Labor roots

In the Monday Message Board, Paul Norton points to this piece by Trevor Smith of the CFMEU, advocating a culturally conservative agenda for Labor, and points to similarities with Michael Thompson’s Labor Without Class. There is one important difference, in that Thompson sought to combine cultural conservatism with support for economic rationalism, while Smith is opposing it.

I reviewed Thompson’s book when it came out (over the fold). The conclusion I drew was that it was, in effect, a policy manifesto for Howard.

I’m not necessarily averse to a conservative approach. And I’m no fan of cafe latte. Still, I don’t think the apparent equation of “conservative” with “whatever Howard supports” is valid. And I don’t think much of Smith’s one concrete example, the fight over Tasmanian forests, the issue on which Smith and his union sold out Labor’s chances last year and helped to give us such blessings industrial relations reform. If conserving our natural environment isn’t conservative, what is?

Review of Labor Without Class

The basic thesis of this book is simple. There is a fundamental conflict in Australia between the middle class (managerial, professional and para-professional workers) and the working class (including not only manual workers but routine clerical workers and those employed in sales and personal services). From the time of Gough Whitlam onwards, the Labor Party has been taken over by the middle class. Members of the middle class have secure careers and favour post-materialist policies of feminism, environmentalism and multiculturalism which are hostile to the working class. It was Paul Keating’s embrace of these policies that led Labour’s traditional supporters to abandon the party in 1996. What working class voters care about is economic security, and this, they understand, will be given to them by the policies of economic rationalism adopted by the Hawke-Keating government until from 1983 to 1990. Most of the book consists of Thompson’s critical analysis of the writings of his middle-class opponents within the Labour Party, a group he extends to include all those who take seriously the party’s stated socialist objective. Not surprisingly, the book has the endorsement of prominent economic rationalists like Peter Walsh and P.P. McGuinness. More surprising, perhaps, is a laudatory foreword by Martin Ferguson, referring ominously to Labor’s ‘courage and responsibility in revisiting policies – on welfare, employment and education, for example – that were once treated as sacred.’

Undoubtedly, Thompson is correct to point out that some middle-class advocates of postmaterialist ideas have a patronising and condescending view of the working class as rednecks obsessed with narrowly economic goals, and that middle-class people of this kind were prominent among those (not very many as it turned out) who swung to Keating after 1993. But Thompson simply presents a mirror-image of these views. He accepts without question, and without supporting evidence, the view that the working class is anti-feminist, anti-environmentalist, anti-Aboriginal and so on. The view that environmental concerns are alien to the working class comes particularly oddly from someone who claims to have spent ten years as a builder’s labourer ‘active during the Mundey, Owens and Pringle era’. Evidence from opinion polls and similar studies suggests that both pro- and anti-environmental attitudes are well represented in all social classes. There is some tendency for younger people and those with more education to hold more pro-environmental views, but even these correlations are not particularly strong.

Accepting however, that Thompson’s distaste for the ‘chardonnay set’ who gravitated to Keating after 1993 is shared by many traditional Labour voters, this point does not yield anything like the consequences he wants to derive. His argument suffers from crucial analytical, economic and political errors.

As far as analysis is concerned, it is bizarre to read a book, supposedly about labour and class, that does not even mention employers, capital or wealth. In claiming that there is an irreconcilable conflict between the working class and the urban middle class, it might be expected that Thompson would try to refute the more traditional labour view of an irreconcilable conflict between labour and capital. Thompson simply ignores the question.

Even Thompson’s conception of the middle class is incredibly narrow. The only groups mentioned are teachers, academics and public servants (most of the latter group, on Thompson’s classification, are actually members of the working class). Thompson describes himself as a consultant to the law firm Clayton Utz, but neither consultants nor lawyers (both groups heavily overrepresented in the political system) get a mention. Although ‘urban’ and ‘professional’ are dirty words for Thompson, he ignores the fact that of all the professional groups in the workforce, teachers are the least concentrated in urban areas and work under conditions most similar to those of the clerical workers he wants to assimilate to the working class.

In economic terms, Thompson is committed to the thesis that economic rationalism is necessary for the welfare of the working class and has their political support. The first part of this proposition is simply assumed. Thompson repeatedly and correctly refers to the economic insecurity that faces the working class (though he might have the decency to observe that much the same insecurity faces his betes noires, teachers and academics). He does not explain how privatisation and the accompanying mass redundancies, the abandonment of Keynesian macroeconomic policies, the gutting of the award system and so on are supposed to enhance workers’ security. The argument can perhaps be made that any policy that attempts to protect workers’ interests is doomed to failure, so that there is no alternative to economic rationalism. However, Thompson does not attempt to make it.

Thompson does make a half-hearted attempt to defend the proposition that the Australian working class actually supports economic rationalism. To do this he has to ignore the entire period from 1983 to 1990 when, as he agrees, the economic rationalism of the Hawke-Keating government was at its peak. During this period, Labor’s share of the primary vote fell from 49.5 per cent in 1983, to 47.5 per cent in 1984, 45.8 per cent in 1987 and 39.4 per cent in 1990. The only time Labor’s vote increased was in 1993, when the Liberals were led by the ultra-rationalist John Hewson. In any case, Thompson’s claims on this point are simply incredible. I invite him to walk into any working class pub in the country and announce himself as an economic rationalist.

The final problem with Thompson’s argument is political. Suppose we accept that the Australian working class wants or needs a combination of economic rationalism and cultural conservatism. Precisely that policy mixture is offered to them by John Howard. In the only direct reference to Howard’s views in the book, Thompson says of the 1996 election

The Coalition did not mobilise women around more government intervention, less economic orthodoxy and pro-environment policies. Its leader was John Howard of ‘white picket fence’ fame. But having captured 53 per cent of the women’s vote in 1996, could it not be argued that the Coalition is rather more astute at gauging ‘women’s’ needs and aspirations, and winning their support. (quotation marks in original)

The obvious inference from Thompson’s book is not that Labor should change its position but that he, and others who share his views, should join the Liberals. In fact, Gary Johns, the only figure in the Keating government whom Thompson quotes with any approval, is now affiliated with the Institute for Public Affairs, a right-wing think tank with close historical ties to the Liberal party. P.P. McGuinness, who gives an approving plug, is a former Labor staffer who has long been identified with the most free-market elements of the Liberal party, and now edits the right-wing magazine Quadrant. Senator Peter Walsh has followed a similar trajectory without, so far, actually joining the Liberals. Doubtless, Thompson will not be far behind him when he does.

70 thoughts on “Labor roots

  1. True enough with the waxing and waning Elizabeth, as anyone about in the Howard-Peacock years could attest. I don’t think the ALP need Homer’s Messiah, just a pragmatic, practical manager of some experience to pull a disconsolate and disparate team together. That’s why I’d suggest coopting Beattie or Carr. At least Carr could pick the danger within our midst and call a spade a spade on the ASIO raids. IMO the Fed ALP have to put its ‘cuddly with fundies’ association to bed with the electorate once and for all. It has to understand the limits to multiculturalism here, because feudal Islam forces you to draw that line in the sand. The Coalition have marked that out very successfully.

    Since some ALP blokes seem to be off with the fairies on multiculturalism, let me ask the girls the same thing I put to MrsO- Would you prefer to live in a country under feudal, Islamic law and customs? If not, why would you advocate allowing one more Sheikh Hilali or Omran, or member of their flock into this country? Are you comfortable with those who think all immigrants are equal?

    If the ALP can’t reform its unrepresentative, union gerrymander, then in the longer term Howard’s IR reform will. Here I think the unions have been taken over by the agendists, much to the frustration of many workers. More or less like the student unions with their politicking at member’s expense. IMO, the unions will have to get back to basics, directly representing workers economic bargaining interests, or whither and die. The labour hire companies may have already carved up much of their traditional territory here. Perhaps they should become non-profit labour hire/placement/AWA advocacy organisations with a narrow focus on worker welfare, a bit like industry super funds have in the super field(yes I’m with CBus)

  2. Observa, re Carr. Well I agree with you that he can see ‘danger within our midst and call a spade a spade on the ASIO raids’. However, for a supposedly educated, cultured and environmentally sensitive man his lack of vision for Sydney has resembled more that of what one would expect from the likes of John Singleton (although, at least, he might get the trains to run on time). Greenies might get all exited about old growth forests in Tasmania but Australia has just about the most urbanised population in the world (after Hong Kong and Singapore) and its getting to the stage where Sydney’s remarkable natural heritage can cover all the cracks caused by bad planning. As for long term planning in Brisbane and the Gold Coast the less said the better.

  3. Observa, you certainly are a Silly Billy. Having Muslim immigrants no more makes us vulnerable to Islamic law than letting Jason and his family into the country increased the chances we were going to be taken over by the Triads.

    Michael, Carr is an opprtunist, pure and simple. He has figured it pays to be as far right as humanly possible on law and order issues and that is where he has pegged his tent. It keeps the Daily Telegraph off his back, which is the sine qua non of long term political success in NSW.

  4. “Observa, you certainly are a Silly Billy. Having Muslim immigrants no more makes us vulnerable to Islamic law than letting Jason and his family into the country increased the chances we were going to be taken over by the Triads. ”

    Poor analogy Dave if you were an aboriginal in 1788 gazing down at some new arrivals with the First Fleet. I understand those new arrivals, their followers and offspring, magnanimously gave your hypothetical descendants the vote, about half a white man’s lifetime ago. How’s your tribal law and customs doing in this democracy these days brother?

  5. I may not be subject to Shar’ia law, but I’m already subject to comments by males who refer to adult women as “girls”.

  6. Elizabeth,

    Sorry about the obscure prose. What I meant to say was that in February 1983:

    1. The economy was stuffed, which was bad news for the Coalition government and good news for Labor.

    2. Labor actually had some good, interesting and popular policy commitments, and a “big picture” of where Australia should have been heading, to take into the 1983 election.

    3. Labor was a healthier political organisation in 1983 than it is now.

    Therefore, when Bill Hayden said that “a drover’s dog could lead Labor to victory” in the election, he meant that there were strong reasons (including the ones I’ve just listed) for believing that Labor could win the election even without replacing him with Bob Hawke as leader.

    Clear enough?

  7. Observa, why don’t you explain to us a plausible scenario under which we will become subject to Sharia law.

  8. Helen, when you’re a bloke over 50, everyone looks like a girl. (err, half of ya, although it could be more)

    Dave, I didn’t necessarily imply Sharia Law. Think muslim beliefs and customs generally. (they’re not all Osamas and Amrozis. There are educated moderates like Dr Mahatir). Think about Brian Harradine’s achievements, ALP branch stacking or Brack’s Religious Vilification Laws here. Do you really think the Rev Nalliah would be facing jail for his comments now, if Australians professing Muslim faith hadn’t grown about 40% from around 200,000 in 1996 to over 280,000 in 2001(ABS Census) and where to today? They include Hicks, Habib, Hilali, Jihad Jack,…. Lots of supporters of homosexual marriage there infidel Dave? Lots of feminist thinkers there too infidel Helen?

    She’ll be right, until the day any of those faithful, pull off a Sept11 or Bali on Oz soil eh? You can bet the Robert Starys of this world won’t be around offering his public comments if they do. That podium will be left to those paranoid ASIO types, Howard and Carr .

  9. Paul – thank you 🙂

    I completely agree, though despite the fact Howard keeps winning elections, there is a general feeling out in voter land that he has gone past his used by date. The question is who is a suitable alternative, and Beazley (unfortunately, who I like), Crean, Latham, Beazley again haven’t been the people voters conclude as being suitable substitutes.

    Again the drover’s dog may still be worth barking about!

  10. Some of us can picture the usual suspects screaming the loudest for their explanations too. The gummint orta dun sumpink!

  11. … that sharia could actually arise in a civilised country?

    no doubt you mob have been following this story…for those who haven’t, try a plausible scenario to introduce archaism, as requested above…

    Quebec rejects sharia system
    Thursday, May 26, 2005 Updated at 1:21 PM EDT
    Canadian Press

    Quebec — Quebec has rejected the use of Islamic tribunals, which can be used to settle family disputes, in the province.

    In a unanimous vote Thursday, the Quebec legislature passed a motion against allowing sharia to be used in the legal system.

    “The application of sharia in Canada is part of a strategy to isolate the Muslim community, so it will submit to an archaic vision of Islam,� Fatima Houda-Pepin, a Liberal member of the legislature, said as she introduced the motion against use of the Islamic law.

    “These demands are being pushed by groups in the minority that are using the Charter of Rights to attack the foundation of our democratic institutions.�

    The debate over sharia surfaced in Canada two years ago when a Muslim group in Ontario proposed the arbitration of family disputes according to Islamic law.

  12. observa
    before anti-religious vilification law there was racial vilification law. for the record i am opposed to both on civil liberties grounds but the problem here is one of a general statist mentality that is to be found in muslims and non-muslims alike. the solution is for government not to get involved in such things in the first place and stick to tort for remedies.
    as for the canadian situation i am in two minds about this. i don’t see how it differs from the situation among orthodox jewish diamond dealers in new york who apparently have their own customary law for dealing with commercial matters – there was a study done by an economist about this a while back. if the sharia family law is an opt in provision i don’ see the problem with it as a libertarian.

  13. jason

    is the customary law practised in new york that you have mentioned enshrined in a statute or merely adopted by individuals as a convention or habit?

    It is the enshrining that is the problem surely, why incorporate protection for an utterly different species of law? would daughters and wives continue to understand the better and more traditional protection afforded by the formal legal system and would they (be allowed to) opt to opt into that?

  14. Hang on a minute here. The Quebec legislature, which has three parties represented and more of a history of people crossing the floor than we have here, voted *unanimously* to reject sharia. Doesn’t sound to me like sharia is likely to come in any time soon in Quebec.

    I don’t know how many Muslims there are in Quebec, but suspect they’re a larger proportion of the population there than here. Consequently it is reasonable to assume that the Islamic population of Australia would have to rise a very long way before we need to seriously worry about Sharia being imposed, even for some members of the community.

    I hate the fundamentalist wing of Islam at least as much as I hate fundamentalist Christianity, but the solution to it is the establishment of a strong moderate muslim population, who, like this Fatima Houda-Pepin will expose the bankrupcy of the extreemists, unless attacks from non-Muslims leading to a circling of the wagons.

    The alternative is to either refuse people on the basis of their country of origin, or to start quizzing people on their religious beliefs when they apply to immigrate – ie only the liers are allowed in.

  15. “Those who want to conserve Australian community, should place their hope in the proles”

    Yup, those proles in South Africa sure did protect their ‘community’ under the slogan ‘Workers of the world unite for a white South Africa’
    In 1922, under a banner reading, “Workers of the World Unite For a White South Africa,” white miners took to the streets of Johannesburg to protest the increasing competition from black miners. White miners demanded job protectionism, or the color bar. The government of Gen. Jan Smuts used the army, artillery and even aerial bombardment to put down what came to be known as the Rand Rebellion. But, to prevent future white worker protests, the government instituted the color bar.

    I hear they did a smashing job here in Australia for a while too under the Trifecta policy of Protection all round (White Australia, centralised wage fixing and high tariffs)

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