By Ben Aveling
This is an edited version of an article originally published in The Southern Highland ALP Branch Newsletter as “Current Crisis is Whether Party Should Stand for Anything At All”
The Party has suffered schism before: over conscription during the First World War, economic policy during the Great Depression, over communism and Catholicism during the 1950s. After every previous schism the Party had to reinvent itself before it could recover.
Our current crisis is different. The division is not over what the Party should stand for but whether the Party should stand for anything at all. We have beliefs but they do not unify us. The dominant common factor is desire for personal greatness.
There is no fracture within the nomenklatura: our parliamentary parties, administrative wings and factional bosses, the Labor subset of the Political Class. The desires of the nomenklatura are modest, they simply wish to be on the popular side of every issue. The fracture is between that position and the membership’s desire to see their own interests advanced – a little economic security, a degree of personal freedom, and a sense that society should, where possible, be fair.
The Editor of the Highland Newsletter has observed in his book and in those pages that the Party has allowed the nomenklatura to “become spaceships that roam the galaxies with minimal connection to the Party below.” Detachment from the ‘out of touch’ membership has freed the Party to take the right (popular) position on every issue, to act in the interests of all, and to thus win the support of the whole electorate.
Except it hasn’t worked out that way.
The Party, under the control of the nomenklatura, lacks the ability to judge which position on an issue will be popular. It shows no ability to change positions gracefully, no ability to claim credit for success, no ability to avoid being blamed for failure. We are seen not just as a poor government but as an illegitimate one.
This is not misfortune. This is the direct result of the Party’s strategy.
The membership’s ability to direct the Party was broken, supposedly, so that the Party could better align with the interests of the wider electorate. In reality, it was done in order to align the Party with the interests of the nomenklatura. In the internal battles for power, power could be taken from another faction, or from the membership. The membership trusted their leaders, they did not fight back, the result was inevitable. Members became irrelevant.
You may recall the Editor’s observation that Labor in the 1890s ended the prevailing structure of a parliament of grandees anointed by the powerful interests of their time. In the 2000s Labor largely killed off its own membership so as to recreate a Party of grandees. The grandees of the 1890s represented powerful interests and were both supported by those interests and constrained and guided by them.
Our grandees of 2012 represent no particular power base except the power that comes from being in government. Like a spaceship, they have no external support, no external constraints, no traction, inertia but not direction, and no external feedback.
Our nomenklatura have little to no “real world” experience. Too many have never worked anywhere else, are from political dynasties, and lack social peers outside the nomenklatura. They hear nothing that challenges their existing views. They mistake recycled prejudice for universally accepted wisdom. With no external contact, losing touch becomes inevitable.
The membership may have been an irritant and a constraint but they were the connection between the Party and the public. Focus groups, polling and unquestioned self-belief are no substitute for lived experience.
In pursuit of breadth of appeal, we have lost depth.
Our cosmonauts cannot persuade the public because they do not understand the public. For the spaceship model to work our apparatchiks would have to have an unwavering focus on the electorate. Instead, they spend their time on factional games – trying to strengthen their own coterie and their own position therein.
Both factions have always had subfactions, but they used to have unifying beliefs. That changed with the “great accommodation”, the agreement that the Left and Right would stop fighting each other, the better to fight amongst themselves.
The great struggle between factions for ideological dominance is over – the nomenklatura will not own an unpopular position and the popular positions are already taken by those who popularised them. Only the lesser struggle continues – individuals seeking power for the sake of power. Our horizons have shrunk.
Perhaps one day, power will be so consolidated that it is secure from internal threat, and the focus will shift from internecine struggle to the concerns of the electorate, and a glorious future awaits. Perhaps not.
I blame Whitlam, Hawke and Keating – for their successes.
Before Whitlam, our leaders were the ‘cream of the working class’ – where working class meant blue collar. After Whitlam, those people started going to university, which was good for them, but it dried up the supply of factory floor trained leaders. Union leadership and Party leadership became professionalised. And while we had a mix of old-style and new-style leaders, this was probably a good thing, the best of both worlds. But now we are dominated by professional leaders, people who know everything about how the game is played and nothing about why the game is played.
Before Hawke and Keating, class war was visible. Here too, we have had a great accommodation. The Labor movement won and lost the last of the great battles – safe workplaces, reasonable hours, equal opportunity, and so on, these things are now (in theory) guaranteed by the government. And protectionism, the closed shop, jobs for life – these battles have been lost.
We still have battles between capital and labour, but it is one on one – you only see it when it involves you – the unions are, in most industries, irrelevant in the here and now.
There are new big issues but they are not the issues our leadership signed up to fight. The ideological battlelines having moved, our forces are not cleanly on one side or the other. When we lost the will for fighting over ideological issues internally, we lost the ability to fight over ideological issues externally, and this may be why the spaceships were allowed to launch – without something to fight over, the membership stopped caring who won.
If power could be decentralised, returned to the branches, then attention would necessarily be turned outwards. But the factions will not willingly surrender power. To happen from inside the nomenklatura would require a Gorbachev. To happen from outside the nomenklatura would require someone or, more likely, a team or network of people prepared to build a new faction or sub-faction to win over branches and electoral councils, to form a third force at conferences, to take the balance of power, to end indifference to the will of the membership, to rebuild our ability to fight for what is right but unpopular.
The question is, do the membership care enough? Membership passivity allowed the spaceships to launch. The membership mostly hate the current direction but tend to blame the other faction, or they walk away. Technically, members have the power to change the Party, but they don’t know it. They don’t see that the people they elect at branch level are a link in a long chain, that their choice of delegate to electorate council can influence who their electorate council sends to conference.
The membership might be prepared to participate in a revolt. But only if someone else will organise it.