I come from a rusted-on Labor family. My father was a Labor councillor on our local council. My sister-in-law was a Labor state member. My father was a strong unionist. His hero was Bob Hawke. He fervently believed in many of the union dictums like “one man – one job”. This philosophy eschewed multiskilling and was pursued to maximise employment numbers. Like many in the traditional Labor movement he had no concern, and perhaps no understanding, for the cost to employers of such restrictive practices. The main schism in the world as he perceived it was between “bosses” and “workers”.
But he was essentially a principled man who was dedicated to the progress of the “working class”. There could be no reconciliation in his mind between the aspiration and needs of workers and the greed of exploitative employers. His greatest disappointment occurred when Paul Keating, as a Labor Prime Minister, promoted superannuation. This was merely a ploy, he maintained, to deny workers their rightful access to a pension on their retirement. If you had worked all your life and paid your taxes, then surely you were entitled to an aged pension. He was a compassionate man who put his faith in Labor to champion the welfare of the working class. And in those bygone days it invariably did.
When I was young, our local State Government member was Labor and he was a frequent visitor to our home. I was named after his chief advisor. Thus I learnt in my childhood that Labor and trade unions were good, and the other side of politics, despisingly called “the Tories”, were bad.
It is understandable why workers flocked to support the Labor Party when its purpose was so aligned with their interests. But that was then! In recent decades the underlying purpose of the Labor Party seems to have dramatically changed.
The labour movement, as a result of its alignment with workers, in past times spawned far different leaders from today. Our war time Prime Minister John Curtin left school at 13 years of age. He was succeeded by Ben Chifley who was a train driver. It is little wonder then that a party led by such men reflected the values of the working class.
That was the party my father voted for – I can’t imagine my father happily voting for a Labor party obsessed with environmental issues, Identity politics and political correctness.
Working class people are inherently conservative. As Labor has progressively become more liberal and “woke” in its attitudes it is not surprising that the working class has become to feel alienated from the political movement that was ostensibly created to meet their needs?
This change in political perspective from the Labor Party has many causes. But the Labor movement has not been helped by some of the structural changes over recent decades. To begin with, globalisation, which has undoubtedly improved the standard of living of average Australians, has had its casualties. Once tariffs were removed and free trade arrangements were put in place our manufacturing sector declined with the consequent loss of blue-collar workers who had been traditional Labor voters.
As well, mechanisation and the increased use of technology in agricultural industries has shrunk another historical source of Labor voters.
For reasons a little too complex to enunciate in a short essay, technology has ensured that tradesmen as a proportion of the workforce have been shrinking since the 1960’s. Even more importantly, many tradesmen are now self-employed rather than employees. Consequently they are aspirational entrepreneurs, keen on running their own small businesses and now no longer predisposed to vote for Labor.
John Howard was attuned to these demographic shifts. Appealing to “Howard’s Battlers” ensured his re-election.
But it is fair to say that for some years Labor has cruelled its election chances by taking its traditional base for granted. Its strategy has seemed to be that its traditional supporters were unthinkingly loyal and its main task was to win over more of the left who had moved to support the Greens.
It is not surprising that these essentially conservative working class loyalists were dismayed when Labor began to champion environmentalism, identity politics and all the issues across the “woke” spectrum in order to win inner city seats from the Greens. So Labor, the party they had relied on to protect their interests, no longer cared for them.
In recent elections more and more of the working class voters have been deserting Labor. Whilst some have voted for the Coalition parties, even more have fled to the more conservative minor parties such as One Nation.
Now it would seem that Labor is doing its best to alienate another traditional source of supporters – employees in the resources and energy sector. In its bid to win over Green supporters, Labor has taken an aggressive stance in support of renewable energy and against fossil fuels. It is working to shut down fossil-fuelled power stations, is reluctant to support the logical bridging technology of gas-fired power generation and is opposed to coal mining and gas extraction. (As I write Queensland’s State Labor Conference has reaffirmed this stance.) These industries employ considerable employees. They also provide the economic backbone of quite a number of regional communities. In trying to improve their chances of winning inner-city seats, Labor is abandoning much of their traditional support in the regions. The recent NSW Hunter by-election indicates the problems of pursuing such a strategy.
Labor is essentially caught in a cleft stick. Its original working class constituency is now being compromised in order to appeal to the inner-city elites. Unfortunately those two demographics have almost irreconcilable ideals.
The working class voters are more interested in employment, health, education and issues that impact on their standard of living. The other demographic is consumed by identity politics, environmentalism, social justice and other “woke” causes.
Unfortunately for the working class supporters of Labor, the more left wing city-based cohort has driven most of the policy development. In fact the party itself has now become an organisation comprising largely of middle-class liberals, students, social activists and trade union officials.
You might have thought that the Trades Unions would be more attuned to the needs of the working class, but if they are there is little evidence to that effect. (Although, there has been a move recently by some of the unions on Labor’s right to react against Labor’s more extreme policies with respect to coal, gas and energy.)
But another demographic shift explains the waning influence of unions not only on the Labor party but on society at large. This is the simple fact that unions no longer can claim to be representative of the working class because the numbers of their members have declined dramatically and continue to decline. In my youth over half the workforce were union members. Today only one in seven employees is a union member. What’s more a disproportionate number of those are public servants, who live relatively sheltered lives with respect to working conditions and wage outcomes and could hardly be described as typical working class employees.
I live in regional Queensland where the coal industry is a major employer and where there are three major coal-fired power stations. Consequently Labor’s policies have in my region seen a dwindling of the Labor vote. It is surprising to me that State Labor has taken such a negative stand with respect to the coal industry not only because of the jobs that coal mining brings but also because without coal royalties the economically irresponsible State Government would be virtually bankrupt.
So there is this seemingly irreconcilable difference between Labor’s inner-city elites and its more traditional blue-collar voters. Any move to placate one of these cohorts seems destined to alienate the other. Whilst Labor’s policy positions in recent years seem to favour the inner-city elites, as Labor’s member for Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon points out, the party is unlikely to regain power at the federal level unless it can recapture regional seats where Labor supporters are far more conservative than their inner-city counterparts.
Unfortunately Labor’s “woke” progressives assume a position of intellectual superiority and seem to look down on their conservative regional and working class fellows. They believe they know best and are happy to gratuitously patronise their working class brothers and sisters.
So what are the values that working class people hold that might be abhorrent to the progressives? Here are some beliefs such people might have. I am not suggesting that every working class voter holds these things dear, but they are indicative of what separates them from the inner-city left-leaning elites.
- They tend to be parochially loyal to their town or region. Many members of their family probably live close by.
- They are less likely to have tertiary qualifications.
- They are patriotic.
- They are more likely to be religious.
- Law and order issues are more important to them. They probably expect the authorities to do more to prevent the sale and distribution of illegal drugs and for judges to provide harsher penalties for those committing serious crimes.
- Whilst they are practical environmentalists they are more in favour of resource extraction projects than their inner-city counterparts.
- Whilst they support welfare for the needy they believe welfare recipients have reciprocal responsibilities.
- They are more conservative about identity politics and political correctness. Whilst they likely are accepting of gay and lesbian people they believe marriage is between a man and a woman. They would not countenance the notion that a human being with a penis should be able to identify as a woman.
Paul Embery, fire fighter and trade unionist in the UK, reported on a similar phenomenon in his home country in his book Despised.
‘Treat people like cattle, and you’ll be kicked’ as the man said. The people of Barking and Dagenham had been treated like cattle for years. Patronised, neglected, dismissed. Many had disengaged from the political process entirely. The political establishment was tin-eared. It didn’t want to hear from people like them. It thought they were a bit, well, uncultured. All it wanted was their votes at election time.
Further he wrote:
[Labour’s traditional working class supporters] look at today’s Labour party – replete with its middle-class Guardian reading bohemians and pseudo-intellectuals, and pursuing an uber-liberal, youth obsessed [capital city centric} agenda – and feel unwanted. Today’s Labour party treats them as if they were an embarrassing elderly relative. It still wants their votes, but it doesn’t want to appear in public with them. Their views are antediluvian and reactionary. They haven’t caught up with the liberal political enlightenment.
I suspect the Australian Labor Party has a similar problem.
Once, it was rightly said that Labor was the political arm of the union movement. Although the unions are still influential, that description is far less relevant today. The party neither looks like or sounds like those it was created to represent. Many of its representatives and spokespeople have interests divergent from the interests of the working class. And as we saw above that is reflected in its membership.
The world moves on and unleashes new dynamics. Due to the changing demographics I have outlined, it would do little good for the Labor Party to revert to the policies of John Curtin or Ben Chifley. But it won’t be a significant political force if it can’t reconcile the differences between the two dominant demographics it represents. It seems to me that if Labor is to succeed electorally, particularly in the Federal arena, it needs to reengage a little more with its traditional base even at the expense of alienating some of its inner-city middle class intellectuals, social activists, environmental warriors and champions of identity politics.
In this regard I think Joel Fitzgibbon is right. Labor can only be a credible political force again if it can find the nous to appeal not only to the inner-city elites but also to bring consolation and support to its regional and more conservative traditional supporters.
I don’t think that Anthony Albanese has the capacity to deliver on such a difficult and contradictory demand.