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From Third Way to Plan B — Reconstructing the ALP

Christopher Scanlon: Where will the ALP go from here?

As the ALP enters its third successive term in opposition, the question is, where now for Labor? The argument by senior figures within the ALP at present is that the Tampa debacle orchestrated by Howard, and the events of September 11, cannot be blamed for Labor’s poor showing. They claim that the third term of the Howard Government requires a thorough overhaul of the Party. There will be no more business as usual. There is talk of a return to the ‘grass roots’ of the party, modernisation, community consultation and bringing the Party into line with voter aspirations.

There are some signs that the ALP is gearing up to follow the example set by Tony Blair in Britain. Mark Latham, the most vocal advocate of Blair’s approach to government, the Third Way, has been returned to the shadow front bench, charged with the task of working out why the residents of Sydney’s outer suburbs failed to vote Labor. Lindsay Tanner, who disowns the ‘Third Way’ label but advocates a similar policy agenda to that of Latham, has positioned himself as a major player in the reform process. More generally, the rhetoric of reform shares many parallels with New Labour: the emphasis on community and participation, as well as the ritualistic blaming of the Trade Union movement for all the Party’s present ills.

On the face of it, Blair’s two landslide victories in comparison to the ALP’s six years in opposition seem to offer an obvious model for Labor. But when looked at more closely, Blair’s ‘landslide’ victories are not all they’re cracked up to be.

It ought to be recalled that New Labour won its second victory with around only 25 per cent of the eligible vote. Some commentators suggest the true figure may be closer to 20 per cent of those eligible to vote, given that many people who have dropped off the electoral roll to avoid paying the poll tax have never bothered to re-register. The 2001 British General Election was distinguished by having the lowest total voter turnout since 1918 when voter turnout was disrupted by the war. This year, only 58 per cent of the population bothered to vote. Labour MP Jack Straw tried to put a positive spin on this, claiming that the low turnout reflected widespread contentment with the government. Those with a firmer grip on reality attributed the lack of participation to voter apathy.

While comparisons with Britain and Australia are difficult to sustain because of differences in the nature of the political and electoral systems, party and political culture, the point here is that despite the appearance of landslide victories, there is no mass groundswell of popular support for Blair and New Labour.

Furthermore, if the ALP does go down the New Labour path, they will have to contend with the fact that the Liberals have already pinched most of the Blair agenda. Mutual obligation, social capital, social inclusion and all the rest of the New Labour lexicon regularly pop up in speeches by Howard Government ministers. Sounding like your opponent, even if there is a substantive difference in your policy, is not a smart strategy for a party that many perceive to be lacking in conviction.

If not the Third Way, then where to for Labour?

Part of the problem faced by Labor is its failure to develop new constituencies. The fact is that constituencies — as the term suggests — are constituted; they do not occur naturally.

In the 1950s and 1960s Menzies expanded home ownership, a consequence of which was to create a swathe of middle-class voters imbued with conservative Liberal values. Whitlam attempted to create a coalition constituency among young white-collar workers, women voters and the alternative lifestyle movement, by expanding government services. His time in office was, however, too brief to consolidate such groups.

In the 1980s and 1990s the ALP flirted with white-collar voters and the green vote, while its own policy settings (deregulation, privatisation etc.) contributed to the destruction of its core support in organised industrial labour. And therein lies the problem for Labour today: it is much easier to create constituencies with the resources of government than it is from the relative obscurity of opposition.

If current media reports are accurate, the ALP leadership is currently trying to woo so-called ‘aspirational’ voters. These are people who have no strong party allegiance, are working or lower middle-class, but aspire to ‘something better’. Such voters are the main target of Blair’s New Labour and Howard’s Liberals.

Barring a messy leadership change or a major scandal, the ALP’s pitch for the aspirational vote is likely to fail. The reason?

By the time the next election rolls around, the Liberals will have had around nine years to cultivate this constituency as their own. Moreover, in order to appeal to the aspirationals, the ALP will have to sound and look like the Liberals as much as possible. In other words, we will see a repeat of its recent election performance, where the ALP appears as the poor man’s aspirational party.

If the ALP is to avoid a repeat of its recent performance, it needs to reach beyond the aspirational voters to build and consolidate new coalitions of constituencies to outnumber the aspirationals. This might include those who rejected the Party in favour of the Greens at the recent election and, as far out as it may seem now, those who protested outside Crown Casino on September 11 2000.

To use a key phrase favoured by the proponents of the Third Way to characterise their approach, this would be to think the unthinkable.

Christopher Scanlon is Associate Editor of Arena Magazine