I have written an opinion piece (see below) published on Online Opinion today which links the current argument between the ALP and Greens to the broader argument in my recently completed doctoral thesis. It deals with some of the implications of my thesis.
The current public spat between the ALP and the Greens points to deeper changes in our party system; particularly the growing irrelevance of the ALP’s structure and the way in which its blue-collar union base has narrowed the party’s connection with the community leaving it vulnerable to attacks on the right (Howard’s battlers) and on the left (from the Greens).
In my recently completed doctoral thesis I drew attention to the paralysis that afflicts the ALP in its attempts to rebuild from historically low and perilous declines in its primary vote.
My thesis, essentially, is that party structure matters and that the ALP’s relationship with the union movement, through the affiliation of mostly blue collar unions, has become a burden in a world where only a minority of the electorate identifies with the old unionised blue collar world that began to decline in the 1950s and collapsed in the 1990s as Australia opened its economy and a much larger proportion of the population gained access to higher education.
The popular political image of the blue-collar worker today is the fabled ‘tradie’; an independent small business person more concerned with the impact of the tax system than industrial relations and likely to see unions as a problem or an historical artifact.
Meanwhile, the typical union member in Australia today is a professional woman with a university degree working in the community services sector. About a quarter of today’s union members belong to two big unions, covering teachers and nurses, which are not affiliated to the ALP and whose officials rarely make it into ALP parliamentary caucuses.
One interviewee with long experience at a senior level in the union movement, summed up the problem for the ALP, and gave me the title for my thesis. He said that both unions and the party want to seem more independent while continuing to derive the benefits of social democratic style dependence. They want to avoid voter and union member scepticism, even hostility, about the close relationship between unions and the ALP. At the same time, unions want the ALP to deliver legislation that protects them and the ALP wants access to the enormous human and financial resources that unions can provide at election time.
In the face of plummeting membership in the 1990s, the ACTU turned away from the Scandinavian-inspired corporatism of the Accord, with its insider tactics and elite negotiation, towards some successful pressure group style unions in the USA.
The star turn was the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) lauded in ACTU strategies and reports of the time as the fastest-growing union in the western world. The core strategy of the SEIU for recruiting and retaining members was campaigning. This new approach reached its pinnacle in Australia in 2007 with the campaign against Workchoices.
The US-inspired revival of union political clout, however, is based on political independence – the capacity to campaign for and against policies, parties and candidates based on union interests and not constrained by prior political affiliations and commitments.
In my thesis interviews, people in the ALP and in affiliated unions often praised an acceptance of these constraints as examples of political ‘maturity’, and they often criticised unaffiliated unions for lacking it.
When Labor won office in 2007, the spirit of independent campaigning in the union movement took a back seat to insider deals. Many in the union movement have blamed this predilection for elite co-operation as the reason why the union movement was ineffective in its campaign against the Abbott led coalition in 2010. It’s also why the Coalition probably has little to fear from the union movement in 2013.
Many observers like to argue that structure doesn’t matter, that voters don’t care how the sausages are made. The problem with this view is that bad structure produces unappetizing sausages. Inevitably, a few generations of tasteless sausages results in a party leadership that few people in the electorate feel connected to, much less inspired by.
At a time when blue collar unions have become irrelevant to the vast majority of Australian voters, about half the federal ALP caucus are former officials of affiliated unions. Some have had national profiles like Greg Combet and Bill Shorten before they entered Parliament, many were undistinguished state union officials. Some were put in Parliament to get them out of the union movement.
At the same time, there are virtually no former officials in the federal caucus from non-affiliated unions, including the big successful unions covering teachers and unions – that is, the unions that feel less politically constrained and are more likely to campaign against ALP governments.
Worse still, there are very few people in the federal caucus from the NGOs and the community organisations that the ALP in recent organisational reviews has highlighted as important to its connection with the broader community. These so-called ‘like-minded’ organisations might get consulted by an ALP anxious for new sources of electoral support, but they rarely find their way inside the tent of caucus.
The ALP’s low appeal to the electorate goes a lot deeper than the usual problems and remedies often cited in the media and on commentary websites. It is not just about Gillard or the carbon tax or asylum seekers. It is not just about ‘standing for something’.
Nor will it be solved by another swing of the electoral pendulum. The ALP’s primary support is at its lowest for a century. There is no Whitlam to drag in a new middle class, nor can the ALP fall back on another round of Carr-Beattie media spin and political timidity. Those options are one-offs.
It is about community connection, real connection, not focus group replacements, and that goes to the way in which candidates for public office are selected and that, in the ALP, raises the question of which external groups are privileged above others.
The ALP continues to privilege blue-collar unions even though their significance in the broader electorate no longer warrants it. At the same time, the union movement continues to disappoint many current, former and potential members because it is unable to act independently when the ALP is in government.
Structure, and the political constraints it brings with it, are driving people towards the more apparently ‘independent’ Greens, just as a decade ago the non-unionised tradies were attracted to the Howard-led Liberals.
No amounting of moaning about preference deals will change that. Only a more open ALP structure capable of producing political candidates more representative of the broader community and more appealing to it can reverse the ALP’s long-term political decline.