrench the traditional political and economic hierarchies of Australian society as they came under increasing challenge in the late 1960s and 1970s by the new social movements and a resurgent labour movement after the Clarrie O’Shea general strike. One of those facets of the traditional order is the Liberal Party as the “natural party of government,” something both the Labor Party and the ACTU themselves helped recreate. In 1983 Australians did not vote for a neoliberal programme but that is what both the ALP and the ACTU gave them.

The labour movement is not what it once was, namely a social movement organically arising from the Australian working class whose broad active support it once enjoyed and could rely on.  That is not to say that the working class does not vote for Labor, a point to which we return, but it is to say that the working class does not campaign for Labor.

When the political wing of the labour movement ceases to be a mass based working class party then its hollowed out version becomes dependent on capital to dispense its message and finance its activities. That has the effect of making it vulnerable to attacks, capital strikes, of the type seen in the 2019 election campaign. The Labor Party is a party that relies on corporate donors and access to the corporate media to engage voters, not an army of committed grass roots activists working hard in communities to spread the word. When its industrial wing is reduced to door knocking among the toffs of Kooyong, rather than organising its members and countering demagogic attacks from the Right during election time at the point of production, where most workers are union members to boot, then it also becomes much easier for capital to dominate electioneering free of the countervailing power of a vast and mobilised labour movement engaged in communities and workplaces to oppose its self-serving, manipulative, and demagogic propaganda.

The Labor Party has shown signs since the election defeat that it has learnt its lesson and will obediently heed what Adam Smith referred to as the masters of mankind. The newly appointed, the term is used literally, Labor leader Anthony Albanese has signalled as much. Friend, formerly comrade, Albanese has stated that Labor needs to be more business friendly. Friend Albanese has also stated that Labor needs to better connect with what corporate media pundits like to refer as “aspirationals” which is code for financial and real estate market spivs who adhere to what Adam Smith called “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind” namely “all for ourselves and nothing for other people.” Presumably those who are not “aspirationals,” that is people who aren’t looking to make a racket through exploitation and chicanery, are vegetables hamming it up in the age of entitlement. By using the Lathamite expression Albanese signals to the oligarchs that redistribution with social justice at the core will not be Labor’s abiding concern. Friend Albanese further signals to the masters of mankind that Labor has got the message when he says Labor must place “growth” and “jobs” at the centre of its policy platform for both terms are Orwellian terms meaning “profits,” which is of course why the blue rinse set of the Liberal Party is so fond of them too.

The US Embassy is another source of power in Australia that needs its concerns addressed. The Labor Left has historically had a critical attitude toward US imperial power and Australia’s participation in US imperialist interventions abroad, however the Labor Party here too has supported the reassertion of the traditional order in Australia as shown by its support for the new Australian militarism that came with the Howard but which had its antecedents in the Hawke era. At ALP National Conferences friend Albanese has made leftist speeches on foreign policy, calling for Australia, for example, to join the Nuclear Ban Treaty. When the Wikileaks affair broke there were some interesting cables on Labor politics, most especially concerning friend Gillard. Some of those exulted at her no longer having left wing views “sorry, no lefty ALP leaders” the cables relayed back to the imperial masters in Washington. Is the US Embassy cabling to Trump and Bolton that, again, “sorry, no lefty ALP leaders?” One must be careful of speeches at Labor Party conferences. When friend Albanese and friend Doug Cameron hold forth they usually do so to rally the troops in the branches knowing full well they don’t have the numbers to affect policy. What will friend Albanese do on foreign policy? Watch this space closely, for if you see signs of a shift accommodative of imperial power you’ll know the shift toward the right across the policy spectrum will be in play.

We should recall that the new Labor leader comes from the “Socialist Left” wing of the Party. The appointment of Anthony Albanese represents the peak of neoliberalism in Australia. The masters of mankind so dominate Australian politics that we now have a Labor leader from the Left, the first in generations, who appears firmly ensconced in their pockets. The appointment of Albanese completes a long process whereby the Left has progressively accommodated itself to power and made its peace with the neoliberal order. At the 1984 ALP National Conference the delegates of the Left opposed tooth and nail both the neoliberal and pro US, read pro imperial, agenda pursued by the Party establishment led by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating class traitors both. Motion after motion the Left was defeated, and it left the conference floor bloodied and mauled.

The Left responded by gradually accommodating itself to the internal party power structure, first joining the Hawke ministry then the inner sanctums of cabinet when Hawke was supporting further neoliberal attacks despite the severity of the recession of the early 1990s that those very policies created, and now it has reached the pinnacle of power. But the Left is not what it once was. Previously it was a social movement enabling Robert Ray to charge that it had a curious relationship with the Party for it simultaneously was both without the Party and within it. Ray’s broadside was made in criticism of course but it should be viewed as a compliment. It was, both within the Party and the unions, the most significant forces in society opposed to the hierarchies of Australian society.  It was not the most consistent nor in reason the best, but it was the most significant. As the neoliberal era progressed and as the Labor Left increasingly accommodated itself to the neoliberal order the Left became a run of the mill and highly institutionalised party faction, a series of client-patron networks reliant on state funds and union resources to grease the wheels of patronage. It could not therefore become the locus of resistance to neoliberalism in Australia for patrons have clients to the extent that they have power. Instead the Labor Left has become one of the instruments of the neoliberal order, at one point even providing in Lindsay Tanner a “socialist” minister for financial market deregulation.

The appointment of friend Albanese was widely reported as the parliamentary party gathering together to prevent a leadership ballot going to the members out in the branches. Clearly, this was a preventive strike against a Corbyn or Sanders style insurgency gathering steam amongst the membership so therefore a statement saying it should have the prerogative of deciding the Labor leader, an indication of what the caucus would like to do to the Rudd reforms, but also a statement about the need to keep to neoliberal, that is masters of mankind, friendly policies. There is some irony here as under the Rudd rules Albanese ran against Shorten for the Labor leadership after the 2013 election where he won hands-down with the members but the Labor oligarchy rallied in the parliamentary party to ensure a Shorten victory for no greater reason than to prevent a further outbreak of democracy. It didn’t matter that Shorten was an odious dud for whom Australians, wisely, have little affection.

Elections in Australia are pretty much like US presidential style elections decided not by policies so much as by well funded marketing campaigns run by advertising agencies whose MO is turning people into misinformed voters making irrational decisions. That too is a feature of neoliberal society as it is important to erode functioning democracy lest the rabble form dangerous ideas about the right of the masters of mankind to rule. A good way of doing this is to turn an election into an episode of Married at First Sight. The Liberal Party, naturally given the sinking of the Party brand in recent years, concentrated its campaign upon the personality of the leader thus successfully turning the election into a vacuous personality contest. The odious dud was not a match even for the hapless Scott Morrison, but the Labor Party oligarchy stuck with the dud all the same because its privileges come first and they thought they could get away with winning the election despite the evident unpopularity of Tiberius with a mobile.

Commentators have focused on what they regard to be the erosion of support for Labor among working class voters. Evidence for this is Labor failing to win electorally significant seats where working class voters reside, especially in Queensland and western Sydney. Critics charge that this tells us little about which voters voted for Labor and which for the Coalition within those electorates. They argue that the Cooperative Australian Election Survey, of 100000 voters across the three weeks of the campaign, indicates low income Australians voted mostly for Labor. I am not in a position to make a definite judgement on this, but a persistent problem for the Labor Party in the neoliberal era has been a low primary vote and that was a factor on May 18 whatever its social basis.

In 1966 and 1975, when Labor suffered historic landslide defeats, its primary vote was about 40% and 42% respectively. To be sure there weren’t as many minor parties then, you did have of course the DLP that helped to keep Labor out of office for decades, yet the difference with the primary vote today is striking with Labor winning 33% of the vote on May 18. This is partly because the ALP is no longer a mass party based on a working class which is well organised across most Australian workplaces. Previously the ALP relied on union donations for its election campaigns and faced an overwhelmingly hostile corporate media yet still, even in crushing historical defeats no less, it was capable of a 40% primary vote. That’s because it was a movement that was able to address the problem of corporate power through grass roots campaigning. The historic decline of the Labor primary vote began in 1987 and that amongst working class voters. In 1990 Labor relied on a last week preference strategy to win. In 1993 the working class came back given the free market fundamentalist policies of the Liberals. It is the hollowing out of the ALP and its shift to the right, responsible to no small degree for the rise of the Greens, that has seen a secular decline in its primary vote again whatever its social basis might be. The political scientist, Andrew Scott, has long argued that this secular decline is due to the, two way, fading loyalties exhibited by Labor and the working class. It is too early to be firm about what role working class voters played on May 18 itself. The aggregate data, like in the US in 2016, show voters did split on class lines (most low income voters for Clinton most high income for Trump) but enough working class voters in electorally significant places, like in the US, may have flipped on May 18. This could account for defeats in the seats Labor needed to win to gain office. It is not possible to be firm here, but it is something that is worth further careful study and one based on a well supported understanding of class as a concept.

The election loss has also led to much soul searching among the industrial wing of the labour movement. The “Change the Rules” campaign led by the ACTU has clearly failed. This was an attempt to help Labor win the election so that it would change the rules of the industrial relations system when in office. It was hoped the new rules would make it easier for unions to strike and campaign for better wages and working conditions. Here too there’s irony as the current rules were largely crafted by friend Gillard when she tepidly modified the industrial relations changes instituted during the Howard era themselves a continuation of the assault on arbitration and centralised wage fixing waged by the aforementioned class traitors with the assistance of the ACTU who could be relied upon to discipline the working class as the process proceeded.

Labor’s election loss means the ACTU has twice failed to institute significant change to the industrial relations system in ways that provide much greater structural power for labour through electioneering. Remember that when the current ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus, was elected she stated her aim was no less than the end of neoliberalism itself. That first campaign, the “Your Right’s at Work” campaign in response to the Howard Government’s Work Choices legislation did help to elect a Rudd Labor government that took the nasty parts out of the  system but the Gillard laws did not lead to greater structural power for labour in the workplace. Indeed Rudd as Prime Minister distanced himself from the labour movement refusing to attend meetings of the Australian Labor Advisory Council. But most importantly the stagnation of real wages and the attack on penalty rates in recent years has occurred under the backdrop of the Gillard system, and these are two key reasons why “Change the Rules” was instituted in the first place.

The “Your Rights at Work” campaign is widely seen as successful because it assisted in Labor’s 2007 victory, but that is not how the campaign should be judged. Other than upending the harsh measures of Work Choices the campaign has still left Australia’s workers with an industrial relations system stacked against them. That means the Commonwealth of Australia has its resources and its coercive powers stacked against the bulk of the population, the Australian working class no less, and that at the behest of the masters of mankind who use the Commonwealth to stifle the aspirations of Australians who live in a penal colony to the extent that the labour movement is weak and rudderless in the face of global capital.

A good part of the “Change the Rules” campaign was based on the “We Are Union” campaign of the Victorian Trades Hall Council in the 2014 Victorian state election. Then that campaign, which saw union members knocking on doors in marginal electorates explaining to voters the effects of the state Liberal Government’s attacks on working people and emergency services, was novel and in its novelty always had a limited life span. Of course, it was successful, but it was evident, at least to me who participated in it, that the more such campaigns are waged the more voters would come to see the union campaigners as an appendage of the Labor Party.  The “We Are Union” campaign urged voters to put the Liberals last, making no preference between Labor and the Greens, but at the election night party when a Greens MP was elected those gathered treated the fact with indifference. When a Labor MP was elected jubilation. When a Greens candidate defeated a Labor candidate in a two corner race indifference if not booing was the norm, but the other way around jubilation. I’ve always wondered whether I was the only one to notice how this conflicted with the non preferential message the campaign sent to voters and many of its campaigners too.

But there’s a flip side here. The more these electoral campaigns are waged the more workers, including union members themselves, will come to see their unions intrinsically, not just during elections, as appendages of the Labor Party, as instruments in the hands of Labor Party affiliated cadres who have interests often at variance with workers. Should such views become entrenched the result cannot be positive for the labour movement as a whole. Some in the labour movement, such as the Secretary of the National Union of Workers, have roundly criticised such election campaigns as the best way for unions to arrest the neoliberal tide in the interests of a more just and democratic society. The criticisms made by the NUW are spot on, but the suggested remedy isn’t. The NUW is attempting an amalgamation with United Voice to create a bigger union. Yet another amalgamation creating yet another centralised and bureaucratic behemoth is not the correct industrial strategy, because that makes unions more distant and members more passive. What is needed is not a top-down industrial strategy but a bottom-up industrial strategy whereby Australia’s unions are restructured such that they become a federation of unions organised on a workplace-by-workplace and industry-by-industry basis with decision making made on a bottom up democratic and federative basis. That means workers organised together across trades in a workplace which then federate upon an industry wide basis would become the organic unit of the Australian working class. Such a reorganisation of the Australian labour movement would have an obvious democratising effect upon the Labor Party itself, and it is expected that the officials of the union movement and the Labor Party would oppose this vigorously. If there’s one thing the history of neoliberalism in Australia has shown it is that the officials of the labour movement are class collaborationist who prefer their own privileges to the end of the neoliberal order. That means such a reorganisation can only come about after an insurgency conducted by a grass roots rank and file network engaging in class struggle both within and without the labour movement. The officials themselves will not create a grass roots union movement organically developed from below.

When the army of labour so becomes reorganised then we can think of joining battle with the masters of mankind and that at the place where they most fear us. At the very source of their profits.

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