The problem for the Australian Labor Party is that it still sees the world through collective-coloured glasses. To be a relevant organisation into the future it has to do more than bounce back in the polls.
Let’s indulge in a retrospective fantasy. What if during the Federal election campaign 2004 the Australian Labor Party released a schools policy that said we believe your child is a unique individual? What if Labor said to the Australian people we will guarantee your school has the resources it needs to give your child individual attention so that he or she can develop the strength of character to make their own way in the world?
Of course, Labor didn’t say this.
Labor’s policy said it would fund all schools on the basis of need, bring a national approach to the funding of all schools and reduce funding to selected non-Government schools. Needs based funding is a noble objective, so why did the voters reject this policy, and why will they continue to reject the ALP?
The answer goes much deeper than the leadership, the factions, the relationship with unions, economic policy, or the calibre of the candidates. Labor’s problem lies at the core of its organisation in its entrenched nineteenth century culture.
There is a fundamental disconnection between Labor Party culture and the lives Australians are living in the twenty-first century. This is a challenge the ALP must address if it is to engage the voters, serve them well, and be a relevant political organisation into the future. The ALP is not the only organisation facing this challenge. Many organisations and businesses are fast losing, or have already lost, their connection with the unique self-determining individuals they are meant to serve.
To understand the nature of the challenge facing the Labor Party it is first necessary to paint a picture of the world ALP members see when they look out their collective windows. And a collective world it is. Labor sees Australian society much as it did when it rose out of defeat in the shearers’ strikes of 1890-91 to form a new political party. Society was then at the dawn of the era of mass production, mass consumerism and the mass media.
From that time and for much of the twentieth century, individual consumers conformed to the rules set for them by managerial capitalism. The command and control style of leadership worked because society was largely uneducated, illiterate and anonymous.
Labor’s problem today is that it still sees Australian society as an anonymous mass. The culture of the organisation dictates that the world is composed of homogenous collectives.
Individuals are vulnerable and powerless, and need to be organised into groups as the only way to protect them from exploitation. Value is derived at the top of the organisation and passed on down the hierarchy to the masses; the faceless consumers at the end of the industrial production line. Labor is stuck in a world where conformity ruled, where the most important thing a person could do was to teach their children to adapt to group life. This is a world where individuality is perceived as deviant and a life spent seeking meaning and self-determination is derided as the preserve of latte-sipping elites.
Labor’s 2004 schools election policy is born of this old world view. The policy assumed certain types of schools were all the same and it assumed the parents who sent their children to certain types of schools were all the same. The policy was essentially a salvo in a class war that everyone but the true believers thought was over long ago. What Labor failed to see were the needs and values of the parents themselves. More and more Australian parents want to be assured that when their kids go to school they are treated with respect as unique individuals. That more of them are sending their children to private schools is less about status and privilege or class, than it is about a desire to see their children get the individual attention they need.
Labor must step out of its time warp and take a realistic look at Australian society and where it is heading in the twenty-first century. What they will see is a society of complex individuals moving at an unprecedented pace out of the quagmire of the anonymous mass. They will see a society that is wealthier, better educated, more informed and more traveled than any other in our history. They will see sophisticated consumers seeking to control their own destiny and have their complex needs met. They will see individuals expressing their uniqueness and demanding to be respected as different to the next person in the queue.
In their book The Support Economy, Zuboff and Maxmin explain that since the middle of last century, ‘more people (are exposed) to more complexity, intensity, and diversity of experience, propelling them toward more intricate and self-authoring lives. Education and the growing abstraction of work increase mastery of language and thought, giving people the tools to create their own meanings and form their own opinions. Communication, information, consumption, and travel all stimulate individual self-consciousness and imaginative capabilities, informing perspectives, values, and attitudes in ways that extend beyond tradition and group solidarity.’
Mark Latham was on the right track with his ladder of opportunity and his anecdotes about Green Valley, but he missed a critical point. Opportunity isn’t just about material wealth and success at work, it’s about individuals being free to express their own values, create their own identity and seek meaning and happiness in their lives. Zuboff and Maxmin call these people the ‘new individuals’ who ‘enjoy their things but place an even higher value on the quality of the lives they lead, in which those possessions play a part.’
Tony Blair’s Labour Government has embraced the ‘new individuals’.
In a speech to Labour’s campaign and policy briefing in January this year Blair said, ‘the fulfilment of individual potential and the expansion of individual opportunity is what it is all about’. Of course the true believers decry this view as the domain of the liberal conservatives, but Blair insists, ‘none of this means yielding an inch in our values. The values of solidarity, social justice, community, the traditional values of progressive politics are and will remain our lodestar. But they guide us to one end: the improvement of the lives of individual people and their families and not a few of them but all of them.’
Australian Labor could learn from the British example that the leap into the lap of the new individualism is not a quantum one, but it is a necessary one.
The ALP may want to disregard the ‘new individuals’ as a privileged few, but they do so at their peril. The new individuals are not constrained by class or socioeconomic status or geography, they are everywhere and there are more and more of them on the path of self-determination.
The challenge for Labor is that the ‘new individuals’ are walking away from organisations that fail to understand the intricacies of their lives. They are less tolerant of inflexible, impersonal organisations that disregard their uniqueness.
More and more Australians in the twenty-first century are searching for organisations that respond to their complex needs with compassion. They won’t sign on to organisations for life anymore, but will move in and out of them, coming together in their own transitory groupings that reflect their needs and values at the time. They want organisations to grant them the freedom to determine their own value, they don’t want it dictated to them from the top of the hierarchy. They are demanding authenticity, they want to be truly listened to, and they want to hear language that is real and fallible.
So let’s indulge in another fantasy and go to election 2007. What if Labor tells Australians it will, with the help of the unions, foster flexible workplaces that accept the diverse needs of individual workers? What if the ALP promises people on disability support pensions they will receive help in returning to work, not by threatening them with financial penalty, but by cultivating supportive work environments in which their individual needs can be met?
With surges in the polls, it will be easy for the Australian Labor Party to dismiss the need for any structural or cultural change. But if the ALP is to remain a relevant organisation into the twenty-first century it must begin an authentic conversation about where it is heading. It must answer questions about what the spread of the ‘new individuals’ means for the Party’s power structures, its relationship with the unions, its candidates, and the Labor voters of the future.
Those choosing to participate in this conversation must be granted the freedom to express their individual views; for the sake of the Party, and the sake of Australian democracy.
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