Move over Howard

Kevin Rudd is poised to become Australia's ne

If the opinion polling is any guide, Australian electors will throw out the conservative Liberal-National Party Government at this Saturday’s election.

Indeed, Labor will achieve a landslide. The Prime Minister, John Howard, after almost twelve years in office and four election victories, will lose his seat, becoming only the second Prime Minister, and the first since 1929, to suffer this form of political humiliation.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd, fresh, smart, almost twenty years younger than his sixty-eight year old rival and proclaiming the need for ‘new leadership’, will head a government with a commanding majority. Labor will rule not just nationally but in all States and Territories, a feat performed just once and for less than a year by the conservative parties almost forty years ago.

That’s if the opinion polling is any guide.

This rider is important although, on the face of it, seems barely warranted. Every poll this year has shown the Labor Opposition with a substantial majority, often eight or ten per cent ahead of its rival and sometimes more. The gap has narrowed slightly during the campaign, but not enough to provide Howard any comfort.

We’re talking about the difference between electoral annihilation and mere slaughter. The Coalition has run a poor campaign, putting each disaster behind it only in the process of managing the next. Rudd’s ship, by way of contrast, has been steady and reassuring. While being nearly as profligate in his spending promises as Howard, the ex-diplomat has stressed his fiscal conservatism and won plaudits for it.

The bookmakers – ever reliable in a gambling nation as guides to an election result – have Labor as very short-priced favourites. And there’s an emerging consensus that public opinion is now ‘stuck’ - that most electors are not so much angry with the government as tired of it, that people have simply stopped listening.

In Australian politics, this is called the ‘It’s Time’ factor, after Gough Whitlam’s electoral slogan of 1972; a sense that the government has been in power long enough. So electors have decided merely to replace one safe pair of hands with another or, to borrow Rudd’s own terminology, to get rid of a nerd and elect a geek.

So why the rider about the reliability of opinion polling? It’s perhaps a testament to continuing wariness about the extraordinary political skills of Australia’s current Prime Minister, a wily operator who won the admiration of Tony Blair for his deftness in holding off his principal leadership rival, the Treasurer Peter Costello.

Howard has been in lots of trouble before previous elections but the old warhorse always recovered. Even those boldest in their predictions of Labor victory are troubled by Howard’s dogged refusal to surrender, a sense that he might, have an ace up his sleeve - whether or not, as was said of Gladstone, he believes God put it there.

There’s bewilderment in the government and among many political commentators at what must have seemed an unlikely turn of events less than a year ago when Rudd won the leadership of the Labor Opposition from a faltering Kim Beazley. Indeed, the trend in opinion polling overturns many myths about Australian politics, such as that governments only lose elections when the economy is in a mess. But rising interest rates are alarming electors with large mortgages and the slowness of Howard to respond to climate change has disillusioned many voters, especially the young.

The government’s radical reform of industrial relations, by removing many traditional forms of workplace protection, has been deeply unpopular. These are the major areas of difference between the two parties and they are where Labor is likely, when it wins on Saturday, to set itself apart from its conservative predecessor.

Frank Bongiorno is Senior Lecturer at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London. He has written widely on Australian politics and political history.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times