Update: Peter Brent has posted an excellent piece on the profoundly misguided Gillard / Swan campaign to redefine the ALP as a big L labour party and not a social democratic or progressive as part of a bigger effort to reconnect with a supposed union / blue collar base. In my view it is a triumph of anachronistic organisational structure over contemporary political reality, as I explain below.
I was delighted to see Paul Kelly write in this morning's Australian that structure lies at the heart of the problems of the modern ALP.
WITH polls showing a potential election wipe-out, the Labor Party remains in denial about the causes of its malaise. It suffers not just a crisis of leadership but a crisis of identity as a political institution.
The idea that structure is the source of the ALP's problems is the key theme of my PhD thesis. I titled it 'between dependence and independence' because both unions and ALP behave in ways that suggest they know that structure has become a problem. That is, that a party dominated by the officials of a small group of large (mostly) blue collar unions is no longer representative (in an organic sense) of the broad communities it needs the support of if it is to be electorally competitive (ie win about half the national and state elections in its own right). The ALP still relies heavily on unions for financial support, though much less than it did a generation ago, and many union officials rely on the relationship for personal career advancement and to exercise (occasional) influence over government decision-making. Officials from affiliated unions are heavily represented in the federal caucus, but there are very few ALP MPs with a background in non-affiliated unions.
Structure is not sexy. Most people believe in the electoral cycle as if it was some iron law of electoral politics, the ALP will come back because the sun will rise in the morning. They also believe that the electorate doesn't care about how the sausage is made. Or like Waleed Aly, they think the ALP's problems can be solved through some ideology or narrative.
These views are complacent.
For a start, major political parties do disappear just not often. The Whigs were replaced by the Republicans in the US, while the Democrats went close to being displaced by the Populists but managed to absorb them instead. In Britain, the Liberals were displaced by the Labour Party. In Australia, the modern iteration of the conservative side of politics was created by Menzies. The disappearance of a major party is rare but not unthinkable. If the ALP thinks it exists by divine right, or historical necessity, then it is kidding itself.
Second, voters do care about the sausage making. In the US, Clinton and Obama were anti-establishment candidates who won the Democrat nomination against the party hierachy's wishes through the primary system. It is probable that the Democrat party, that looked out for the count after it lost the South through its support for civil rights, has been re-invigorated by a more inclusive approach to selecting candidates. Interestingly, the current ALP is very enthusiastic about learning the lessons of Obama's campaigning, but not the pre-selection mechanisms that saw a junior Senator from Illinois beat the powerful Clinton establishment.
In Australia, the ALP has had to find leaders that could appeal to a broader electorate (beyond its blue collar base) to get back into office. These leaders have re-packaged the ALP to make it look less like a union party and more like a broadly based party of the centre or centre left.
Whitlam re-invented the ALP to get into office, under his leadership the ALP became the party of the rapidly growing tertiary educated middle class. Hawke also reinvented the ALP to be the party that could modernise the Australian economy and get union agreement (or acquiesence) to a set of neo-liberal policies. Hawke was uniquely placed to use 'consensus' of making the union party acceptable to business. Rudd also tried to re-invent the ALP in his own image but failed.
Like Latham before him, Rudd tried to consign the union movement to the role of just another interest group and to minimise its influence on the ALP. Latham was more radical in his views and favoured severing formal structural links with the unions altogether. Rudd largely excluded unions from his Government's myriad of reviews and enquiries. Of course, union leaders and factional leaders with strong union links played a major role in bringing Rudd down.
None of these leaders have had much success in reforming the party's essential identity as a party of the urban-based, blue collar unions. And so for 50 years now the structural anachronism of union affiliation has been papered over and has become more absurd as the Australian community becomes more middle-class, more culturally diverse, more tertiary educated and far less unionised.
Waleed Aly is not the first person to suggest that the ALP's problems could be solved by some sort of ideological overhaul or re-focusing. Ideology is fine but where does it come from? Aly and others make it sound like the problem can be solved by the good and the great coming up with a snappy new narrative to annoy the electors with. But an electorally compelling ideology must arise from a dialogue (not focus groups!) with a broad community and it needs to be done through party structures and processes (like primaries). So Aly may be right about the need for a new narrative but the current ALP structure inhibits the development of a new ideology and a new narrative that might appeal to a modern electorate.
If you spend a lot of time thinking deeply about this stuff, as I did in writing my thesis, I think you must end up recognising that the solution starts with structural reform.