Latest Opinion Piece on ABC Website: Labor is fighting a false war that overlooks its real challenge

Bill Shorten and Anthony AlbaneseLabor’s election post-mortem delivered a mixed message on the party’s key strategic challenge, setting the scene for an ongoing battle within the party over how to balance the views of its inner city and outer urban constituencies.

However the terms of this debate set the scene for a false war and risk distracting the party from finding the solutions to the real challenge it faces.

Invisible pain

For the past 30 years Labor has told its traditional constituents that they need to harden up in the face of the realities of a competitive global economy.

But they should extend compassion, empathy and care to non-whites, women, gay people and the environment.

There are sections of the party that think their problems will be solved if they stop preaching care and justice to marginalised groups. But this is a false diagnosis.

Many from Labor’s traditional base aren’t necessarily antagonistic to these groups, as the marriage equality vote showed.

For the traditional base, the real sting is the way that advocacy for compassion for these groups contrasts with the lack of recognition and understanding of their own struggles.

It is the invisibility of their pain that is galling.

A clear central narrative is lacking

The Labor campaign has been criticised for lacking a clear central narrative. But it was more than a marketing failure.

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It is an intellectual failure that the modern left doesn’t have a narrative of the economy that gives voice to people’s sense of suffering.

It is timely to reflect on this lack, this week as we mark the 30-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.

The failure springs from the Left having not intellectually recovered from the collapse of socialism. When socialism proved itself unviable, its critique of the ways that capitalist economies tend towards exploitation was taken down with it.

The Left didn’t go through a process of sorting through the intellectual wreckage and developing a new position.

Instead it embraced its opponents’ account of free markets being efficient and meritocratic. It capitulated completely, taking on its opponents’ ideas in full.

For 30 years, Labor politicians have been telling the punters that they are not educated enough to understand that their free market policies are for their own good.

The difference between the major parties was reduced to Labor being prepared to tax and spend more to improve welfare services like public health and public education.

Reclaiming its roots

In the last election Labor was attempting to reclaim its roots by being more progressive than it’s been in a generation.

But it was still caught in the neo-liberal straight jacket.

Labor was still operating off a premise that markets are efficient, and that the only room to manoeuvre is in how you tax and spend.

The progressive impulse was directed at attacking the rich to make them pay more tax to level the playing field.

There wasn’t a narrative about why that wealth might have been unfairly gained, or about the people they were seeking to protect from exploitation.

It didn’t speak to working people’s sense of powerlessness.

For the political old timers, immersed in the detail of Labor’s agenda, they had an instinctive sense of how all their policies connected up.

But there was no narrative that made sense of it all to the ordinary voter.

In the US and the UK, people have reached back to 1970s socialists in political leaders such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in search of an alternative to the neo-liberal status quo.

It is an indictment on the failure of the intervening generations.

Tossing out the intellectual wreckage

The work of picking through the Left’s intellectual wreckage, discarding ideas that have been disproven, and identifying the enduring truths still needs to be done.

The task of re-fashioning the ideas that still hold true into a new narrative that diagnoses contemporary challenges and their solutions is still ahead of us.

Labor will be repeating the same mistakes if it focuses its debate about the election failure on the race and gender equality movements, rather than doing the hard work which is long overdue.

Dr Lindy Edwards is a political analyst from the University of New South Wales and author of several books on Australian politics.

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