Good-oh, we’re talking about the Labor Party again. “Leave the poor old Labor party alone,” said Bob Carr, as the latest contribution to the “what’s wrong with Labor” discussion was revived by pre-publicity for Lindsay Tanner’s forthcoming collection of essays. Yes, why indeed would we want to discuss the fate, direction and composition of a party that, five years ago, after a decade of solid defeat and confusion, controlled practically all the governments of Australia, and is now on track to control next to none of them.

Nothing to say about a party that alone of all the OECD governments in the world managed to avoid recession, yet has not been able to claim such success, or reap any benefit from it. Nothing to say about a party so devoid of a guiding idea in the 21st century that its heart is a vacuum, to be filled by leaders with ideas aplenty — Rudd, Latham — but lacking crucial and basic leadership qualities, or by the dutiful sons of past Labor grandees, or by the current incumbent — a decent enough and somewhat unfairly maligned person who nevertheless lacks the ability to set an agenda. Yep, nothing to see here.

To some degree, one can sympathise with Carr. No one knows what’s in Tanner’s essay, but it has been accompanied by the ritual breast-beating of “Labor doesn’t stand for anything anymore in my day we wore spats etc etc”. Maybe such breast-beating has been exaggerated in the telling, as the easiest way of getting a (tired) media reaction, but it’s never very helpful. Labor does stand for something at the moment, but what it stands for is an explicitly minimal programme, of leaving the central process of Australian society and culture unquestioned, while introducing piecemeal reforms which cut with the grain of a giddily prosperous society.

Faced with a country where everyday life has become highly individualised and atomised, where the lower middle/working class has been fractured between winners and losers, lacking a campaigning left-liberal media voice, and faced with a virulently antagonistic right-wing one in the Murdoch press, it is trying to introduce worthy reforms — such as the recent aged care package — without scaring swing voters who think they own a million-dollar house (that the bank owns) with the spectre of new taxes.

Much of the urging about Labor’s “lost soul” is pure nostalgia for an era of class politics in which the material facts of life — industrial work, close neighbourhoods, localism, limited media, etc — created a substructure in which a collectivist working/middle class politics was possible. Cynara, that is gone, gone with the wind, and Labor’s current tactics are a recognition of this, and not the worst way to deal with changed circumstances.

But nor are they the best way. Defeat is tactics without strategy, to quote Sun Tzu (Cabramatta branch), and Labor’s failure — failure over nearly two decades now, since the defeat of 1996 — to ask what a Labor Party is for, in an era when shelter, food, healthcare and “frugal comfort” has been more than achieved. The Hawke-Keating era had a defined mission, one for better or worse compared to other ways of modernising a backward economy. But in comparison to what Labor now faces, it was an easy one: render the economy competitive without submitting the population to the brutalities of the Thatcher-Reagan way of doing it.

What Labor must now do is far more difficult, and it’s doing it badly. Having accepted that part of its mission has been achieved for the vast majority of people, it has now decided that its principal role is to consolidate and protect prosperity by being the party of national economic management — and little more. In other words it has elevated a necessary, but not sufficient condition of a social democratic party to be its sole role, and to present itself, in competition with the Coalition, as the party that will manage that more fairly, more in tune with fairness and equality.

But that message has become drowned out by the determination of figures in Labor to emphasise the macroeconomic and nationalist economic management to the exclusion of all else. Indeed there is an almost macho determination on the part of figures such as Craig Emerson and Martin Ferguson to portray any focus on anything other than macroeconomic issues, relentless growth etc, as something vaguely wimpy and fey. Some of Labor’s key figures have got to the point that Keating got to after the 1993 victory, when the effects of economic restructuring were still affecting people’s lives, and laying waste to older, industrial ways of life. “What are people complaining about?” he asked, the decimation of unquestionably unsustainable manufacturing industries looking a lot different from Canberra than it did from St Albans or Liverpool.

Today, Labor displays the same irritation with its own constituency. We’re working hard, in difficult global circumstances, to create an economy that’s fiscally responsible, but does not suffer from the disastrous underinvestment of the Howard-Costello years, the buying of a good bottom line by selling out the future. That’s not easy, they implicitly whine. Why aren’t people more grateful?

The easy answer to that is not merely that Labor’s macro and national emphasis is so hopelessly abstract for many people to comprehend, it also, in many cases, accords very little with the feeling of everyday life. The growth-club booster squads in Labor, the Murdoch press, etc, have spent years trying to drive out of the mainstream of political discussion any notion that we could talk about anything other than quantitative growth as a worthy goal of human activity. The inevitable result of that is that a party founded on notions of collective advancement, and a wider notion of the good life, must compete with a party which has always celebrated individual advancement and self-interest, on that party’s own turf.

Of course Labor is going to be on the back foot in such circumstances. On such a trajectory, it eventually becomes no more than an ersatz version of the Liberal Party. So why would people not support the real thing, rather than the imitation?Some people associated with Labor have recognised this dilemma, but the only one who has provided something of an answer, or a policy solution, is Tim Soutphommasane, arguing that Labor should adopt a philosophy of “progressive patriotism” as a collective philosophy, with a substantially centre-right economics. Soutphommasane’s argument is that a progressive and intentional patriotism — which includes things such as a commitment to multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, rather than given ethnicities and rigid traditions — could be a distinctive differentiator for Labor.

Politically though, that hardly solves the problem that Labor encountered during the Keating years, of being identified with a cosmopolitan elite cultural politics together with a globalising economics, both imposed from above, and neither necessarily welcomed. The idea, which was also promoted by people such as Prospect magazine’s David Goodhart in the mid 2000s, was tried for a while by Gordon Brown in a rather pathetic episode that most people would prefer to forget.

The “progressive patriot” fix is a response derived from a failure to understand exactly how fast society is changing, and in what manner. Labor has long since kicked the political correctness/social engineering image, and “progressive patriotism” — a nakedly managerialist and bloodless idea of human connection and meaning –would actually make things worse. Labor is not in trouble because of a failure on the macro issues, it is failing because it has failed to put forth a more comprehensive idea of the good life, of how things could be qualitatively better for the mass of people.

The politics of everyday life, in the period of class politics, was about satisfying the basic and immediate material needs; in an era when hunger, homelessness and disease were ever-present to many, and a source of precariousness and potential disaster in most lives. But in dealing with that the first time round, the left and labour movements had to fight not only oppressive powers, but also a deep sense amongst many of its constituents that the conditions of their life were not social and political circumstances that could be changed, but were instead natural and inevitable features of life.

From the eight-hour day to universal health care to a hundred other things, left and labour activists had to persuade many of their constituents that such things were not inevitable and given, but contingent and changeable. The role of parties such as Labor is to expand the domain of the political, and then pose the question as to what would be the best way to arrange things to satisfy these new political questions.

Labor will only become a living party again when it can draw a new set of given conditions of life into the political and then provide answers to them. Such new questions now centre not around hunger and cold, but matters such as time, space and texture and quality of life. The growth boosters are so desperate to point out how much income has grown in the past 50 years, and how limited and frugal life was in many respects that they have failed to notice that, for many, life has become more not less difficult, more squeezed in the middle.

The house may contain a plasma screen and a lot more, but it costs two wages not one to pay off its towering mortgage. It may have a garden and two cars in the drive, but the commute adds one to two hours to the working day, and is unpaid. Work and higher education has been expanded to whole areas of the population — women being the largest group — but so too has debt and time-starvation, locking people into a work machine. By common consent, family and child-raising is at the centre of human meaning, yet paid parental leave is so pitifully inadequate that many people feel they are missing out on whole swathes of that experience.

What’s weird is that most people I know in Australia, across all classes, feel this squeeze to some degree, feel it as a denial of a better life, and see no individual way out of it. This surely is the sort of thing that Labor should be getting interested in; in posing the question as to how we should live, and whether a one-dimensional growth model of society is the best way to live. It is the natural extension of Labor’s original mission, and one that poses questions about social life that Labor is better equipped to answer — and the Liberals uniquely not.

It is an existential issue that connects to questions of equality, because the rich always have the opportunity to buy themselves free time and space, stay debt-free etc. It has a visceral quality, concerned with how people love now, in their one life on earth, rather than the driven boosterism of the future schools and broadband networks (which Labor often overemphasises).

Whether there is any urge within Labor to make this imaginative leap seems highly unlikely, and the apparatchiks that Tanner rightly decries have no intention of letting the party have a wider conversation about what its aims should be. But over the next five to 10 years it may be forced to by sheer desperation. Either the party takes a more imaginative road, or it will become a permanent second major party, ceding social leadership to the grisly vision of social conservatism and free market economics.

So yes, maybe just maybe we should be talking about the “poor old Labor party” again.