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A fine mess

As it embarks on a bout of soul-searching after the devastating election loss in May, Labor must avoid becoming Liberal-lite

Bill Shorten addresses a rally during the 2019 election campaign.

SIX months after losing the unloseable election, the Labor Party is still deeply traumatised by its defeat on 18 May.

The recriminations have been largely kept in-house, but the soul searching is taking place in public.

Last week’s release of the Emerson-Weatherill review of Labor’s 2019 election loss brought some welcome clarity to what went wrong, but also highlighted the immensity of the task ahead to rebuild after such a devastating loss.

There were few surprises in Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill’s exhaustive 92-page post-mortem of the defeat.

Labor’s problems went far deeper than Bill Shorten’s unpopularity, are structural and have been building for several decades.

In the words of the report authors, the main reasons why Labor lost were: “a weak strategy that could not adapt to the change in Liberal leadership, a cluttered policy agenda that looked risky and an unpopular leader”.

Add to that confusing and overly complex policies (if you needed to explain what franking credits were, you’d already lost half the battle); divisive and alienating language combined with the lack of a coherent narrative that led to an inability to engage with traditional working family voters; an arrogant sense that Labor was destined to win which obscured flaws which are obvious in hindsight; and failure to deal with a virulent fake news campaign about hidden taxes and the tens of millions of dollars Clive Palmer spent to flood the airwaves with an anti-Labor message.

The result was a Labor primary vote of just 33%, the lowest in almost a century. Labor lost in the suburbs and the regions where its traditional constituents turned their backs on the party — the same people who most stood to benefit from its redistributive agenda. It lost in the resources states of Western Australia and Queensland, and it slipped among blue collar workers.

Yet paradoxically it gained a swing towards it in many wealthier urban electorates which were once considered safe Liberal. And it picked up votes from its progressive rivals, the Greens.

Working out what went wrong is the easy part. The difficult bit is learning from those mistakes and establishing a path back to relevance and to power.

Anthony Albanese made an early stab at this with his speech in response to the review last Friday, declaring that Labor’s number one priority must be to win back the trust of working people. Translated, this means recognising and encouraging aspiration, and placing economic growth front and centre.

It was a good soundbite, but what does it really mean?

Does it mean a re-run of the ‘third way’, trickle-down economics pioneered by Hawke, Keating and Kelty through the Accord? You’d hope not. That might have been appropriate for the 1980s, but in an era defined by huge inequality, lack of job security and wage stagnation, it would be disastrous today.

But Albanese is smart enough to realise that the kind of class-envy, ‘top end of town’ rhetoric employed by Shorten and much of the labour movement at the last election is not only irrelevant to many of the people Labor needs to win over, but actively turns them off Labor.

Most Australians work in an a job where they know their boss, probably like them, and possibly even consider them a friend. They want to share in the success of their employer.

And that is how most Australians also see themselves on a broader scale: part of an economy where enterprise and a thriving corporate sector is good for all of us. We want to succeed and don’t automatically begrudge others who are successful. We don’t like shirkers or bludgers, we respect hard work, but we also value a fair go and equality.

Their aspirations are to own a home with a couple of cars in the garage, see their children have every opportunity to succeed, take the occasional overseas holiday. But they also have fears about losing their job, an over-stretched family budget, a family member falling ill.

With his contrived daggy dad from the western suburbs persona, Scott Morrison was much more adept than Labor at reading the national mood in May, and with his direct pitch to the ‘Quiet Australians’.

These are the people Labor needs to convince to come into the fold, and to do so will mean both a less confrontational approach, but it may also mean conceding some ground to Labor’s bitter rivals on the progressive Left, the Greens.

It would be easy if all that was required was to craft a policy agenda that appealed to the Quiet Australians.

But Labor’s dilemma is that it has a second constituency: inner urban, university-educated, white-collar progressives.

They feel confident in their ability to navigate the modern economy and they are wealthy enough not to overly worry about ordinary living concerns. They are post-materialistic in the sense that social issues matter to them as much, if not more, than economic issues.

Mostly, these voters stuck with Labor in May. The poor performance of the Greens suggests that some of them have even come back to Labor after flirting with the minor party.

But if Albanese targets blue-collar workers and suburban households, he also risks alienating these progressive voters.

As Emerson and Weatherill put it: “The mobilisation of the Labor Party to address the political grievances of this vast and disparate constituency has accelerated at the same time as many people who would have been regarded as traditional Labor voters have looked to Labor for answers to their problems.

“Working people experiencing the dislocation caused by new technologies and globalisation could lose faith in Labor if they do not believe Labor is responding to their issues but is focusing on issues not of concern to them, or in some cases, are actively against their interests. Care needs to be taken to avoid Labor becoming a grievance-focused organisation [emphasis added].”

It would be easy to dismiss this a view being driven from the right of the party, but many on the left have a similar concern.

“We paid insufficient attention to the anxieties and insecurities that working-class families have about the future,” Left factional heavy Kim Carr said recently. “To many people in our working class base, our activists seem to talk the language of the inner cities, of the affluent middle class. They see Labor and its activists as part of a class that has benefited from three decades of neoliberal economic policy and globalisation. What is really frightening is that the Labor Party has lost the capacity to communicate effectively with people who feel this way.”

Talk to many middle Australians, and they feel the pace of not only economic change, but social change, has been too rapid. They don’t have an appetite for deep political discussion and they find the culture wars exhausting. They want practical solutions, not ambitious targets.

And they are definitely unimpressed by the type of woke virtue signalling that wins you likes on social media. To them, progressive means the same thing as elitist.

The challenge for Labor is that these two groups of voters are increasingly incompatible: one set are blocking peak hour traffic by superglueing themselves to the road as part of an Extinction Rebellion frolic, while the others are the frustrated motorists running late for work because a bunch of entitled activists has closed down the streets.

How can Labor win over both groups: the Melbourne or Sydney based green activist who wants to end coal mining and the regional Queenslander who fears their livelihood is entwined with the future of mining?

If you take a stance on a social issue, it must be based on deeply held values and because it is the morally right thing to do, not just because it appeals to a small sub-set of a vocal interest group whose supporters you wish to court.

Emerson and Weatherill categorically rule out Labor choosing one constituency over another. Social justice, racial and sexual equality and environmentalism are as much a part of the DNA of modern Labor as the traditional concerns of safe and fair workplaces, education and public health.

“Labor cannot abandon its commitment to social justice but it must reconnect with low-income voters in outer suburbs and regions,” Emerson and Weatherill write.

“With the confidence that Labor, by drawing on its values, can find a way of building common ground with what, on occasion, appear to be competing constituencies.”

But that’s easier said than done. It may even be wishful thinking.

Maybe it’s a false dichotomy, as Albanese insists. He should know: he comes from a proudly working class background, but has managed to hold one of hte most progressive seats in the country against a rising Green tide.

“A true Labor agenda should appeal to people whether they live in Marrickville, Macquarie Fields or Mareeba… Labor has to talk about issues of jobs, equality, opportunity — they will be at the centre of our agenda,” he told James Button in the current edition of The Monthly.

But Albo would also be acutely aware that the differences between the two constituencies have been successfully used by the Coalition for almost two decades to drive a wedge into Labor.

If Labor is to win back power at a federal level, it needs to unashamedly rebuild bridges to the voters who deserted it in 2019.

That doesn’t mean becoming a ‘Liberal-lite’, as people like Richard Marles, Joel Fitzgibbon, and that great traitor, Graham Richardson, would suggest.

It’s more of a recalibration than a complete reset, to correctly prioritise issues and policies, and have a narrative that consistently reflects the concerns of middle Australians, especially blue-collar workers.

It doesn’t mean abandoning policies to tackle climate change, which remains the most pressing environmental, social and economic issue of our era. Nor does it mean adopting a hardline approach to immigration.

Modern Australian politics is much more nuanced than that. Not everyone who has solar panels or a rainwater tank is a Greens voter; not neither is everyone who supports marriage equality or refugees.

But if you take a stance on a social issue, it must be based on deeply held values and because it is the morally right thing to do, not just because it appeals to a small sub-set of a vocal interest group whose supporters you wish to court. And you must be prepared to fight and argue for that social position on your values.

Bob Brown and the anti-Adani convoy damaged Labor’s prospects at the election.

This is the mess that Anthony Albanese has inherited.

The Emerson-Weatherill review has cleared the slate, and now there is a raging battle over the future direction of Labor.

The debate is healthy, and the challenge for Albanese is to hold his nerve.

Many people in the wider labour movement feel frustrated at the slow pace with which Albanese has moved since the election. They implore him to muscle up more to the government, to block legislation and to be more aggressive in opposition.

Elsewhere, there is pressure from the likes of Marles and Fitzgibbon and opinion writers in The Australian who seem to want Labor to be a pale version of the Coalition.

Albanese has wisely chosen to take his time and to let the emotion run its course. He realises that so soon after an election loss, there is nothing to be achieved by a knee jerk reaction of jettisoning all of a perfectly good policy platform. Discipline is essential.

As you can tell, I am very conflicted myself. On one hand I agree with Emerson and Weatherill that Labor needs to tone down the identity politics and virtue signalling to win back blue-collar voters.

On the other hand, I think becoming Liberal-lite would be a disaster.

At the end of the day, Labor’s task is to gain government by winning the kitchen table arguments in middle Australia where its political opponent is the Coalition.

But it also stands for something more than raw economic aspiration. Hope, justice, fairness, equality.

Let’s hope that whatever emerges from the smouldering ruins of the 2019 election, Labor doesn’t lose its soul.

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