Labor woes: a vaguely Gramscian view from 2003

The failure of Labor’s vote to recover post-election is generating some angst on the left. A pessimistic interpretation might be that Labor’s 2006-2009 ascendancy was an aberrant product of Coalition errors and that the Coalition are now the natural party of federal government. Back in 2003 I made the following observation in a paper on the emergence of a mass Labor electorate in early 20th century Australia:

National politics after 1901 is transformed because of intellectual and organisational innovation. Industrial arbitration, and in particular Higgins’ development of the living wage concept, offered a plausible argument that government regulation can directly affect living standards. The material labour process underwent little change but the relations of production were altered with a consequent impact on the political structure that then reinforced further the changes in the relations of production. Free traders lost ground within Labor ranks once Labor protectionists linked protection to arbitration as a safeguard of workers’ living standards…The idea that state action can affect the distribution of income between broad economic groups, such as employers and workers, was a new one, even if protectionism had tended in this direction. The concept that the state could directly impact on material welfare was a form of what Michael Mann has called ideological power. It gave Labor an advantage in appealing to voters, in particular protectionist voters who accepted the idea of government intervention. If voters’ ideas of the economy are reformed in this period so are their ideas of politics, the physical act of voting takes on a different meaning: that of voting for a party to form a government to regulate economic outcomes…The foundations of the transformation in Australian politics during 1890 to 1910 require further analysis. The new left were correct to argue against the old left that Labor support was not an automatic reflection of capitalist employment, but their ‘materialist’ alternative reduced political allegiance to an epiphenomenon of industrial employment. The approach I have proposed emphasises the relations of production, as did the old left, but defines these more broadly to include regulatory structures such as arbitration and protection. This analysis enables the contemporary woes of industrial and political labour to be placed in a historical context. The election result of 1996 has been interpreted as a demonstration of a distinctive working-class disillusionment with Labor. In fact the core Labor constituency of unionised workers who identify as working-class, which would include those voters with a hegemonic consciousness, did not show a distinctive shift against Labor in 1996.What has occurred is that this constituency has shrunk whilst Labor has failed to develop an equivalent of the protection/arbitration couplet, to appeal to economic-corporate voters.

The economic regulatory institutions of the ‘Australian settlement’ established a plausible linkage between party politics and living standards for the mass of workers who were not union members or if they were unionists were members of the Shoppies etc. These workers were particularly drawn from what elsewhere I call the ‘fringe working class’. With their decline and the collapse in union membership Labor has struggled to establish such a linkage for the mass of non-unionized workers. WorkChoices briefly provided this.

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