On a trip to Australia, I discover that a day is a very long time in politics Down Under

Douglas Alexander's Notebook.

I arrive Down Under as a guest of the Australian government, but my breakfast appointment on the first morning happens to be with none other than Alastair Campbell. He’s in Sydney simultaneously to support the British and Irish Lions and to talk about his diaries.

At a table overlooking the Sydney Opera House, we discuss the picture on the front page of every newspaper – showing Prime Minister Julia Gillard knitting a woollen kangaroo for the royal baby. John McTernan, also previously of Downing Street, now her communications director, is quoted in the coverage as saying the idea “was a no-brainer”.

Cool prime time

The previous day Alastair had been ushered in to see the prime minister in Canberra by John and he echoes the judgement of others, saying she seemed very calm under fire. Given the papers’ comments about her royal roo pose, it’s a quality she’ll need today. My next meeting is with a former Labor prime minister, Paul Keating. Now retired, he remains fascinating and stimulating company.

The sound of power

No sooner have we discussed the role of Kondratieff waves in advanced capitalist economies than Keating is explaining – as a lover of antique clocks – that he used to read the Christie’s catalogue during cabinet meetings. When I ask him what he believes the prime political virtues are, he replies without hesitation: “Imagination and courage.” He then explains that he drew his inspiration and got his best ideas in government by listening to music – “the highest form of art” – and to Shostakovich in particular.

Next it’s down to Canberra, amid growing speculation of a challenge that afternoon by Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard’s leadership. Parliament is in its last week before a long break, so it’s his last chance to challenge her ahead of the election scheduled for September. The Gillard/Rudd rivalry over recent years makes the periodic outbreak of the TB/GBs during our 13 years in office look like a picnic.

Events, dear boys, events

Until a few weeks ago the idea of a comeback for Rudd, the former prime minister deposed by Gillard three years ago, seemed remote. Yet with poor polls suggesting a wipeout in the election just months away, the speculation is at fever pitch as I arrive at Parliament House.

In the course of the morning I meet Foreign Minister Bob Carr, Defence Minister Stephen Smith, Climate Minister Greg Combet and Education and Employment Minister Bill Shorten. Within 24 hours two of these ministers will have announced not only that they’re quitting government but that they’re leaving parliament, too.

Rudd’s supporters make their move that afternoon as word spreads that a petition is being circulated among Labor MPs demanding a leadership vote, or “spill”, as I soon discover it’s called. Making a fateful decision, Gillard responds by announcing a vote that very afternoon, on condition that whoever loses gives up politics altogether.

With half an hour to go, Shorten appears before the cameras to announce that he’s switching his support from Gillard to Rudd. At the subsequent caucus meeting Rudd defeats Gillard by 57 votes to 45.

Labor’s difficulties seem more electoral than economic, and are more to do with personnel than policy: the Australian economy is growing for the 22nd consecutive year, and despite a legislative record that includes major educational reform and the introduction of a landmark disability insurance scheme.

Sheila, take a bow

Gillard’s concession speech was a model of graciousness. After congratulating her rival on his victory she spoke of the “honour” of serving as the country’s first female PM. In part because of her “misogyny speech” that became a huge YouTube hit even in the UK, there was much discussion of how being a woman had affected the way she was treated in the media. Here, too, Gillard had the last – and best – word when she said this about her gender: “It doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, it explains some things . . . What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that. And I’m proud of that.”

Oz reorientation

One woman who doesn’t seem too bothered by Labor’s leadership change is Julie Bishop, the Liberal opposition’s foreign affairs spokesperson. The next day when I meet her it’s very clear that this suburban Perth MP is still preparing for government. She is well briefed on the issues, and our conversation reinforces how deep and enduring are the ties between the UK and Australia. Yet it is also clear that Australians are already embracing the opportunities of what their government’s recent white paper called “the Asian Century”. Perhaps that explains why in none of my meetings did anyone suggest the UK leaving the EU would be a good thing for Australia. Indeed, in discussion after discussion, the possibility was greeted with a mixture of incredulity and anxiety.

Rugger relief

With 30,000 travelling Lions fans in the country it should be a busy time for Britain’s man in Canberra, High Commissioner Paul Madden, but he tells me with relief and pride that, so far, there has not been a single arrest.

Alas for me, the only meeting that didn’t happen was the one scheduled with a backbench Labor MP at 3.30pm on Thursday afternoon. At least he had a good excuse. That day, the now erstwhile backbencher (Kevin Rudd) instead met Governor General Quentin Bryce to be sworn in as the 28th prime minister of Australia.

As I left Australia the polls were already tightening. Yet Rudd still faces a huge task to defeat the Liberal opposition leader, Tony Abbott. Then again, as I learned from my time in Canberra, a day – never mind a week or a few months – is a very long time indeed in Australian politics.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary

Sydney Opera House. Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Photo: Getty
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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.