Does the Labor Party need to adopt a more conservative policy approach to win over Australian voters? Professor John Quiggin reports.
LABOR'S NARROW but unexpected defeat in the May Election has resulted in widespread calls for the party to abandon a variety of progressive positions and shift to the political Centre. As Peter Brent points out, there is nothing unusual here. Something similar happens every time Labor does worse than expected in an election.
What is a little different this time around is the attempt to give this push some theoretical credibility, drawing on the “Blue Labour” ideas put forward in the UK by Maurice Glasman and others. Although Glasman’s appeal in the UK has largely been eclipsed by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, they have been imported to Australia by Nick Dyrenfurth of the John Curtin Research Centre and David Furse-Roberts of the Australian Centre of Christianity and Culture.
In the UK context, blue is the colour associated with the Conservative Party and much of what Glasman proposes is the adoption by Labour of conservative ideas and views. The main feature of Glasman’s model that distinguishes it from old-fashioned Toryism is an appeal to traditions of Guild socialism and locally-based co-operatives which played a major role in the British Labour movement before 1945 and retain significant appeal, even today. Australia has no comparable tradition.
Furse-Roberts recognises this, though he doesn’t see it as a problem. His essay is full of phrases like, ‘To Liberals and other conservatives in Australia, this sounds very familiar’ and ‘in common with the Australian centre-Right’. He repeatedly cites Menzies as an inspiration
The obvious question, not answered by either Furse-Roberts or Dyrenfurth, is: given that we already have a government with a long-established commitment to conservative policies, why would anyone vote for an essentially identical platform put forward on grounds of expediency rather than conviction?
The answer offered by Dyrenfurth and Furse-Roberts is that Labor’s traditional voters back such policies and that the only way to win them back is to adopt them. The suggestion that traditional Labor voters might support traditional Labor policies of income redistribution and social progress is not even considered.
At its core, the “Blue Labor” model is one of identity politics. The central idea is that Labor is the natural recipient of the votes of the working class, defined as (implicitly male) manual workers, not because of policy differences with its opponents but because of cultural affinity, mirrored by antagonism to the silver tails and elites whom those opponents represent. Indeed, any policy difference with the conservatives on either social or economic issues is dangerous, since it may alienate working-class voters.
In crude political terms, the big problem with this view is that manual workers are no longer numerous enough to provide Labor with a majority. The three blue-collar occupations in the standard ABS classification (technicians, machinery operators and labourers) together accounted for 29% of the workforce in the 2016 Census, less than Labor’s miserable first preference vote in 2019.
And as Peter Brent has pointed out, even in the pre-Whitlam days when manual workers were in the majority, Labor rarely won enough of their votes to win federal elections.
Today, the largest single group of workers in the standard ABS classification are the professionals, routinely stereotyped by Blue Labor advocates as out of touch with “real Australians”. Professionals constituted 22.2% of the workforce in 2016. Other white-collar employees (community and personal services, clerical and administrative and sales) accounted for 35%.
Contrary to the lazy equation of blue-collar workers with the working class as a whole, a large proportion of low-wage jobs are in sectors such as retail, hospitality and routine clerical work. Even among professional and semi-professional workers in sectors such as health and education, wages and working conditions are under continuous pressure.
At this point, it’s worth observing that, in terms of economic self-interest, Labor’s policies favour the interests of low-income workers over those of well-off professionals. Given the vitriol directed by Blue Labor against the latter group, one might suppose that at least this aspect of policy would gain their approval. On the contrary, it is claimed that blue-collar workers are “aspirational” and therefore oppose class warfare and redistributive policies.
An even bigger problem with adopting the UK Blue Labour model relates to migration. The UK version is straightforwardly anti-immigration. Maurice Glasman has called for a freeze on migration and cosied up to the racist English Defence League.
In the UK context, such a stance, however repugnant, has a certain political logic. Less than 14% of the UK population is foreign-born, so appeals to anti-immigrant prejudice can work. But the 28.5% of Australians who are foreign-born outweigh the 10% or so willing to vote for Pauline Hanson.
To sum up, the view that Labor has abandoned a traditional base of socially conservative, religious, economically aspirational, manual workers in favour of an out-of-touch inner-city elite is the opposite of the truth. The best thing Blue Labor and similar groups could do to promote a more inclusive style of politics is to stop deriding and caricaturing the majority of ordinary Australians who don’t fit their outdated stereotypes.
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