federal election 2019 labor
Bill Shorten at the 2018 Labor Party National Conference (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Nobody knows anything.
— William Goldman, on Hollywood

Well, May Day and the first bite of autumn, and here we are in the middle — is it the middle — of this scattered, unfocused slogathon. Your correspondent returned from the UK just as it began, revved up on Brexit and the gilets jaunes, ready to keep the adrenaline flowing and… this? Where’s the energy?

There’s one reason and one reason only for that lack of pace — Labor has adopted a hybrid “big ticket”/small target strategy, in the belief that Australians are wary of grand schemes, and that highfalutin ideas provide a big target for Newscorpse to shamble towards. The Coalition is not going to propose any grand schema, so in the absence of such, Labor’s unwillingness to propose a grand theme has created a political vacuum — one in which a debate between two future prime ministers gains less than a quarter million viewers.

When last week I suggested that Labor’s approach was big ticket/small target, I was howled at by loyalists, aggrieved that our Bill was being done over etc., and proposing that positions on renewables, childcare etc. were the big picture we had been looking for.

No, they’re not. Big ticket is not big picture. That’s precisely the danger. Without an integrated vision, the proposals Labor is piling up look like a dizzying spendathon, paid for by some heavy (albeit wholly justified) tax takes. I dunno about other people on this campaign — possibly they’re too busy trawling Van Badham’s timeline — but what I hear is a wariness, an uncertainty about a lot of this stuff, about fast transitions to electric cars, about a sudden rush to renewables.

I don’t think that’s just a News Corp beat up. I think it is a deep-seated caution asserting itself in a broad middle-working class, who see Labor proposing big changes to the texture of everyday life — a proposal not to change the system, but the lifeworld — while at the same time attacking the Greens for being “out of touch” with ordinary Australians.

The trouble with this feint is that most members of the Labor elite are now so isolated from everyday life that they cannot recognise that their basic orientation is now technocratic, system-prioritising, cutting against the grain of contemporary Australian life — which, for all our bluster, is anxious, family-centred and socially atomised. In other words, Labor is simply allowing a rerun of 1996: allowing the Liberals to present themselves as the party of the intimate, the familiar, the worth-holding-onto, and Labor as the party on the side of system processes which construct the everyday life of the populace as an object to be reshaped.

The cruel factor in this is that Labor already solved this problem once, in 2007, with the Kevin ’07 campaign. Or rather Kevin Rudd solved it, bringing to Labor all the techniques of bold vision, populism, attack, and mythmaking that a student of Mao’s career was likely to have. Rudd’s subsequent troubles as a PM has made Labor wary of such — and obscures the fact that Labor hadn’t moved on one iota from its 1996 failure until Rudd came along.

Now look, that said, that may all be wrong. Whatever Newspoll is saying, William Bowe’s poll aggregator has Labor with a strong lead. And the big ticket/small target strategy may be tailored to this or that bit of this or that clutch of seats Labor’s aiming at. But can such a hybrid strategy be maintained? For the paradox is that what Labor is proposing is as radical as anything it has offered in its history — the state as an enabling agent on the different fronts of life, from energy to childcare — and leans towards historical transformation.

In our era, such proposals are at the outer edge of post-capitalism, looking to a time when state, community and market relations will exist in a fundamentally different ensemble to the way they do now. You wouldn’t want to exaggerate this — the childcare proposals still funnel this stuff through the private sector — but for more than 30 years (with the Rudd interregnum) Labor has been a left neoliberal party, abandoning whole sections of the working population that it purported to represent.

The question for Labor, as it heads towards the final weeks and the campaign “launch”, is whether the deliberate omission of a big picture creates a vacuum — which raises the question of whether the party has not merely the ability, but the desire to lead.

If you are pitching for the big job in an atomised society, you better either conform to that deep privacy of experience — prosper in the belly of the McMansion — or you better offer us a way of transcending it, to rise higher than we are, to be the better society, the desire for which lives in our hearts. To be honest, given the quasi-totalitarian nature of the major media we have now — Newscorp may be psychotically partisan, but Nine and Seven are clearly right-wing outfits — I don’t see any alternative but to summon up forces that can surround and encompass the media system.

The wonks may say I’m wrong but the point is, well, nobody knows anything and as a progressive I’d rather win or lose for the bold vision than for a list of line items. If May Day is not a time to be bold, when is? Fought to a loss or draw the way we’re going, it will be a bleak winter indeed.

Do you think Labor is avoiding the big picture? Write to [email protected] with your full name and let us know.