A Lesson for Social Democrats

Ross McKibbin

On 26 March the New South Wales Labor government suffered a shattering defeat in the state elections. It won only 25 per cent of the votes, lost 32 of its 52 seats – one to the Greens and the rest to the conservative coalition – on swings against it of up to 35 per cent. Much of its heartland was lost and will be difficult to regain. It was the worst defeat in its history: even worse than in 1932, when the party succumbed to a major economic and political crisis.

This was more than just a defeat in one part of a not terribly important country. New South Wales has a larger population than several EU states, and Sydney is bigger than most European capitals. More of Sydney’s workforce is born overseas than in any European capital, with the possible exception of London. And the New South Wales Labor Party is probably the oldest, most precocious and most successful working-class party – at least with a continuous history – anywhere in the world. It has governed New South Wales for most of the last century, including for the past 16 years. Only four years ago it had an easy victory in the state elections. Deceptively easy, as it turned out.

Some reasons for the defeat are local to New South Wales. Others, however, are not. Like many working-class parties, the NSW Labor Party has been characterised by a powerful party machine, and Sussex Street has historically been very successful in mobilising not only the working class but also important sections of the urban and rural middle classes. The system has always depended on patronage and clientage: often in a big way. The party has had complex relations with the state’s betting and drinking interests, and with the Roman Catholic church. The NSW Labor Party (and the Australian Labor Party more generally) differs from most other social democratic parties, however, in the historic significance of the trade unions inside the system and in the easy movement of people between industrial and political labour. There has always been tension between the machine and the parliamentary Labor Party but over the long term there was a fairly productive balance.

The system not only mobilised the vote but also guaranteed reasonably progressive and competent government. New South Wales was conspicuously better governed than states (such as Victoria) where the conservative parties were predominant, and Labor identified itself with the ambitions of ‘ordinary’ voters remarkably well. So what went wrong? One factor, it could be argued, is the decline in the industrial working class and consequently in union membership. Yet I doubt if that was fatal. Deindustrialisation has not had much effect on overall voting patterns in Australia – which have been remarkably stable since the emergence of Labor and anti-Labor parties in 1910 – because the Labor Party has been able to preserve its status as a ‘progressive’ party via a coalition of interests, predominantly but not only working-class. That status, however, collapsed in New South Wales over the last four years, culminating in last month’s debacle.

Here perhaps the story becomes more familiar. In New South Wales, the decline of the industrial working class was accompanied by the collapse of the Labor-reformist ideology, which was a product of the old demography. In the best neo-liberal way, Labor governments became obsessed by budget surpluses, refused to borrow for infrastructure projects and became notorious for cancelling programmes once thought to be indispensable. In other words, the government became incapable of working the old patronage networks because it had nothing to give its clients.

The decay of reformism also opened the Labor Party to a destructive factionalism. Australian politics, both Labor and non-Labor, have always been much more factionalised than in Britain. In New South Wales, as elsewhere in Australia, the right-wing faction was victorious. The dynamo of the NSW Right has been the party machine, in alliance with some of the trade unions. The parliamentary party and the government became its playthings: premiers were made and unmade by it. The point of politics became not policy but politics, and most of its practitioners were men and women who had done nothing else since university, if not before. (Here the comparison with Britain becomes very close.) Since all that mattered was winning elections, the role of the machine was to monitor every movement, however slight, of public opinion. It took one bad opinion poll for the NSW Right to remove Kevin Rudd.

NSW government was focus-group politics par excellence. In order to win elections you had to have money, and raising money was the obsessive concern of the machine. That is how the Labor Party became the party of the property developer, which divorced it from much of its traditional electorate and undermined its once strong ethnic minority vote – ever more important in Australian politics. It also divorced the party from the Greens. As its primary vote has fallen, Labor has relied increasingly on the second preferences of Green voters (Australia has AV). It had generally assumed that ‘progressive’ middle-class voters, which it rather despises anyway, had nowhere else to go and treated them accordingly. As result, at this election Green voters declined to ‘preference’ Labor in a number of crucial seats. Labor lost them. This has, unsurprisingly, demoralised the parliamentary party, a number of whom, ministers and backbenchers, left politics suddenly in more or less scandalous circumstances.

The monument to the NSW Right is the wreckage of the Labor Party in its historic base: Sydney’s sprawling western suburbs and the industrial constituencies to the north and south of the city. But the NSW Right is still at it. The new leader of the state parliamentary party was elected by his little band unopposed, having been chosen before the election was lost and before the Labor premier had resigned. It is still unclear what effect this will have on the federal party. Victory in NSW (which it surprisingly achieved in the federal elections last November) is essential for it and this is not a good omen.

There is a lesson for all social democrats here, as there is from the fate of the British Labour Party. Caution, timidity, worship of the focus group can get you some of the way; but when the end comes, it comes very badly.


  • 15 April 2011 at 10:50am
    Joe Morison says:
    What motivates people of the left to go into politics? Usually, i'd guess, it's both the desire to make things better and the vanity of power. But, as the man said, power tends to corrupt and their focus centres ever more on the gaining and keeping of power, and we end up with the hideosity of triangulation. The irony is that it is their seeking power that makes them unfit for power, and it becomes the reason they end up losing it so dramatically.

  • 16 April 2011 at 2:17am
    conflated says:
    Laying the defeat at the feet of neoliberalism seems a bit of a stretch. Policy both social democratic and financially technocratic got tossed aside with today's parliamentary leader if the focus groups pointed the wrong way. The Snowy hydro privatization got killed as effectively as needed infrastructural investment by the governing geniuses at Sussex St.

  • 16 April 2011 at 2:43am
    philip proust says:
    Good article, Ross. Also of interest is the manner in which the Labor Party has ceased to have a meaningful rank and file membership; apparently, a significant proportion of 'members' are merely names who have been used for branch-stacking purposes. With the evaporation of party members the clique that runs the ALP is largely immune from internal pressure. It is only when examples of corruption or gross misbehaviour reach the mainstream media that attention is focused on the offending MPs or party functionaries. Otherwise the members of the 'inner-party' cohere in the manner of the Catholic clergy, protecting - and selecting - their own through thick and thin. 'A Lesson for Social Democrats' perhaps underplays the extent to which personal corruption and incompetence contributed to the massacre in NSW. Such depredations were less evident in last year's Victorian election and there the ALP suffered a respectable loss and lives to fight another day. When the Labor Party is basically a 'power-club' comprised of those with the cunning and tenacity to win themselves first a place in the club and then a seat or job, there will, alas, be a powerful tendency for the machine to comprise unscrupulous careerists or mega-egotists, such as the former prime minister, Mr Rudd.

    And this connects to Ross McKibbin's point about 'the collapse of the Labor-reformist ideology'. Members of the Labor power-club lack the expertise and have minimal interest in working out - or taking advice about - left-leaning solutions for the problems of contemporary capitalist societies; climate change, the problems of urbanism and the galloping growth of social inequalities, for example, are problems too vast and complex to be tackled by the focus-group dependent politicians who compete for power using the Labor brand.

    The Liberal Party in Australia stands for something recognisable: the preservation and expansion of the privileges of the wealthy and social inequality. In practice the ALP has become - like the British Labour Party under Blair-Brown - a 'lite' version of their not-so-conservative neo-liberal opponents. For too many voters, switching from the latter party to the former has become all too easy.

  • 24 April 2011 at 6:05am
    MichaelFisher says:
    The suggestion that one bad opinion poll was responsible for the fall of Kevin Rudd is a little misleading.

    Within the ALP Rudd had been preparing the ground for his own fall for several years. He treated his cabinet and the broader Labor caucus (including many of his natural ideological supporters) with contempt. They tolerated this for as long as Rudd rode high in the polls. As soon as the polls dipped, rather than give him time to recover (which is what may have happened if he had cultivated support and loyalty among his colleagues) they quickly used the opportunity to get rid of him.

    The other issue that brought him down was climate change. If this has been handled differently he would have survived as PM and Labor would probably have won the 2010 election with a comfortable majority.

    Rudd spent the first two years of his govt arguing that strong and immediate action on climate change, in the form of an emissions trading scheme, was a scientific and moral imperative.

    But when polling among some groups of swing voters showed opposition to the proposed scheme he simply abandoned it. He immediately destroyed his political credibility with Labor and non-Labor voters.

    If had stuck to his guns and called an early election on the issue he would probably have won - albeit with a reduced majority.

    The other point worth making is that Labor's membership and base of dependable working class support had begun to decline long before neoliberalism emerged as the dominant policy paradigm in the late 1970s.

    On the eve of WW2 the ALP had over 100,000 members - in a country with less than 10 million people. By 1970 the party had around 50,000 members. Today that figure stands at 37,000.