600 odd words on the ALP and others

Lenin famously penned 600 odd words on the ALP, Rick Kuhn writes here on the fate of this article. Labour History in 2011 will publish a special issue on the state of labour history in Australia. I have submitted a proposal to be the author of the article on labour and politics. Below are my 600 odd words:

Australian labour in politics has operated within a democratic capitalist nation state, capitalism generated inequality and insecurity but also rising standards of living. As a political force labour responded not only to the specific interests of the working class but also to the interests of electors in higher living standards and maintenance of the nation state.

Organised Australian labour involvement in politics came early as 19th century workers allied themselves with the liberal bourgeoisie to support self government and against convict labour. Economic crisis and industrial upheaval in the late 19th century encouraged unions in some states to form Labor parties. However these parties struggled to develop a strong electoral base and as union membership collapsed they became largely dependent on their parliamentarians for organisation and functioned largely as adjuncts of liberalism. This first Labor Party gave way after 1901 to a second Labor Party. Federation transformed Labor’s position, it organised nationally in all states and by 1910 when it won national government it had supplanted liberalism as the only force on the political left and established a strong base in the manual working class. Labor’s rise reflected working class mobilisation but also Labor’s electorally popular policies of statism, developmentalism, support for industrial arbitration and defence of White Australia.

In government Labor’s coalition frayed as more radical voters were disenchanted by Labor’s moderation. The conscription debate united nearly all union and party activists against Labor’s parliamentary leaderships and consolidated Labor’s appeal to Catholics. A radicalised working class drove Labor to the left and inspired the 1922 socialist objective. However this radicalisation was limited in its impact, politicians allied with moderate trade unionists largely dependent on the arbitration system to confine Labor to a cautious reformism. Some disillusioned radicals formed the Communist Party but it could never challenge Labor’s hold on the working class electorate.

Labor’s successful national governance during World War Two led to its greatest electoral victories, but after 1945 middle class voters deserted Labor. The leftward shift of public opinion inspired Communist hopes of supplanting Labor’s grip on working class but these aspirations remained unfulfilled. The Communist upsurge encouraged an alliance between Labor politicians and a cadre of middle class Catholic activists who saw Labor as a vehicle to implement catholic social policy. This alliance broke up in 1955 when a significant portion of the Catholic middle-class departed to form the Democratic Labor Party.

In an increasingly affluent and suburbanised Labor’s political fortunes steadily declined even in its traditional state government strongholds. Eventually federal Labor returned to office in 1972 with a new platform that centered on the expansion of public services and a socially liberal nation state. Party disunity, aggravated by an ability to develop a coherent wages policy, and a severe economic downturn led to landslide defeat in 1975. But Labor soon returned to national political dominance in the 1980s with a more modest version of Whitlam’s agenda. However the 1980s Labor government then turned to neo-liberal economic restructuring justified as a means to improve working-class living standards in the long run even at the short term cost of higher income equality, unemployment and a collapse in union membership. A third Labor Party emerged. Frustration with this process led many working-class voters to desert Labor at the polls which culminated in the conservative electoral victories of 1996-2004. But labourism survived in attenuated form. The decline in union membership left most unions dependent on Labor whilst Labor’s decline in rank and file membership left union officials highly influential within the party organisation and with Communism discredited most unions remained loyal to Labor, union discontent with the new Labor party was more likely to take the form of political abstention than support for the Greens.

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