Anthony Albanese Labor
Anthony Albanese (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

See the thing about Labor is tha-… oh come on, let’s have one last go around before we drop the topic entirely for a while.

Once it was clear, last Saturday week, that we weren’t going to get to enjoy a few days/weeks/months of schadenfreude, the lesser pleasure of telling Labor what’s wrong with it takes over. A few final points:

1. Labor is no longer the ‘natural’ representative of progressivism

I mean, as we head into the 2020s, as huge numbers of non-European Australians, the children of our 20-year immigration wave, enter their late twenties and thirties, as women start to outnumber men in key professions and full-time work, Labor gives us middle-aged white guy leaders. White? They may as well be filmed in sepia.

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It’s the great 1963 battle for leadership of the Wangaratta Slurryists and Frittlers all over again: sweaty men with fixed grins looking nervously at the camera. That and the factional argy-bargy around the final Senate position could only occur in a party that thought it didn’t have to win over whole sections of society — women, POC, Indigenous, LGBTQI — that they first got in the 1960s, with the rise of the Whitlamite compact.

The trouble is that this compact succeeded, at least for some of those groups, in terms of legal equality, and the journey to social equality. Increasingly for sub-groups of this progressive compact — professional-class women and POC for example — there’s no longer a clear social-material interest in “voting your values”, if the Coalition is offering a package better suited to individual accumulation. Indeed, for such groups — capital-poor until the last 30 years or so — there’s a progressive case to be made for such accumulation. It’s the completion of the bourgeois revolution, to a degree.

All the Coalition has to do is not be totally obnoxious, and close the “progressive gap” a little. As they’ve now done by having an Indigenous Indigenous Affairs Minister, and a few more women in cabinet.

The forcing-out of Tony Abbott in this regard has done them a favour too. Morrison’s Christianity may have a conservative view of the world, but it doesn’t publicly construct progressivism as the clash of God and Satan on Earth, and pine to restore the Hapsburgs. Labor is going to have to fight both the Greens and the Coalition for their hitherto rusted-on progressive voters, from now on.

2. Labor’s voters do not see Labor as their organic representatives

Labor is the party with the greatest disjuncture between its MPs and its voters, yet they remain in denial about this. Greens candidates are Greens members/voters through and through. Coalition members and voters may have a class gap, but it’s covered by notions of aspiration and legitimate privilege. Only Labor has a party of professional/knowledge class people leading a base who are precisely the opposite of that.

Worse, Labor is in denial about the lack of an organic relationship — as witnessed by member for Griffith MP Terri Butler’s Twitter spat with the Greens, and new leader Anthony Albanese’s relentless anti-Green rhetoric. Look, folks. You may see yourself as constitutionally different to the Greens — but a lot of your supporters don’t. They’ll vote Labor thick and thin, but they know that their members are not “one of them”.

Take something as minor but indicative as music choice. Yeah, I got a thrill when Albo quoted Billy Bragg. Australian left-wing Twitter had a tweetgasm. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? The heartland is still listening to The Eagles and Counting Crows. Labor’s leaders are still turned towards the inner city, in seeking their own affirmation. The more they deny the gap between base and representatives, the more mistakes they’ll make.

3. There are equal dangers in over- and understating this defeat

News Corp and related organs are going to town on the idea that the Coalition is the unmediated expression of the Australian people’s will, Labor a basically alien fifth column. It’s absurd, of course. A 400,000-vote gap in a two-party preferred system of 25 million people indicates that people voted largely on “client” grounds — i.e. they chose a party on the basis of its offer, less on its representation of values.

Morrison’s everyday-man imagery was less about setting him up as a Howard-type figure, and more about amplifying the widespread dislike of Bill Shorten as a person (Labor’s refusal to think in visual terms was another example of startling ineptitude). So the right could really fool themselves into complacency by constructing this defeat as a culture war one. Equally, however, it can lull Labor into thinking it has no serious work to do in re-grounding itself.

4. Labor has a huge amount of work to do

With the dominance of News Corp, the inherent right-shift of other commercial media, the increased individualism/familialism of Australian society, Labor has to always be aiming for a landslide in order to get a rockfall. Every piece of Labor’s progressive/suburban synthesis has to be rethought, in a manner more sophisticated than “move left”, “move centre/right”. Some sort of narrative, no matter how minimal, has to be found.

But it can’t be got off the shelf; it has to be derived from an actual social/sociological analysis of what Australian society is now, and how the goals of both equality and the opportunity for individual self-flourishing can be met. The long arc of the Whitlam coalition/compact is concluded. Labor has to build a new one from scratch, without preconceptions, arrogance or a belief that anyone owes it a vote. Somewhere over the rainbow is either victory — or the wilderness. And the abyss.

What’s the one thing you’d like Labor to take away from all this? Send your comments to Please include your full name.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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