The dominant narrative of the election emerging in the mainstream media is not a surprising one. Labor went too far left, played up to the values of a politics-media bubble, and did not register that large sections of the broader public were not with them.
The only answer, say numerous critics, is for the party to return to the centre, and fight from there.
That myth seemed to me to be exploded by Corbyn Labour in the UK in 2017, which gained 40% of the vote, after a 2015 result in which the party under Ed Miliband had managed only 30%, with a mildly-leftist shifted agenda. There are multiple other factors of course — Brexit, voluntary voting — but the idea that a defeat necessarily means a party has swung too far from the centre needs to be interrogated.
That said, one looks uneasily at the right’s insistent carry-on after Turnbull deposed Abbott — that the party came close to loss for not being conservative enough — and can’t help but wonder if one is trapped in a symmetrical delusion, which wouldn’t be the first time for the left.
Could Labor have won this by offering a “steady state” politics — no new taxes but no tax cuts either, no bold programs but improvements to existing ones? Quite probably, as Shorten and Bowen could then have presented themselves as the adults, that mythical Australian political creature, and let the Tories come apart week by week.
But quite aside from the possibility of looking like Liberal-lite — and risking a rebellion within the party — that would have meant that Labor left ground exposed to its left to be occupied by the Greens. Contrary to the predictions and hopes of most pundits, the Greens had a good election, retaining their senate numbers and increasing their primary. Had Labor gone centrist/rightist, that would have opened up further, especially in Victoria.
The dilemmas facing Labor are manifold but they come down to one big issue for which they have been partly responsible, and that is class decomposition and contradiction. This is most visible in spatial terms, so it is being seen geographically. It isn’t geographical — it simply manifests as such. The knowledge class-divide bleeds voters off to the Greens, but the preferences return. The more serious divide is between a working class that is now a working-middle class, and a low-skilled/casualised/benefits-dependent group, which is a working class of classic condition.
The divide between the working-middle class and the rest isn’t the old division of labour aristocracy and proletariat, but between capital and its absence. By individualising the social wage, in the form of compulsory super, and then relating it to earning power, Labor set the class on a path to contradiction and conflict. Individuals and couples living off their super are living off interest from capital (however accrued) and I can’t see how that doesn’t make a huge difference.
Paul Keating created that uniquely Australian class, proletarian rentiers, and their rise coincides with Labor’s inability to claw back a majority of votes. Neither a change in leadership, nor of individual policies will solve this. Labor can only regroup politically what it has shattered socially, by devising and offering a new social contract which is to the benefit of both groups.
That requires not a cautionary tale, but a bolder story.