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

Every election the Coalition wheels out the same refrain; the Labor Party is dominated by unions. The fact that the Labor Party is not only influenced by trade unions, but was formed by them in the 1890s is not exactly hot off the presses. 

Then as now, the fact remains that class is the touchstone of political discourse and will continue to be so as long as most people’s primary saleable commodity is their labour power.

No political operator can afford to lose touch with an understanding of class, as the Australian Democrats learned, even if it has to be alluded to euphemistically; “working Australians”, “battlers”, “top end of town”, and more recently, “if you have a go you get a go” for the earnest middle class.

For a period after Tony Blair’s victory in Britain in 1997, there was much fanfare around Blair’s ability to secure Britain’s middle class for Labour and make it habitable terrain. There is a fair amount of debate about whether Blair actually captured much of the middle class — nevertheless that political strategy, known as “triangulation”, crept into political folklore and became influential within many social democratic parties.

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That strategy, which amounted in essence to Social Democratic parties taking their working class supporters for granted in order to woo the middle-class, has, in combination with macro-economic changes, seen the traditional working-class base of social democracy erode significantly. With changes to manufacturing, mining, and other industries that were once densely unionised, the informal transmission mechanisms for laborism have gone into a steady state of decline.

While it remains the case that Labor does best in industrial belts where votes are weighed rather than counted, a look at the AEC list of candidates for the 2019 federal election reveals something unimaginable a generation ago. Not only the number of far-right parties scrambling for votes, but the number of workers who once would have been the bedrock of Labor support who are now standing as candidates for formations like Fraser Anning’s party.

Labor’s candidate list is crowded out by professionals. There’s nothing wrong with having a broad base of support and representation, but it’s a question of degree. There are 17 candidates you might describe as workers standing for Labor out of 136 candidates, while Anning’s party has 18 of 70. There’s no doubt that so far as policies go, Labor has the best interests of Australia’s working class at heart, while Anning’s politics is anathema to working-class organising principles — but it feeds into a cynicism that workers are squeezed out politically, just as they are economically.

The optics are not good. The representation of working-class interests through euphemisms, sound bites, and imagery can be dismissed as a war of representation and misrepresentation, that Anning’s supporters are jingoistic nostalgia monsters and political frauds — but Labor’s lack of candidates drawn from the labour movement is a problem.

With manufacturing all but gone, laborism is shrinking to small and isolated pools — almost nostalgic sub-cultures. Labor’s primary vote has eroded dramatically and there’s a danger that the ideas of laborism will diminish then disappear forever with the shrinking industrial sector — the twilight of the industrial idols — and with them a broad and heroic vision. An American vista of industrial decomposition looms.

It’s sometimes stated that Labor has been a victim of its own success, of re-gearing the economy and instituting successful reforms that have facilitated social mobility.

The destruction of manufacturing and economic certainty has certainly occurred, but it’s not clear that the much vaunted dividends from waves of economic reform have arrived — much the opposite. The gap between what was lost and yet to be delivered is a spectre that haunts European politics; giving the politics of hate and chauvinism space to operate in.

If Labor is to meet its political challenges, it needs to face its economic ones. Infrastructure projects loom like a light on the hill, promising jobs, good jobs, and possibly a base upon which to rebuild hope.