Labor’s problem is not the Greens

With British Labour performing better than most would have expected this early into the term of the Conservative government partisans of Tony Blair’s legacy, excluded from the current leadership group, resemble voices in the wilderness calling Labour’s long-term prospects into question. Still some of their arguments have relevance for Australian Labor.  The media champion of the Blairites  is John Rentoul. The brightest of these voices in the wilderness is David Miliband, former foreign secretary and brother of Labour leader Ed Miliband. We could say of the Blairites that they were acute in identifying Old Labour’s problems even if their solutions were questionable. In this spirit David Miliband’s recent speech is worth considering. Miliband notes that:

Centre left parties are losing middle income, swing voters, often young parents, in part because of coalitions with the left and Greens. Just look at Sweden. Only one in five Stockholm residents voted for the social democrats; the figure for those in work was nearly one in ten (13 per cent); only half of trade unionists across Sweden voted for the social democrats; and a third of those voters who turned their backs on the social democrats say did so because of their alliance with the Left Party. The primary reason is tax and spending issues. These voters have a good lifestyle and don’t want to lose it. They certainly don’t want to trade part of it in for more generous welfare systems…a second and decisive factor in the recent losses of the centre-left: the electoral detoxification of the Right. After its successive beatings from Clinton, Blair, Persson, Kok, Prodi, Schroeder, the Right re-grouped. George Bush II showed how to win – well, kind of win – in 2000. He ran as a compassionate conservative. He ran against the Republican East Coast establishment, championed education and even progressive immigration reform. In Europe, parties of the right realised that they had been pushed off the centre ground, and they responded. Where once right of centre parties seemed antediluvian on social issues, they embraced a new world of equal gay and women’s rights.

There is an assumption on much of the political left from the palest centrists to the Marxists that there exists a natural left-wing economic majority. In this view cultural issues divide the left’s base. Thus the Australian obsession with ‘wedge politics’ but this position was also influential in the US. Many Democrats believed that cultural issues were responsible for the breakup of the New deal coalition. Barack Obama appealed to many Democratic insiders because he seemed a post-racial healer of a divided nation who would not reignite the culture wars. However in government he encountered a deranged cultural opposition apparent in conspiracy theories about his alleged foreignness and also an economic opposition, a revival of populist anti-statism. This had nothing to do with supposedly inherited resentments against 60s flag-burning hippies. The Democrats’ flagship legislative healthcare initiative was drawn from the stock of economic populism. However it failed to summon into existence a populist coalition. Perhaps as Adam Przeworski has argued the left has frequently read Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in an idealist sense without considering that sustainable hegemony must have material foundation.

The Australian left has often cherry-picked poll evidence of popular opposition to economic liberalism to suggest that Labor politicians are fundamentally stupid that there is a natural electoral majority out there against neo-liberalism, it is rather like how the populist right jumps from poll evidence of nativist and doubts about immigration to assume that there is a natural conservative majority. Federal Labor’s poll woes have encouraged some such as Peter Brent to blame the Greens. However the issue is not the Greens rather it is policy. Voters fear the impact of a carbon tax on their living standards. Cath Bowtell unsuccessful Labor candidate for Melbourne complains that:

the Greens ‘left’ agenda is an indulgent agenda, and is different to our platform that sustainable growth is integral to achieving improved living standards for low income and vulnerable people

It’s a partisan comment, but unless the left can deliver the prospect of rising living standards to the majority of voters the left won’t win elections. Nothing is worse for left politics than a stagnant or declining economy. Thus Gramsci’s interest in the economic liberal critique of Italian statism and protectionism.

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