Whether by coincidence or collusion, two broadsheets yesterday offered competing op-ed interpretations of Kevin Rudd as a Blairite.
Christopher Scanlon in The Age told us that “Kevin Rudd’s rise has followed a similar trajectory to that of Blair”, while David Burchell in The Australian also pointed to the Blair analogy, outlining Rudd’s goal of “a modern, forward-looking Labor Party, committed to tackling new social problems with new policy instruments”.
But neither of them mentioned Mark Latham, who was the first to try to introduce Blairite or “Third Way” thinking to the ALP.
Latham’s model of the third way was basically libertarian: in place of the traditional right (deregulate economics but regulate social life) and traditional left (same, but the other way around), he suggested trying to deregulate both.
For Scanlon, that’s utter heresy; he’s committed to traditional left-wing economics, so the fact that Blair’s “Third Way bore a striking resemblance to Thatcherite policies” is enough to discredit it. But Blair himself, with his claim to be a “Gladstonian liberal”, obviously saw things differently.
Unlike Latham, Rudd is temperamentally a conservative, and there were conservative elements in Blair’s vision as well. New Labour was fixated on social control, and Scanlon is right to see similar dangers from Rudd: “The constant resort to ethical language may yet turn out to offer no more than the micro-management of poor and vulnerable people’s lives.”
Although it was Latham who vowed to “launch world war III” on Labor’s factions, in some ways he was more representative and respectful of Labor’s traditions than Rudd is – or than Blair was in Britain. It was these cultural reasons, and not just economics, that (as Burchell says) made Blairism “deeply, viscerally unpopular among Labour’s rank and file”.
The Blairite project came to grief, of course, with the Iraq war, alienating traditional left and Gladstonian liberals alike – the tragic error that doomed Blair’s reputation.
It’s a mistake Latham never would have made, but can we be so sure about Rudd?