Labor leadership
Bill Shorten conceding defeat at the 2019 federal election (Image: AAP/Andy Brownbill)

Well, with that pesky election out of the way, Labor is getting back to what it does best: infighting between factions and sub-groupings that no longer have intrinsic ideas attached to them.

Bill Shorten led the party based on a reconstructed Right made up of the AWU and the weird Mods (Moderates) faction — which consists of suburban branches run by Adem Somyurek — in alliance with the Industrial Left grouped around the CFMMEU, all of them hoping that the reactionary SDA union would join them.

The politics of that grouping ranged from Victorian green labourism, to the M of the CFMMEU which is pushing Queensland MPs to endorse Adani. The Shorten faction’s policy was cobbled together from bits of Left and Right — mostly Left — without any governing logic.

The group gathered around Shorten — Noah Carroll, Sharon McCrohan, and others — come across (in Pamela Williams’ less than earth-shattering AFR insider series) as a bunch of people who never really took to the ideas they were spruiking, and could never thus convey the spirit of their proposed new laws.

It was obvious from the start that the visuals and imaging of the Labor campaign were cozy and uninspiring, utterly lacking in simple images, a clear message, or even a hint of ridicule and satire that might have undermined Morrison’s “saggy dad” schtick. The Coalition meanwhile had the relentless “jowly Bill” ad, in which a bloaty black-and-white image of Shorten as a sort of franking-stein monster against a blaring red background.

Now, reaching out from the political grave, Shorten attempted to back Chris Bowen into the leadership — one more sally in the continuing war between the NSW Left and the east coast Right factions. This was yet another misjudgement by team Shorten as it became clear that Bowen’s political career had been destroyed by his own hubristic “don’t vote for us” cry (done in the service of an unshakeable mandate, in the belief that the election was unlosable).

As Shorten and his formation attempted to stymie Albanese with a manifestly lesser candidate, Albanese appears to be crossing over to a “one nation” (small o, small n) Labourism more usually associated with the (once) Catholic Right of the party. But that sits ill with the persona he’s cultivated over the years as the pugnacious bruiser taking the fight to the right.

If it’s true that this is Albanese’s feint — and not just a News Corp beat-up — then it shows that Labor still hasn’t got it. They still believe that they can just hoik mix ‘n’ match policies off a shelf, without any sense of how they fit together. Or indeed how they express social democracy in the 21st century.

As a final desperate factional rallying from Queensland, the largely unknown Jim Chalmers is pushed from deputy to leader-contender — simply to assert that the AWU can’t be pushed around. The party has resigned itself to weeks, or months, of showing its worst side to the public, going lower in their estimation to sort out the factional guff before they start to reemerge.

That reemergence, when it happens, must surely be around answering the key question faced by Labor in a post-manufacturing Australia: what is it bloody for? Not merely what does it stand for, but what is its means of action? How does it forge new social coalitions in a new class framework and in an individualistic society that it helped construct?

The only effective leader of the party will be someone who realises that. No takers yet it would seem, but the factional beatings will continue till morale improves.

Peter Fray

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