Unsurprisingly, analysis of the ALP's fortunes and future is a crowded field at the moment. My own view is that it is a structural problem arising from an outdated and politically destuctive link between a decimated ALP branch structure, and a small group of traditional blue-collar unions that have also suffered radical membership loss in recent times. My own views are in my doctoral thesis, an Online Opinion article and a feature in today's AFR. Here I thought I would look at a few of the other recent contributions in the light of my own argument.
Nick Champion - Labor is in denial and must return to work - Champion is a federal ALP member (Wakefield, SA). His analysis is essentially nostalgic, he wants a greater emphasis on the values of collectivism and the social wage, even a new Accord. The political problem with Champion's mooted 're-engagement' with organised labour is that the unions now represent less than half the proportion of the workforce that they did when the Hawke-Kelty deal was concluded in 1983. It is difficult to engage more with one group without risking dis-engaging with other groups i.e. non-unionists, small business (including 'tradies' and the whole post-materialist crew. In addition, the Accord (including the social wage) were ideas suited to a centralised wage system which was dismantled by Keating in the early 1990s and subsequently by the Howard Government. You can't go back.
Nick Dyrenfurth - "Why Labor needs to be a 'big tent' party" - Dyrenfurth is an academic historian (Monash) and is professionally prone to 'parallels' between past and present. His central proposition that the ALP now, as a century ago, has to appeal to a broad range of groups to win enough votes to govern is not particularly insightful. The tougher question is which groups and how? Dyrenfurth does not address what I see as the key issue of whether the ALP's power structure (ie union affiliation) has become a significant barrier to achieving this 'big tent' in the 21st century.
Mark Latham - "Labor's weakness: NSW" - Latham is an adherent of the McKell model which he views as policy moderation. He believes the ALP's big electoral problem is a left-wing asylum seeker policy which was promoted by current NSW Opposition leader, John Robertson when he was the head of the NSW union movement. He touches on more structural issues by calling for an end of union corruption of the HSU sort. Latham stops short of questioning the continuing role of unions in the party, although I believe he has in the past.
Geoffrey Robinson - "Labour pains cause ALP to see red over Greens" - In this piece, Robinson (academic, Deakin) argues that the ALP's hostility towards the Greens is being driven by senior union figures (particularly the AWU's Paul Howes) who fear that the labour movement (ie a close relationship between unions and the ALP) itself may be under threat. I have some sympathy for this view.
Tim Soutphommasane - "Labor adrift without intellectual firepower" - This author is an academic political philosopher (Monash) so perhaps unsurprisingly he sees the problem as being about ideas and the ALP's failure to recruit a few good people who might generate the requisite 'firepower'. It seems to come down to the failure of the Rudd and Gillard governments to generate an appealing 'narrative' to link and cohere all their policies. It is certainly true that the federal Government has been too media driven, pumping out daily speaking points, 'events' and 'announceables'. I'm not sure, however, that a convincing narrative can be crafted until the party has grappled with it's identity problems. What sort of party is it? And is the current structure appropriate? Where does it go now that it is no longer particularly blue collar, catholic or tribal?
Paul Strangio - "The root of Labor's problems" - Another historian (Monash) and another neat historical parallel. Will the Greens, like the ALP a century ago, stay as a left conscience party or become a mainstream political party capable of shaking the political establishment? Strangio suggests that the ALP may have passed the point where it could still govern alone, but offers no solution to this 'problem'.
I read all these pieces, and many more, with great interest. They all have something interesting and useful to say. Yet, I continue to be surprised why so few touch on, let alone examine closely, the role the institutional links between unions and the ALP play in the party's current dilemmas.
In the research for my thesis, some interviewees argued that the damage done to Simon Crean's leadership of the federal party by his successful attempts to reform union affiliation and participation in state branches to a uniform 50 per cent had deterred anyone from raising the issue again. The question of affiliation was far less prominent in Faulkner's 2010 national review, and some interviewees believed that raising the question only emphasises an electorally unpopular internal feature of the ALP, better to just let it lie. But has it gone beyond that now?