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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Strategic issues for the Left: and What agenda for Labor in 2010?


above: the author of this article, and editor of 'Left Focus', Tristan Ewins

In this article Tristan Ewins looks at the strategic issues facing progressive political forces, including the dynamics between the most radical and more mainstream wings of the broad Left.  Further, he considers the specific policy issues challenging the Australian Labor Party with the 2010 Federal election swiftly approaching.  The analysis is focused upon the Australian Left, but the themes are also crucial for the global movement.

Political activism is a process of challenge and discovery for many. Some are drawn to predominately Marxist organisations and their focus on grassroots social movements, while others are ‘drawn to the coalface’ of mainstream politics - involving themselves in the Greens or student Labor.

In reality there are lessons to be learned from all these many varied channels.

Organisations on the radical Left have often been the first to ‘trail-blaze’: leading and mobilising progressive campaigns. Communists in Australia were the first to campaign for indigenous rights, against the Vietnam war, for a social welfare safety net during the Great Depression, and against the White Australia Policy.
By contrast, parliamentary Labor has often found itself in a difficult position: unable to lead debate as a consequence of electoral pressures, and pressure from ‘the big end of town’.

And regardless of the many shortcomings to be found in Marxist traditions; these traditions retain insights of value to those willing to consider them with an open mind. We might include here an appreciation of the economic cycle in capitalism, tendencies in capitalism towards monopoly which actually undermine competition, and the Marxist call for working people to ‘win the battle of democracy’ in the fight for a fair society and a democratic economy.

On the other hand, organisations on the fringe Left often exhibit a damaging sectarianism both towards each other, and against potential allies in the Labor Party. While they are in a position to lead progressive campaigns without the kind of compromise which arises in electoral ‘real-politic’, sometimes hostility towards progressive Labor activists undermines the potential for a ‘broad front’ against social injustice.

This failure to engage with Labor activists in the context of progressive campaigns – or deterrence faced by Labor activists in the face of hostility - means that those Labor supporters will have limited experience when it comes to grassroots activism. This then flows through to the culture of the broader Labor Party – which is a bad thing for all of us!

This sometimes-hostility between Labor and the militant and revolutionary Left also means that neither side learns the lessons which can be drawn from mutual engagement. One such lesson is that both the militant and/or revolutionary Left and the ALP can – in a way – complement each others efforts.

We will return to this later.

In popular culture, Labor is often referred to as a ‘Centre-Left’ party, with the Conservative parties referred to as ‘Centre-Right’. One of the most important lessons to be drawn here is that the ‘centre’ is always relative and contested.

Many on the Conservative side of politics would like to press the political milieu – and thus ‘the relative centre’ in Australia much further to the Right: cutting government expenditure on infrastructure and social services; destroying protections for workers; failing to recognise injustices such as those suffered by indigenous Australians.

And there are many of us in the ALP, Greens and other tendencies who would like to press the relative mainstream to the Left: in favour of a more progressive taxation system funding first class social services; and also in favour of greater rights for workers, more investment in ‘closing the gap’ for indigenous peoples, and to advance the cause of a mixed and democratic economy.

But the ALP specifically is an electorally-focused party. It is a party which must respond to and take account of electoral pressures if it is to attain and hold government.

The consequence of this is that there are two levels of struggle we need to take account of.
Firstly there is the electoral context. In this sense the ALP must aim to be part of a successful electoral bloc.

While groups to the Left of Labor can officially and more freely campaign according to their values and build grassroots movements without much in the way of compromise, the ALP and even the Greens need to tailor their policies and their message to their electoral base.

Because the relative centre has shifted to the Right in recent decades – often (unfortunately) with prominent figures in the ALP helping to lead the way, the consequence of changed expectations is that even if parliamentary Labor wants to advance a more progressive agenda, they must temper their message.
With the Greens now to the Left of Labor, they campaign for the support of a narrower demographic – and thus can take a stronger line when it comes to emissions reduction, tax reform, social expenditure, and other areas.

The bottom line in this electoral contest is that ultimately Labor, the Greens, and any other forces on the ‘broad left’ form an ‘electoral bloc’: compromising together on policy (ie: ‘give and take’) in the event a Labor government is formed.

The aim of such a bloc ought be to push to the limits when it comes to policies on economic democracy, social justice and expansion of social services, environmental sustainability, tax reform, the rights of labour and other areas. But as an electoral bloc we need to recognise that mainsteram parliamentary parties cannot push these limits further than what is electorally sustainable.  (although that is not to say that social movements cannot mobilise and act independently)

Most importantly here - the policy limits of such a bloc are themselves set by a broader cultural struggle: a struggle which is in some ways more important that the electoral contest itself.

At this point it might be instructive to consider the case of Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was an Italian Marxist whose ideas continue to be relevant for non-Marxists and Marxists alike. As against a ‘war of movement’: the kind of ‘lightning seizure of power’ as occurred in Russia 1917, Gramsci held that often a ‘war of position’ would be more practical.

Such a ‘war of position’ is more of a long and protracted contest – taking shape throughout institutions, workplaces and the cultural sphere. It comprises a long fight for ‘hegemony’ which can potentially be adapted for a liberal and democratic context. Indeed, such a context is preferable, as opposed to the kind of brutal and desperate struggle that occurred in Russia 1917 and the civil war which followed.

As inferred, therefore, the cultural struggle – the struggle for hegemony – must be at the core of any movement for progressive social change. This struggle takes place in our classrooms, our newspapers, academic and popular journals, political websites and online networks such as ‘GetUp!’, with union campaigns – and yes also with radical campaigns on the Left pushing the limits beyond where parliamentary Labor can afford to tread.

The point here – regarding complementary roles for both Labor and the revolutionary and/or militant Left – is that they can take different positions in the broader fight for change. In the electoral struggle Labor can achieve office – and thus a level of influence – that more overtly radical forces cannot. The more overtly radical Left, on the other hand, can lead the cultural struggle and push the boundaries of debate, mobilisation and political action beyond what parliamentary Labor can manage as a consequence of the demands of electoralism.

Ultimately in this context there are realities we must take account of. It may be uncomfortable for a mainstream electoral party to face, but the truth is that Australian and world politics are dominated by ‘the big end of town’. The wealth of what some call ‘monopoly capital’ is so great and so concentrated, that few dare challenge their power – or even openly recognise that this concentration of power is a problem – for fear of an economic and political backlash.

Within popular forums – including those on the ‘broad left’ - we need overcome this fear to identify ‘the elephant in the room’. We may not want anything like a ‘Stalinist command economy’ – but we should want to deliver economic power meaningfully into the hands of ordinary people.

Importantly, there is reason to suppose that Rudd Labor is not ‘pushing the boundaries’ as far as it could get away with; and unions meanwhile are not taking enough of an independent position to lead debate when it comes to the rights of workers.

The cause of health care reform – moving to Federal funding - is an important example here. By increasing the Federal Government’s tax base progressively by as little as 1 per cent of GDP, we could mobilise such resources (over $10 billion) as to make great inroads into hospital waiting lists – without putting pressures on elderly and other patients whose premature release could lead to death. Some of these funds could also be devoted to improving the quality of care in aged care facilities.

And by increasing the tax base on top of this by an extra 0.5 per cent of GDP, we could afford welfare reform – giving a ‘fair go’ to job-seekers and students.

Over the long term, Labor could aim for the kind of advanced welfare state and social wage as prevails in countries such as Sweden, Holland and Denmark. Labor could begin with a ‘three term plan’ (including the current term) to expand desperately-needed public expenditure by as much as 4.5 per cent of GDP over that period.

Meanwhile: the Henry Tax Review could provoke such debate so as to open the way for further tax reform. Labor could reform the ‘tax mix’ to give a fairer go to those on lower and middle incomes – shifting the tax burden instead to those in the top 20% of incomes.

Such reform would focus on a base narrow enough for distributive objectives, but broad enough to provide a real boost for revenue and social wage expenditure.As part of this process, the tax free threshold could be lifted, benefiting those on lower incomes, with increases and restructuring with regard to higher brackets covering the cost. And HECS – the ‘Higher Education Contribution Scheme’ which affects tertiary students – could be restructured – including a repayment threshold that is increased and indexed in real terms.

In addition to this a ‘disability insurance scheme’ could raise revenue vitally needed for some of our most vulnerable: and in such a fashion that seems to be ‘common sense’ and even self-interest for ordinary Australians.

And anticipating global demand for wireless broadband into the future, Rudd Labor could also push investment in public infrastructure in that field. Under conditions of global (ie: universal) demand for both wireless and fiber-to-the-home networks, after all, arguments about competition are rendered redundant.

On top of this, arguments could also be made about consolidating a mixed economy in areas such as banking and social housing. A public-owned bank could enhance competition, countering the logic of oligopoly and collusion, and providing bank services to even the poorest on the basis of need. And expanded social housing could correct the ‘housing bubble’, making home ownership and rental more realisable for those who are struggling to find a place for themselves in a tight market. Infrastructure modernisation is also crucial in the context of a growing population, with urban and regional consolidation.

Finally, Labor must deliver basic rights to workers; making good its promise that no worker be worse off under Award modernisation, while supporting pattern bargaining for its next term; and restoring the real wages of Australians on minimum incomes.

There are many in the Labor and Greens grassroots who long for more radical change. Economic democracy, for instance, should be extended via a variety of mechanisms including mutualism and co-operatives – but we will not focus on this for today.

The kind of policy ideas already dealt with here, meanwhile, ought comprise something of a ‘minimum program’ for Labor from now and on into the next two terms of Federal Labor government – with support from the Greens in the Senate. Such ideas should form the basis of a ‘common ground’, uniting the ALP Left, Right and any independents behind an achievable program for change.

Moving to our conclusion, it is also critical for Labor and other activists to acknowledge that the parliamentary party is not ‘the be-all and end-all’. Party membership must be made meaningful and rewarding for the grassroots. Here, grassroots organisations could also enjoy more freedom to lead debate on crucial issues of social justice than enjoyed by the parliamentary party.

Following on it ought be noted that there are times when civil disobedience is a vital element of any meaningful and genuine liberal democracy. Responses to social injustice could legitimately include the defence of a picket line to protect the jobs and entitlements of workers, or ‘sit-ins’ and political strike action to resist a war of aggression - or demand public housing for the homeless – whose condition is genuine and desperate. These causes activists can uphold at the grassroots level beyond the scope of the parliamentary Labor party, and other parliamentary forces.

The coming Federal election comprises a vital test for Labor, the Greens and others on the broad left.
If as an avowed Christian Abbott claims to genuinely care for the most disadvantaged he must support a bipartisan consensus to ‘fix’ the public health care crisis, deliver high quality aged care for all in need, provide shelter for the homeless, and improve the welfare safety net – including elimination of poverty traps - even if it means some (relatively moderate) increase in tax.

Instead - Abbott’s opportunistic opposition to tax reform, as a means of funding desperately-needed infrastructure, welfare and services – suggests a level of hypocrisy – a weakness which could be exploited by Labor, the Greens and the broader Left.

With so much at stake one other thing is also clear: it is a contest we cannot afford to ignore.

Tristan Ewins

The author is an RMIT Politics PhD student, freelance writer and grassroots Labor Party activist.

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