Is the Labor Party dying?

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The Labor Party may be going the same way as Barcaldine's totemic Tree of Knowledge, says Matt Williams.

Like their revered Tree of Knowledge before them, the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party seems to be slowly withering away, marching solemnly towards a grim death.

Unlike the tree, however, we can be fairly certain that their current predicament wasn’t caused by some rowdy Young Liberals with a bottle of RoundUp weedkiller. Instead, the party has faced almost two decades where its core voter base, workers – or to be more specific, blue collar, unionised, workers – has been shrinking and in response the party has begun to go through a painful metamorphosis. But the process has been cut short and the chrysalis torn open too soon. So instead of finding a beautiful butterfly inside, we’ve found some sort of horrific half-caterpillar, half-butterfly creature, completely confused, unsure of what it’s even meant to be anymore.

The current structural and ideological mess the ALP is in can be traced back to one root cause — the decline of unionised employees in the workforce. In the late 70s, Labor Party apparatchiks began to become aware of the future problems regarding the declining unionisation that the party would be faced with over the next 30 years and it was decided that the party would need to become more than a “single issue” party; more than just a “worker’s party”. It would need to adopt socialist social policies, attract the “young, idealist, tertiary-educated” voter. This move sowed the seeds of deep division between the already existent left and right factions of the Labor caucus and would eventually see the Labor Party become a “slave” to two distinct and disparate “masters”.

Without over-generalising, the adoption of left-leaning social policies such as multiculturalism, indigenous equality, equal pay for equal work and environmentalism essentially fractured the Labor Party’s support base into two distinct groups. The first was the “original” Labor voter — a working/lower-middle class (not necessarily union member) Australian, whose key concerns were economic stability, jobs growth, workplace conditions and border security. The second group was a socially active group, whose key concerns were environmentalism, equality and human rights. Neither group held the other’s key objectives in very high regard, but neither was, as a general rule, willing to openly criticise the other’s point of view.

Whilst Kevin Rudd’s resounding election success in 2007 was a “win” for all Labor Party voters and supporters, it was an especially sweet success for the “socially-active” voter base, with Rudd’s championing of social causes, such as his promise to apologise to the Stolen Generations – something for which most of the community had been calling for nearly a decade – his support for an Emissions Trading Scheme and his use of a ground-up, social media driven, socially-active election campaign. The “traditional” Labor voters didn’t go without though, with the removal of Howard’s reprehensible WorkChoices legislations a means of placating them.

Unfortunately for Rudd – and for the party in general – the high expectations placed on him were to be a key part in his undoing, though we must also take into account here the power-hungriness of certain “faceless men”. When he was unable to get anything done regarding his much touted Emissions Trading Scheme, he abandoned it all together. It would appear to some as if he was no longer listening to the group that saw itself as responsible for bringing him to power. In response, the “socially active” voter group’s opinion of the Rudd Government began to sour. At the same time, the “traditional” voter group saw the whole debacle as a waste of time and money spent “pandering” to “inner-city, latte-sipping intellectuals” and they also began to sour.

The party thought replacing Rudd with Gillard would placate both groups within its voter base, however hindsight shows that instead it has been a colossal mistake. The whole party lurched right under Gillard, with many in the socially-active group unhappy with her stance against marriage equality and unsure about whether they could trust someone that the right-faction had bullied into power. The traditional group has also not come around to Gillard, unable to see past the word “tax”.

At the 2010 election, the Labor Party suffered a swing against it of 5.40 per cent. Is it any surprise that the Australian Greens gained 3.97 per cent?

The Labor Party needs to work out what it is and what it stands for soon. Very soon. It needs to either abandon the socially-active group, essentially giving those votes to the Australian Greens and become a single-purpose worker’s party again – a move which would probably mean they’d be unable to form a majority government for a good 2 decades at least, if ever again – or it needs to work out how to balance fiscal responsibility with social progression, whilst moving closer to the ideological centre, in order to try to attract centre-right voters who have been left feeling betrayed by the Liberal-National Coalition, which seems hell-bent on continuing its march towards the far right of the ideological spectrum.

However, if things continue going the way they seem to be going now, with the party torn down the middle on issues such as the offshore processing of asylum seekers, the best way to tackle climate change, marriage equality and fiscal policy in general, the schism might become too wide to bridge.

(Follow Matt Williams on Twitter @mjwill90.)

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