Recently I have noticed, as have others, that as The Greens’ voice gets louder, and as the Conservative Party of Tony Abbott takes more positions on issues than the Kama Sutra, as it drags Labor to the Right or outflanks it on the Left if it suits them to do so, so long as it is in opposition to the Gillard government's position, we have reached a situation where the Gillard government is 'Damned if they do, and damned if they don't’, in a political pincer movement from the political parties to the Left and Right of them. Whatever they do is 'never enough' for The Greens, and always 'going too far' for the Conservatives. Of course, this feeds perfectly into the maw of the media who seem to love nothing more than a good political stoush; and being fed ready-made critiques from the Left and Right of the government satisfies this requirement to a T. They can satisfy their Conservative-leaning readers or viewers with, 'The Opposition says...', and their Left-leaning demographic with a Greens spokesperson. Also, as is becoming increasingly obvious to me, it serves well the purpose of the imperial media in this country to 'demolish' the government of Julia Gillard. I mean, you can't say they aren't presenting a 'balanced' point of view when they have criticism of the government from both the Left and the Right, can you?
It almost seems to me as though there has been a societal schism open up as a result of the transformations society has undergone recently, on a dual track, both as a result of the Howard/Bush years of Neo-Conservatism, and the contrapuntal emergence of the Humanitarian Enviro-Organic lifestyle, Healthy Living movement. If you're not a newly-reconstructed Conservative and supporter of a Neo-Liberal ethos, you're a supporter of the causes The Greens have adopted as their own. Or a combination of the two, a 'BlueGreen', if you like, that I have noticed popping up more frequently of late, such as the aggressive Free-Market supporting a Renewable Energy/Wind Turbine company owner whom I saw on Lateline Business
a few weeks ago who looked like the embodiment of a Greens' voter, who ate healthily, exercised regularly and kept his chakras in strict alignment. And he was definitely no fan of the ALP. They were obviously not 'pure' enough for him and his well-articulated strain of Green Libertarianism.
Which is leading me to conclude that the Labor Party has become increasingly isolated as a result of this solidifying societal schism between the rock of Neo-Conservatism and the hard place of the Neo-Puritanism of the ersatz ascetic Green Left.
The contemplation of which, in a very circumloquacious way, gets me to the subject of this blog, 'What can a Progressive Labor Party stand for in the 21st Century?' Which was essentially the over-arching theme of the Progressive Australia Conference which I attended over the May Day weekend recently. What can/does the Labor Party stand for? How can it renew and refresh what it stands for?
Firstly, let me just say that I only attended one of the two days, simply because I came back home from Day 1 mightily pee'd off with a lot of the participants at the Conference. So much so that I got into a verbal stoush with one of the so-called Labor Party 'supporters' who were attending the conference (yes, I know, you find that hard to believe :) ), as they had the temerity, in my eyes, to set up a stall, complete with little complaint postcards for attendees to pick up and send off to the PM. The purpose of their stand? To have an almighty whinge that the Labor Party had not done enough in government for Public Education(!!!), and was oh so wrong to keep supporting Private Schools with taxpayers' money, such that they got new swimming pools while the Public Schools suffered in their jocks, or words to that effect. Now I agree that Private Schools get too much from the taxpayers' purse, but it would be political suicide to cut it back severely, as last week's hue and cry over a little trim to Family Tax Benefit showed. Suffice to say I tried laboriously to point out just how much the Federal Labor government had done for Public Education since it had been in power: Laptops, BER, My School shining a light on Public vs Private schools, and now, a full-scale review of the Private School federal funding model, the first in over two decades. But no, that wasn't enough for this underminer from within the Labor tent. Mark Latham's disastrous 'Private School Hit List' should have been implemented the day Labor came to power federally, and all else was a mere sideshow to this one ideal of theirs. Just so they could have their own swimming pool for their children at the Public High School, it seemed to me. As I said to the person, “So you'd rather direct your anger at the party who has made a serious attempt to redress the infrastructure imbalance, instead of redirecting your postcards to Tony Abbott, who is the one who wants to perpetuate the system you are complaining about?” The answer to my question? “Well, we'll have to agree to disagree then”, after which I was roundly ignored. Not one bit of my counter argument and defence of the federal Labor government's achievements in Education having sunk in as she continued to spruik her wares. Sigh.
Anyway, onto the conference itself.
I'll just provide a summary of the main points made by the Keynote speaker first up. I think that in doing so I will provide ample food for thought, which you may like to comment upon.
The keynote was given by James Purnell, former Social Secretary in the UK Labour government. He spoke about 'Renewing Our Progressive Values'. He said that what we need, and need to identify, are Activist leaders in local community debates. That is, so often these days we hear from Conservative activist voices in community debates, but not Progressive activists. Or should I say, not moderate Progressive activist voices. Which reflects the point I made before, that the 'Angry Ants' (or should that be 'Angry Birds’ these days?), in the community are more likely to be to the Left and Right of Labor, with a seeming vacuum in between. However, to remedy this, first we have to identify what it is that we moderate Progressives stand for these days.
James Purnell believes we need to re-establish 'The Labo(u)r Tradition'. In essence what he means is that Progressive 'Labo(u)r parties have always been about getting a fair share of the nation's wealth distributed evenly. Previously that has come about as a result of the workers getting a fair share of the profits of business through fair pay and conditions.
Well, Purnell argues that we can still maintain this ideal, but due to the transformative changes that have occurred as a result of global capitalism and the Free Market, that we should modify the original intent of worker-driven Labo(u)r parties to acknowledge that markets are a valid way to generate revenue, and that workers may indeed also be shareholders or small businessmen and women, but that what should be therefore emblematic of a Labo(u)r party now is that they should advocate that using the money generated by the market is necessary to create a more equal society. Such that Progressive political parties may continue helping the poorest and most vulnerable, and continue to cleave to the ethos of, “A common view of a life proper to human beings”, as their 'Light on the Hill' to work towards.
He also pointed out the fact that we subconsciously assume that there is one only set of Progressive ideals. Not so. In fact, there is a competitive tension between 'The American Dream', that anyone can make it, versus 'The European Welfare State', which recognizes that not everyone has what it takes to make it. He believes we should be advocating more 'American Dream' and less 'Welfare State', post Global Capitalism's transformation of the world economy. He acknowledged that 'Labo(u)r and 'Progressive' traditions and aspirations (now, there's a word we should take back from the Cons), ARE different. We must admit that open markets are the best way to generate revenue, and so, what we need to concentrate our efforts on is the best way to take advantage of the revenue generated by markets in order to satisfy the Progressive ideal of creating a more equal society, helping the poor and most vulnerable and thus allowing all boats to rise equally, in a metaphorical sense.
He also sounded a warning that, when the perceived 'Intellectual Elites' of the Left are seen to be deciding policy that they think is good for us, in contrast to being seen to be reacting to the electorate's commonly and popularly-articulated concerns, then they, and the 'solutions' they impose on the electorate, are in danger of being seen as impositions, and they can engender disgruntlement and ungratefulness. Even if those solutions have produced a net positive result for those very same people. As we have seen only too clearly this past week with the Budget brought down by the federal Labor government. Net positive outcomes, but massive media-led and Coalition-fed disgruntlement and ungratefulness. As positive moves were not sold as well to the electorate as the supposed negatives.
Which leads into another telling point made by James Purnell. It goes to the language Progressive politicians get hung up using. He said that we need to “Keep our language real, to keep us real.”
As we know, the Coalition has this dictum as its talisman. It is partly why it is so effective and successful.
What we also know, from bitter recent experience, is that Kevin Rudd was guilty of the sin of speaking in the twin tongues of Gobbledygook and Bureaucratese, and he ended up paying the heaviest of price for it. His party lost faith in him and his ability to sell its messages to the electorate, and the electorate lost faith in him to be able to speak their language. Their PM became alien to them.
Let me also just add at this point, that I believe that Wayne Swan should not be the Treasurer for this same reason. He may be good at the nuts and bolts of his job, but he couldn't sell a hot pie on a cold day, and he is woeful at selling the Labor government's economic achievements to the country at large. Why the Labor Party ever thought they could get away with putting a man with a speech impediment and about as much charisma as a box of Corn Flakes into the job that had just seen Peter Costello and Paul Keating fill the seat, I don't know. Wayne Swan should have been Finance Minister and Lindsay Tanner, Treasurer. Pity Tanner didn't figure a way out of the Left the way Julia Gillard did.
Which thoughts bring me to another bugbear about the way the Labor Party sells itself back to the electorate, and which James Purnell encapsulated nicely.
It's really 'old-fashioned' the way the ALP sells itself. Day after day the Pic Facs get trotted out, with a Minister or the Prime Minister dropping in to a school, factory or building site of appropriate interest. Some cursory involvement occurs for the cameras, a few questions are asked by the assembled journalists, and then they are all gone. James Purnell said that what we have to do is engage with the people in a more substantive and genuine way. Progressive MPs and activists for the cause need to talk to people about what makes them angry, what they'd like to change. Sit down, talk and build a common interest with people. Build that common interest that you agree to fight for on their behalf. This 'Reciprocity' will build trust and support.
Importantly, James Purnell exhorted Progressives to forever fight for the maintenance of the Social Safety Net. However, in light of the market-oriented, entrepreneurial and aspirational society the world sees as the new normal, what Progressives need to articulate is that we support a hand-out when necessary, then a hand-up to a better life, as the ALP tried to articulate this week with its 'Welfare to Work' initiatives, which were drowned out in a cacophony of, “Is $150,000/year 'rich?”
Markets can empower people, but they can also exploit people. Progressives need to be always on the lookout for this. James Purnell noted that he had seen the rise of 'Individual Flexibility Agreements', which sound mutually beneficial to both employee and employer, but which are simply the Neo-Liberals new AWAs, re-badged. Which goes to the point that the social should never be entirely replaced by the commercial in Industrial Relations. We should never allow workers to be entirely commoditized as 'Units of Production'.
Last, but not least, James Purnell has seen the 'Blue Green' mind meld come to UK society, and, as I explained before with my Green Businessman example, in another form that we are also seeing here. That is, consumers are thinking mindless consumerism is dead. Call it the 'New Frugalism', or 'Responsible Consumerism', but it is one area that I believe the Labor Party should be getting on board with. A responsible approach to consumerism hand in hand with a responsible approach to the planet.
Anyway, there was more, much more, at ProgCon, but that's enough for now.
What do you think?