Kristina Keneally
Labor Senator Kristina Keneally (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Labor’s difficulty in pivoting to the centre and the ‘burbs has been perfectly illustrated by the ISIS foreign fighter family issue. The party’s Right suits recently spent a few days doing what passes for debate on the right: grunting the word “aspirational” at each other. This will get them out of the inner-city ghetto! Then Kristina Keneally launched an assault on the government from the liberal-Left, concerning the rights of such Australian citizens abroad, and Labor were back on Brunswick Street again.

The problem is not the position per se. I agree that we should not abandon these people, and so I suspect do most of you. But that’s the point, isn’t it? We are most of us of either parts of the general left or of the knowledge class, for whom a universalistic rights-based morality is simply second nature. And there would be many out in the ‘burbs who shared that view.

But there are many who would not, and many of them would be Labor voters, or possible ones. They would hold a communitarian morality, grounded on the idea that much more is owed to those close to us than what, if anything, is owed to strangers. Since the ISIS families have supposedly become Australia’s enemy, they have become the stranger.

Now it gets complicated. In conditions of real risk — repatriating possibly unrepentant, violent caliphate Islamists, for example — there is no absolute way to choose between the two moralities (and this writer is far more sympathetic to the communitarian stance than many around). Each is valid. Yet I suspect many inner-Labor types would suggest that I am being dismissive of how human rights are viewed in the suburbs. But the two moralities simply correspond somewhat, to the abstract mindset of the knowledge class — for whom all localism is suspect — and the concrete world of the rest, for whom disregard for kith and kin amounts to disloyalty. It is difficult, impossible for some, to break from these ways of thinking.

And this is one of the problems for Labor. Its leaders and inner-groupings are quite capable of shifting the settings on tax, renewable energy etc. But to shift to a communitarian, nationalist morality, with its ability to simply disregard the life or death of people deemed to be outside the circle, would demand a shift in oneself. Which beyond a point, is simply impossible. Labor would reclaim suburban territory if it could simply become the pre-1948/Whitlam party it once was and say “these people tried to kill us. As far as I’m concerned, they’re not Australians anymore. Their fate isn’t our problem.”

But Albanese, Plibersek, Wong and Keneally are Whitlam’s grandchildren. Not only could they not do it, they couldn’t even fake it convincingly. Yet without that full pivot — which would inevitably open up spaces on the left for the Greens — Labor remains trapped between two party types. Hence the continuing confusion. How can you be for a few exiled radicals and then give a new green light to coal, when it will kill us all?

One impossible answer would be for Labor to simply hand the party over to a leadership that could unequivocally represent the social-cultural centre they seek. The other would be to realise that putting together a coherent progressive-nationalist vision will take a little more than banging the aspirational button.