Labor front bench joel fitzgibbon anthony albanese
Labor leader Anthony Albanese and Joel Fitzgibbon in the House of Representatives (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Good Lord, is it talk-about-the-Labor-party-again time already?

It comes around so quick doesn’t it? What are you getting them this year? I’m hanging a sack on their mantelpiece, and filling it with nuts, since they’ve been so unable to grow one of their own. Okay, last narky joke of the piece.

But what started the current round? Oh, yeah Joel Fitzgibbon. Joel Coal. Joey the carbon lump. The member for the Hunter Valley got the fright of his life in 2019, when the One Nation candidate gained a 21% vote, and Fitzgibbon suffered a near 10% swing against him, leaving him with a 3% margin. 

Part of that may have been a substantial change in the seat of Hunter’s boundaries, but it seems likely — and Fitzgibbon is convinced — that deep displeasure with the ALP’s mixed messages on coal mining and jobs is a big part of it.

Fitzgibbon is possibly alluding to other stuff as well, which I would guess, from spending a fair bit of time through northern Victoria/rural NSW/southern Queensland in the last few years is: an obsession with gender and representation of such, trans issues, the reprogramming men as anti-domestic violence strategy, a guilt-focused reading of our history, any desire for an immigration reduction seen as racist, etc.

Things are a bit more problematic than that, but before getting to Labor’s problems with progressivism, let’s point out why these cultural-political differences loom so large.

They do so because Labor doesn’t offer a genuine alternative program for creating a modern Australia, such as would make their cultural politics a relatively minor matter. There was no program in the 2019 election and there’s no program now. 

Labor, as a social liberal party, should be founded on the notion of a radical attack on inequality, not merely of circumstance, but of opportunity – and not merely of opportunity for economic advancement, but for human self-flourishing, for the enabled pursuit of lives not defined by the market or consumption.

Instead, it has become a party focused on national macroeconomics, with the assumption that inequality will take care of itself. It presents itself as the better bet for sustained jobs and growth, presenting itself simply as an alternative Coalition — adopting, like them, a wilful lack of projection of any sort of national social strategy or direction. 

The trouble is that’s how the Labor Right believes things should be in Australia: a minimal social market party, bidding for the job of government with a technically, instrumentally better plan.

The true disaster of 2019 was that this basic disposition was overlaid with a series of policies from the Left, taken on as part of the stability pact deal.

So you had: jobs and growth and coal, and 50% renewables by next Tuesday. You had: we’ll put money in your pocket to spend on housing and health care and education as you see fit — but, we’re also going after franking credits, which you’ll think you have. And we’re doing it for “schools and hospitals” as Tanya Plibersek said exasperatedly.

There was no program in 2019, there is no program now, and Labor has largely wasted the year and change since the election. It’s not just me saying that. Nick Dyrenfurth, head of the John Curtin Institute, said as much at the time of the Eden-Monaro byelection.

Dyrenfurth has taken on a thankless task — that of trying to intellectually re-invigorate the Labor right, which is like getting a book club going among the Carlton Crew.

But both the Labor Right’s organ Tocsin (the name is a measure of Labor’s obsessive nostalgia, which leaves outsiders cold) and to a lesser degree the Left’s Challenge, are long on policy pabulum, and short on actual social and political analysis. Maybe that’s circulated internally, but I doubt much of it goes on at all. 

In the absence of any prospect of real change on this front, back then to Fitzgibbon’s identification of a cultural gap. That is real, and it is insoluble on its own terms.

The other three major parties have some degree of organic relationship between representatives and represented. Scotty from marketing doesn’t have to fake being ‘burban; indeed, the derisive nickname pays tribute to his ‘burbosity.

The Nationals are eight or so families who act as a sort of squirearchy; the Greens represent the knowledge-culture-policy (kcp) class, and used to be people with real such jobs who became politicians; even as that fades, politicians are kcp class members, so there’s a fit there. 

Labor alone has a major disjuncture between its kcp leadership, its inner membership. There’s no point in Labor’s leaders trying to fake it with flag emojis and such. No one, including people who avidly support them, believe them to be anything other than a bunch of inner-city lawyers who started as student politicians, a modern caste within a wider class. 

The fact is, Fitzgibbon is right about the cultural divide. One of the reasons this writer emphasises the notion of a “knowledge class” is that this is the fundamental divide in our society today, both in life chances and social values, and much political struggle is a class struggle for social recognition, for social selfhood, between the knowledge class and the working and middle classes whose lives are centred around more routinised manual/retail/office labour. 

Classes hold specific social values as general truths and go to war to try and enforce them. In an industrial society, the left-right split was a battle about what life would be, waged through economics, and culture was subsidiary.

At the moment, the war is life-as-culture, with economics as subsidiary. Many people outside the knowledge class feel they are fighting not only to keep a hold on such prosperity as they gained in the industrial/social democratic era, but to hold onto some continuity of traditional life, and a mix of traditional and modern values.

Often this is displaced economic undermining. In Singleton and other parts of the Hunter, all I heard about was FIFO in the mining industry and what a disaster it had been, making community impossible — “how are you supposed to organise a football team?” someone asked — and doing what irregular high wages always do: prompting spending blowouts, addiction, debt and local inflation.

The labour movement fought for the eight-hour day to create the stability that made life possible — a fight which involved talking back to workers who preferred casual hire. It has said little or nothing about the social disaster of FIFO. If it were to return to the idea that everyone has a right to a good job, where they live, then the cultural divide would be put back in its box.

The relation between cultural and economic values and Labor’s elite and its base has now become utterly tangled.

Whatever people such as Fitzgibbon urge, there is no chance that Labor’s elite would abandon deeply held views on cultural matters, nationalism etc, because deep down they believe them to be the only possible values, and that other groups will simply “catch up”. When they do try to invoke patriotism it turns into something of a masquerade, which alienates people further.

But the notion of such a cultural shift is invoked only because any form of political-economic shift is simply ruled out of bounds. For the right, the mix of economic nationalist, protectionist and self-reliant sentiment that is prevalent among Australians and Labor voters specifically, is simply never to be taken into consideration on orthodox economic grounds.

Party base and supporters are simply to be educated out of it. In the absence of a program that would unite the two parts of Labor in a way that could allow them to hold their differences. 

To a degree, mainstream party politics is now simply a war between the knowledge class and the bourgeois elite.

Labor’s fanbase gets all huffy when you say that, but it’s really a categorical shift across the West. The atomisation of life in a high-tech neoliberal society has undermined the possibility of class politics in any mass institutional sense, which is one reason why events like Trump and Brexit created such enthusiasm — they offer a pathway to re-engagement that was not controlled by a progressivist elite.

There is no sign of a desire within Labor to change the institutional arrangements that entrench such a split. Indeed, the microfactions rely on it to maintain their recruitment.

Labor’s leaders and tame intelligentsia were pretty indifferent to ideas about change before the last election. Eruptions like Fitzgibbon’s are occurring because a panic is setting in. The 2021/22 election might be lost as a pseudo national-security election due to COVID-19.

The real concern is that every loss is a down payement on the next one, so 25% of 2024/25’s loss would occur in 2021/22. Labor has spent a quarter century mostly out of power, and is staring down the barrel of a third of a century. Worse, since 1996, it has utterly failed to create a remodelled social democracy “offer” that could connect with mainstream Australian sentiment. 

There is no shame in repeated defeats, in our drab Murdochia, but the fact that nothing has been built as an alternative — that Labor just starts from scratch after every loss — means that, barring a fluke win, many of its current leaders have simply wasted their lives on being not much at all, except spare meat on the opposition benches.

Maybe it is only with the next defeat that Labor will have the total collapse it really needs to reconstruct itself.

At the moment, one final service some old lags could give the party is to have a total nervous breakdown and be carried from the opposition caucus room in a rubber sack. Whether Joey Coal is one of them remains to be seen.

See you at next talk-about-the-crisis-of-Labor event. Bring a template.

Peter Fray

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