Why the union movement should divorce the ALP
In the United Kingdom, you could hardly say that Labour and its leader Ed Miliband are riding high. Having sat at no more than a 3% lead over the Tories for some months, they’ve now fallen to 1% — well within the margin of error. Nevertheless, even the 1% margin has been enough for the party to believe that it is on track for victory, for one simple reason — and its name is UKIP. The batty UK Independence Party, though lacking a single seat in the House of Commons, has managed to consistently poll 10%, most of it taken from the Tories, and making UKIP a valid fourth party. And in a first-past-the-post system, that could prove disastrous. Given that Miliband has moved the party to the Left from its New Labour nadir while keeping many of the shire votes it needs to win, that’s not nothing.
So there was considerable gnashing of teeth when Left filmmaker Ken Loach made a public call this week for a new Left party to replace Labour, arguing for Left Unity — one of two or three distinct groups floating around to offer this sort of positionality. There’s been no groundswell to turn these groups into parties, and splitting Labour (at the Right end last time) has spelt disaster before. So it would be in the UK — but in Australia, it’s exactly what should be considered. Not a new party, but something more modest, yet possibly more effective — separate candidacies by a progressive trade union list in key seats and the Senate. In this case, it is not the Left that is leaving the party, but the party that is leaving the Left.
The campaign to separate Labor from the unions is in full swing. There is no doubt that the relationship has to be revised, that the union-factions-party connection promotes sclerosis and contentless “microfactions” — really gangs — coalesced around a charismatic figure, or David Feeney. But that is not really the main impetus for the new push for separation, which is being run out of The Australian, in the space between its obsessive and grinding anti-18C and anti-ABC campaigns. The Labor-union separation push is coming from the party’s pro-market forces, who want to wind back such commitment as the Rudd/Gillard government had made, and present the party as little more than a steward of the markets, extending “opportunity” through further neoliberalisation — and caring little, it would seem, about the greater entrenching of every sort of inequality that such a process represents.
They’re a strange mob, Labor’s gung-ho marketistas. They’re led by some, such as Craig Emerson, who have compared Australia unfavourably to the United States, admiring the latter’s dynamism (and unruffled by its huge class of working poor, backwardness and public squalor), and by Michael Costa, who swapped a youthful obsessive Trotskyism for a midlife crisis obsessive Hayekism, both sought out for psychological reasons rather than for a real progressive politics. When Costa’s protege, Cassandra Wilkinson, announced she was signing on with the Centre for Independent Studies for a few months and detailed what a daring move this was, it was — well, as shocking as that time when Michael Stipe came out. Really? You’re joining a right-wing think tank? What a surprise. Next you’ll be saying Paul Howes might be seeking a position in the corporate world.
“The truth is, Labor’s marketeers are symptomatic of a deeper-run process …”
The truth is, Labor’s marketeers are symptomatic of a deeper-run process, whereby the separation of the culture/knowledge producer class from which Labor’s elite comes from the mass groups it purports to represent is now so total that no sympathy runs between them. The public remains far more collective, nationalist, protectionist, and statist than the head members of both major parties — who share a mutual sympathy at the stupidity of their own supporters in rejecting neoliberalism. Their support for market solutions is different from the application of it by Hawke/Keating — even though Keating remains a fetish object for them. They regard the neoliberal market not merely as an efficient form, but as a moralising and disciplinary force, to shape a public that would otherwise become lazy and undynamic, and, you know, want a life or something.
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