Inside Story

What should Labor stand for?

The best way forward for Labor doesn’t fit well with structures inherited from the past, writes Geoff Gallop

Geoff Gallop 4 July 2014 2442 words

A working class party? Mugley/Flickr

In many ways the question of what Labor should stand for is pretty easy to answer. It’s all there in the National Platform. There are the “enduring values,” the “vision for Australia’s future” and, tucked away in chapter 12, our “objectives” and “principles of action” as a “democratic” and “socialist” party. That’s all very well, but I want to dig deeper and see if we can sort out the essential from the peripheral and come up with a definition that continues to work for participants and those who analyse their behaviour.

Although there are differences among Labor members about what all of this means, there is one commitment that shines through, and that is the commitment to the theory and practice of democracy. Labor is a party for democracy – for political rights, for fair elections and for accountability in government. The trade unionists who formed the party saw democracy not just as a means to an end, but also as the best way to resolve conflict in society. It is true that early on they did flirt with the idea of direct democracy but it was the belief in equal representation that won out in the end.

Competing for the hearts and minds of the working class in the twentieth century were the ideas of fascism and communism. These ideas – and the concept of revolution they produced – were never supported by Labor. As Lenin said in 1913, “The Australian Labor Party does not even call itself a socialist party. Actually it is a liberal-bourgeois party, while the so-called Liberals in Australia are really conservatives.” Labor’s leaders, he continued, were “altogether peaceable, purely liberal.”

Those words may not be perfect for the task at hand but you can see why Lenin said such things. Labor’s commitment to electoral politics was a principled rather than a tactical one. The party was willing to compromise not just in the interests of building alliances but also because peaceful existence rested on mutual respect and accommodation. Note too that although Labor objected to monopoly power it didn’t view the capitalist class as a mortal enemy. It was, in other words, reformist or, as the Marxists put it, “revisionist.” It certainly wasn’t revolutionary in organisation or outlook.

This takes us to a question: if Labor is a democratic party, what sort of democracy does it support? Three answers have been given to this question: first, it is a “democratic socialist” party; second, it is “social democratic”; and third, it’s neither of the above, but rather a “Labor” or “working-class” party.

A socialist party?

The National Platform mentions both “democratic socialist” and “social democratic.” I would contend there is a problem with the use of the term “democratic socialist” and it relates to the so-called Blackburn Declaration of 1921, which qualified Labor’s commitment to socialisation. This was a major event in the party’s history and put it on a solid foundation for the future. “Socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange,” we read in the Platform today, is proposed not outright but “to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.”

This is a brilliant resolution of a problem that bedevilled other parties of the democratic left for much of the twentieth century. It provides criteria for assessing the relevance of intervention and by using the term “socialisation” rather than “nationalisation” doesn’t narrow down the debate to the role of the state. And it focuses not just on production but also on distribution and exchange. My only complaint is that it doesn’t make any reference to protecting the environment, but that would be an easy fix.

If you look at Labor’s history and its platform you would be hard-pressed to conclude it was a socialist party. It does believe in what we used to call a mixed economy rather than in a fully privatised or a fully socialised one. Private, public and community-based enterprises have all been supported, a good mix between the three being seen as the best to produce good outcomes from an economic system. Sometimes that has meant bringing enterprises and activities into the public sector and sometimes the reverse through privatisation or contracting arrangements.

Support for competition as opposed to monopoly led some of the first Labor governments to create public enterprises to provide choice for consumers and better working conditions for workers. In the 1970s Gough Whitlam proposed freer trade, as did his successors in the 1980s and early 1990s, but they added to the mix what came to be known as national competition policy.

Nor could it be said that Labor has been a proponent of equality of outcomes. It has always supported fair wages for work performed, and a tax and public expenditure mix that evens things out in the interests of equality of opportunity and social mobility. The approach taken by the philosopher John Rawls is a good, if not perfect, description of what Labor has represented in Australian political economy. All offices and positions, he said, should be open to all – and effectively, not just formally, so. Inequality was justified but only to the extent that it worked to the advantage of the worst-off in society. It’s not a socialist but rather a fair society to which Labor is attracted.

A working-class party?

That leaves us then with “Labor” or “social democracy” to describe the party. Speaking in 2013, Julia Gillard came down strongly for the former. Labor, she said, was just that – a Labor Party rather than a “progressive” or a “moderate” or a “socialist democratic party.” She went on: “I’m a leader of a party called the Labor Party deliberately because that is what we come from. That is what we believe in and that is who we are.” There can be no mistaking the words she used, and the impression she wanted to leave. Labor is a party of and for the working class.

We all know, of course, that the working class is defined by its position in the economic system. Workers – unskilled or skilled, blue collar or white collar – are employed by others who own the means of production. They are employees who work for a wage and there are plenty of them, even though self-employment has gained added traction in our economy and society. It is true that Labor was formed from the movement created by such workers in the late nineteenth century, and they have continued to play a role – directly and indirectly – in the party.

But can we say that this is the beginning and the end of any discussion about what Labor does or should stand for? The working class in Australia takes shape in many ways, industrial, political and cultural. Its politics have largely been democratic but not always progressive, White Australia being an illustration of the latter. Not all unions are affiliated with the party and some have favoured direct action rather than government action as the best way to ensure just outcomes for workers. Labor’s base has also been divided on a range of other things, including national security on the one hand and social, political and environmental policy on the other.

In some ways the idea in play when describing Labor as a working-class party is a pretty simple one. Labor should provide a framework within which this working class in all its manifestations works out a set of policies to take to an election. In other words it should be a party owned by the working class and controlled by the majority view therein.

There is an important difference emerging on the question of how to ensure that control. Traditionally it was to be done through internal democracy guaranteed effective from a working-class point of view through the privileged position of trade unions, or at least a significant number of them, in the party structure. When Labor was a mass membership party and unions carried great influence in the hearts and minds of workers this made a lot of sense. In fact the complex relationship between leaders, unions and members was a constructive one that had its limits but didn’t prevent change.

In more recent times it’s not been internal democracy that holds the key to finding “working-class opinion” but rather scientific polling instituted by parliamentary and party leaders operating relatively free of internal constraint. This is not far from the position that in order for Labor to be truly democratic and working-class its leaders need to be completely free to gauge majority opinion (assumed to be working-class opinion) and then to act accordingly. This is a tendency rather than a settled position, and the unions that are still a force within Labor insist on certain no-go zones when it comes to policy development and implementation.

What it seems to come down to is this: Labor is a party of working-class values as expressed in the marketplace of public opinion and interpreted by the party leadership, but limited in scope by the specific interests of the unions that are affiliated. It’s a long way from the party that Labor once was, but it’s functional as a system of control and accountability in an organisation with few members.

The problem with both of these accounts of Labor as working-class – the traditional one based on a genuine and vigorous form of internal democracy, and the more recent one based on negotiated outcomes within a top-heavy political class – is that the working class doesn’t exist in a vacuum and nor is its future immune from technological and social change, be it global or local.

It’s certainly less of a problem to describe the party in this way if your framework is the traditional model of working-class politics. However, even then it is an issue. There are – and always have been – many differences within the working class, some easy to resolve, some not so easy. Nor does the working class exist in isolation but rather in an economy and society alongside others with whom it needs to determine and construct its relationships. Like other classes in our society it needs leadership – and hopefully that leadership will not just project the party’s interests today but also urge it to think ahead and plan for tomorrow.

That, I believe, is the way Hawke and Keating saw their task – not to mirror working-class opinion but rather to engage it around a national narrative that showed an understanding of working-class needs but also challenged workers and their unions to accept change.

A social democratic party?

It seems to me that Labor has always worked best when it’s been more than just the sum of its parts. It is – but it is not just – an organisation for workers and their unions. It is also, importantly, a party that can “think big” about minorities as well as majorities, about the environment as well as the economy and about the future as well as the present.

Indeed it’s been a good thing that the structure of the party was such that intellectuals, the self-employed, small business people, professionals and the well-intentioned wealthy were given the chance to influence its development. Indeed, they were part of the dynamic that helped push Labor into new areas of policy and also into thinking more broadly than its working-class base might allow. Importantly, as well, they added to and complemented a bohemian and libertarian element that existed in parts of the working class.

How, then, do we bring this together? Labor is clearly for democracy and equal representation. Sometimes radical but sometimes conservative, it has been influenced by socialism but isn’t socialist. It’s strongly influenced by the working class but isn’t just a working-class party. It’s connected to unions but not all unions are affiliated. There have been libertarian, socialist, environmental and communitarian influences on the development of the Platform but none of them on their own describes what the party has represented in Australian history. I’m led, therefore, to favour social democracy as the preferred description – a party of democracy that brings the social question to the table, and more recently the environmental one as well.

Reform implications

I’m left with a problem. The preferred description I have given for Labor doesn’t fit well with the structures inherited from the past. Indeed the party’s organisational structure is out of tune – and radically so – with the world in which it seeks support. In a party with many members and strongly supported unions social democracy was well-placed to succeed against other tendencies, and not just in the working class. Labor could produce personnel and craft policies that attracted majorities at the local, state and national levels of government. In a sense, Labor was a mini political and democratic system working within the larger system that was Australian democracy.

Today the working class still exists and needs support in the interests of fairness, but it is a different beast which both the party and trade unions find harder to engage. In fact the task of engagement has become more complicated all round and throughout the community. Both Labor and unions need more democracy, not less, if they are to attract not just workers and their families but also others in our society. Today this has to mean party structures that put members on an equal base and that create new community-based methods of preselection. In such a world Labor’s distinctive policy platform should be viewed as the basis for attracting members, not as an inconvenience to be discarded when it suits. It is true that specific powerful interests may lose out in this process but they will not include, I would contend, the working class or social democracy and the ideas it favours. The reason for that is simple – they are good ideas and we should be confident of their capacity to win over a majority. •