While most Labor supporters are happy to consign The Latham Diaries to the dustbin of history, many of them will, from time to time, be woken from their sleep by the memory of this passage: “Do I want another ten years banging my head against the wall? Or just face the intellectual truth that not all problems in life have an answer. As an institution, the ALP is insoluble”. Of course, Latham’s pessimism was coloured by his need for vindication, but it is necessary to ask the question: is Labor’s return to national office checked by insurmountable obstacles?
The new world of routine workers
In the wake of recent preselection tussles we have been treated to a wave of outbursts and recriminations over Labor’s organisational shortcomings. The more thoughtful contributions acknowledge that the party finds itself on the wrong side of demographic changes which have transformed Australian society, some of them launched by the ALP while in office.
For instance, the federal Opposition spokesman on revenue and small business, Joel Fitzgibbon, pointed out that “in the Hunter area of NSW ... 80 per cent of the workforce is now employed in the services sector”. As a consequence, he argued Labor needs to start “pushing decision-making back down to the rank and file”. On closer examination, however, it is by no means certain that this shift would, as Fitzgibbon hopes, “ensure the party’s policy thinking is capable of reflecting the views and aspirations of a majority of Australians”.
The demographic challenge is usually framed in terms of a shrinking blue-collar base and an expanding white-collar or service sector class. This focus misses the more significant analytical divide between the 70 per cent or so of the workforce in “routine” jobs and the 30 per cent of “knowledge” (or “professional”) workers. The former encompasses not just traditional blue-collar jobs but also many white-collar and most service occupations, as well as some “associate professionals”.
These proportions are stable over time and the two groups are diverging in terms of geographic location (outer-suburban and regional versus inner-suburban), social values (pragmatic-aspirational versus progressive) and income security (only on average: some routine workers earn more than some knowledge workers).
Among all the talk of shrinking bases and declining constituencies, routine workers (properly defined) clearly outnumber knowledge workers by a significant margin, and will continue to do so. Moreover, they are increasingly concentrated geographically. The progressive dream of evolution from a materialist to a post-materialist society is an illusion.
What does all of this mean for Labor’s creaking organisational structure? The problem is that not enough routine workers are joining Labor branches. It is true that some branches, particularly those in working-class suburbs with a tradition of union influence and activity, do reflect the aspirations of routine workers, and support sympathetic candidates for preselection.
Inevitably, some of these branches have a high proportion of ethnic members, since most newcomers are routine workers. This is not the evil it is often presented to be. There is no question that the cynical manipulation of ethnic blocs to stack branches brings discredit on the party. But this should not be confused with a genuine migrant presence in branches covering suburbs with high ethnic concentrations.
Still, branches controlled by routine workers are in a minority across the country. For some time too many rank-and-file members have come from the knowledge worker class, particularly the offshoot that pursues its concerns into the political arena as “social activists”. On the whole, these activists do not promote the values and aspirations of routine workers and tend to alienate them from the party.
This is the fundamental organisational problem facing Labor. Yet it is never discussed, for the reason that criticising the rank and file sounds like an anti-democratic betrayal of Labor principles. Hence the vacuum is filled by social progressives like Lindsay Tanner, John Button, John Faulkner, Carmen Lawrence, Peter Botsman and others who insist that the party’s salvation lies precisely in handing over power to such activists.
It is also true that most endorsed Labor candidates are drawn from another slice of the knowledge worker class - the ministerial staffers, party officers, union officials and Emily’s List ring-ins, sometimes referred to collectively as the “political class”. Many of these are also out of touch with the mass of routine workers, even if for different reasons. Nonetheless, the apparatchiks are no worse than the activists.
The demographic imbalance of the rank and file is directly related to the hot topic of the moment. The accumulation of power by the “union official-party officer complex” has progressed in tandem with the activist takeover of the branches. Astute observers know that if real power is transferred to the rank and file, the party would end up competing with the Greens for minor party status - what Martin Ferguson calls “the march to marginalisation”. When branch members had an opportunity to elect the party’s president, they voted overwhelmingly for Carmen Lawrence, a lofty critic of routine worker values. A caucus of Carmens would set the Labor cause back immeasurably. This prospect feeds the power of union and party officials, who emerge as a brake on the excesses of the branches.