What lessons did Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning performance in the recent UK elections have for Australian Labor? Tim Robertson weighs in on a Labor heavyweight’s latest thesis.
Never has a prediction come to fruition so quickly: Sam Dastyari’s analysis of the UK election result comes with a warning that the Australian Left – by which he seems to mean the Labor Party – won’t learn the right lessons because they’re “lazy” and will only take the “superficial ones, a few campaign slogans and lines, without looking at the underlying issues”.
Then, enumerating what he sees as the main takeaways, Dastyari falls into the very trap he laid in the previous paragraph. He falls for it in a way befitting a machine-man from the Labor Right, for whom politics is essentially a never-ending exercise in ‘gathering the numbers.’
For Dastyari, it’s all about messaging and ‘ground game’ – that is to say, exclusively elements of party politics. Almost entirely missing from his analysis is any closer examination of the underlying social causes that have lead to the fragmentation of tradition political institutions in not just Britain, but throughout the West.
It’s worth looking in some detail at what Dastyari sees as the three main takeaways for Australia Labor:
1. Everybody hates politics and the political establishment.
The self-pitying tone of this observation, which hangs over the rest of his analysis, free-floating, unanchored to any self-reflection about why people do indeed loathe the likes of him, points to something more significant.
The ‘political establishment’ can no longer deny that there’s a disconnect between them and the people they claim to represent, but rather than address this, Dastyari’s first instinct is to hint at the political class somehow being victims in this whole process.
Jeremy Corbyn was, according to the Labor senator, a ‘progressive rejection’ of the ‘status quo.’ True enough, but one struggles to come up with a more superficial reading of the result.
What’s worrying about this blithe observation-dressed-up-as-analysis is that the ALP’s future rests on their ability to understand the underlying social causes driving this disillusionment within the electorate and, here, they can do no more than observe that it’s ‘a thing’.
Dastyari’s false equivalence (that Corbyn and Trump were ‘thematically both… saying something similar: ‘The system is broken. You are being left out. Upend the card table and see what happens’) is a reflection of his own inability to see beyond a technocratic kind of politics, in which the decisions voters make at the ballot box can be boiled down to a series of focus group buzzwords – reliable, trusted, stable, etc.
Armed with these key words, pollies go on repeating them in every second sentence, at every press conference for months on end. It’s politics in its most base, uncreative and uninspiring form – it’s a politics that takes it as given that all voters are idiots who can only digest a message when it’s dumbed-down and re-packaged as a slogan.
Anything that breaks from this narrow, technocratic focus in the way that Corbyn did can be dismissed as too idealist, or utopian and inseparable from the cheap populism of Trump.
The fact that the US president played on people’s anxieties, fears and insecurities, which he projected onto ‘the Other’ is of little importance to the senator. Rather than examine Corbyn’s ability to energise and mobilise broad parts of the electorate without resorting to racist hectoring, Dastyari, instead, celebrates this with an ironic ‘yay.’
This is not all that surprising considering Australian Labor’s policies towards refugees are far closer to Trump’s than Corbyn’s. The main difference in this calculus being that the decrepit, moribund system that Dastyari clings so tightly to has – over years of fine-tuning – found ways to express xenophobic sentiments more delicately and implement policies of cruelty more acceptably.
The underlying social conditions that are causing so much disillusionment and, as Dastyari puts it, leading ‘everybody’ to hate politics and the political establishment’ is what Labor ought to be trying to get its head around.
Indeed, they’re better placed than most to understand the erosion of the tradition bases of social support because nowhere has it been more visible than in the declining rates of unionism.
This is, though, just one element of a much more complex shifting within western liberal democracies. Another aspect, which Guy Rundle has noted in his dispatches from the UK, is that young people have become a distinct class of their own. Corbyn was able to mobilise them by offering a message of hope – the idea that something beyond the vacuous, market-based business-as-usual way of organising society is possible. That’s, ‘thematically’-speaking, the very opposite of what Trump did.
2. British Labour have a better ground campaign than we do in Australia.
Dastyari makes the distinction between Australian Labor’s strategy of investing (or ‘wasting’) money in television ads and British Labour’s investment in ‘people.’ The truth, though, is that the ALP couldn’t replicate the Corbyn campaign for the simple fact that they couldn’t mobilise enough people for an equivalent ground campaign.
Since the election, 150,000 people have joined the British Labour Party: it now has 850,000 members, compared with the ALP’s 55,000. Corbyn has reinvigorated the British Left, while the ALP is only recognisably left-wing in relation to the Coalition.
In Australia, the ALP has led the Right on market liberalisation, and its ‘PNG-solution’ paved the way for the current immoral, cruel and shameful treatment of refugees on Pacific island concentration camps.
These days, the Australian party of labour doesn’t even lead the conversation about the changing nature of work; that mantle has instead been taken up by the Greens, as Richard Di Natale showed at his recent National Press Club address.
The Labor Party’s most significant recent contribution to this issue has been to whip up underlying racial prejudices with its xenophobic ‘Australia First’ ad campaign.
3. ‘You can’t be about ‘nothing’… In the battle between nothing and something, something will always do well.’
It’s now the standard narrative that Kevin Rudd’s downfall can be charted from the moment he declared climate change the most important moral issue of our time, and then did nothing about it.
But it’s just the most obvious example of a trend that’s been developing for some years: Big Ideas are out and internal polling and focus groups are in.
In poll-driven politics, there is no principle that can’t be abandoned; no values that are too sacred. It’s all one big, never-ending power-grab, in which believing ‘something’ is seen as an impediment.
The current episode in this long-running tragicomedy is Labor’s unwillingness to support the Coalition’s Gonski 2.0 needs-based schools funding policy. Their opposition to it on the grounds that the amount is not as much as they’d tip in if they were in government is nothing more than rank opportunism – a Tony Abbott-style approach to being in opposition.
Why not celebrate – even take credit for – the Coalition’s move towards a more progressive funding model, promise to make up the windfall if they win the next election and move onto the next policy?
Evidently, the ALP thinks there are more political points to be won by being obstructionist and ensuring the Coalition doesn’t have a ‘win’ in an area that’s traditionally been an area of policy strength for them.
That the ‘experts’ have been so wrong so often in understanding and articulating the shift away from the centre has added an extra layer of farce to the already absurd political coverage.
Dastyari’s is a minor contribution to this colossal cache, but it’s important because his are the insights of a man touted by many as a future Labor leader. It at least provides some small window into the intellectual underpinnings that will drive the future direction of the party.
Politicians and pundits, it’s been said ad nauseam, are ‘out of touch’ with voters, but there seems to be something more going on. The vitriol and viciousness with which Blairite MPs and liberal pundits attacked Corbyn was strangely personal – theirs was an effort to protect the meek liberalism that’s served their careers and bank balances so well.
Those increasingly squeezed by life’s pressures – stuck in a cycle of over-work and under-pay – have, on the other hand, been repeatedly told that these were just the sacrifices they had to make. Self-interested pundits criticised these people for ‘overreach’ (read: for wanting affordable education, health care and an end to expensive and immoral wars in faraway lands), but to many it looked like little more than an attempt to hold onto their privileged position in the face of the marauding masses.
Unsurprisingly, people resented this.
The key takeaway from the UK election for Australian Labor should be the same as it is for all progressive parties: that until they work to rebuild their social base, their electoral victories will be built on a house of cards.
Without broad support from the working class, their whole project will be impotent and meaningless.
Corbyn is by no means there yet. After decades of neoliberalism, societies have been gutted; they’re more atomised and fragmented than ever before.
There’s still much work to be done, but Corbyn has at least provided a glimpse that a better society is still possible.