Once again, we have another crop of Labor books. Are they all introspection, or does something good come from them?

In The Weekend Australian on Saturday, Mike Steketee leapt on one, Coming to the Party, edited by Barry Jones:

Its pungent criticisms are signs of a party that has spent a long time in Opposition and increasingly is turning inwards. They are reminiscent of a book about the Liberals, written in 1994, after the federal Coalition’s fifth straight election loss, Is the Party Over?. Just about, concluded author and former senator Chris Puplick, with the Liberals “eaten from the inside, insidiously, by the corrosive salt of conservatism”.

Two years later it was in government and 12 years later Labor is lining up for its fifth tilt at office from Opposition. Jones points out that Labor, too, has shown a remarkable capacity for regeneration, most recently when it won in 1983, just over seven years after the landslide defeat of the Whitlam Government…

Why do Labor figures forget how down and out the Liberal Party was in 1993? Isn’t the party supposed to know its history? Earlier this week, in the Canberra Times, Norman Abjorensen had another lesson from the past:

Governments die in many ways. They get old, tired and vitiated, lacking in energy and ideas, as did the McMahon government back in the early 1970s. Or people simply get sick of their incompetence (Whitlam 1975), their squabbling (Fraser 1983) or their arrogance (Keating 1996).

But there’s another, though less common, way and this is over-reach. A government, seemingly entrenched with a solid majority, may be tempted to go beyond what is electorally palatable either to satisfy an ideological imperative or to reward hard-core supporters…

He was referring to Chifley and the nationalisation of the banks, but the parallel with WorkChoices is irresistible.

The immutable truth in Australian politics is that oppositions don’t win elections, but governments lose them. That means young Turks should never despair. Instead, they should always have some plans, just in case they end up in power.

That’s what makes Reconnecting Labor, by Melbourne Labor veteran Barry Donovan (Scribe Books, $30.00), interesting. He talks to the usual veteran suspects, but also highlights up-and-comers like shadow immigration minister Tony Burke and NSW heavy Mark Arbib .

The launch of the book yesterday promised little – a couple of dozen true believers and a sprinkling of wrinklies with nothing better to do. Then Julia Gillard spoke. “If sharks don’t swim, they die,” she said. “Progressive political parties are naturally restive.”

Labor doesn’t need introspection. It needs to keep going. It needs to hold the show together until it can win. Trust to a few basic instincts. Like a shark. One day the big fish you’re trailing will get slow.

Peter Fray

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