Rudd ends opposition years

Labor is back in power in Australia, but Frank Bongiorno questions, amid post-poll euphoria, how muc

Alongside coverage of Saturday’s election, the Australian media have been carrying a story of sixteen Indonesian asylum-seekers recently picked up by an Australian naval vessel from a leaking fishing boat. To members of the defeated Howard Government, the news of their delivery to immigration officials on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean on the day following the election must have seemed like a black joke; to the government’s enemies on the left, delicious irony.

At the 2001 election, the Coalition was saved from defeat by a combination of 9/11 and the government’s ruthless political exploitation of the arrival, also off Christmas Island, of the Norwegian tanker carrying asylum-seekers rescued by its captain.

The Tampa affair, as it was called, initiated the myth of John Howard’s invincibility, the belief in his almost magical ability to draw an electoral rabbit out of a hat. When Howard saw off another Labor challenger at the 2004 election after trailing in the polls for most of the year, some commentators claimed that he was unbeatable. Labor would only return to government, they forecast, once Howard had retired from public life.

On Saturday, voters dumped the Coalition government from office and Howard is almost certain to become only the second Prime Minister to lose his own seat. Australia has a new Labor Government led by a fifty year old former diplomat, Kevin Rudd.

This outcome should not have surprised anyone with the wit to examine the opinion polling. But most of Australia’s conservative commentariat refused, until faced with the actual results, to believe that their nation’s sagacious voters would be so ungrateful as to throw their favourite overboard.

The tortured logic by which they sought to show that the darkest of storm clouds were really only the harbingers of sunshine, the contortions designed to demonstrate why polls showing Labor ten, twelve or even fourteen points ahead were really a poor indication of what would come to pass, were ingenious.

On election day itself, the Opposition achieved a swing of over six per cent, Labor’s second largest since World War Two. It might win as many as 88 seats in a house of 150. Massive swings in New South Wales and Queensland were responsible for delivering government to Labor, although it won seats everywhere except Western Australia, where local factors helped the incumbent.

It’s no difficult matter to cobble together an explanation for this result. Australia’s economy is booming, but interest rates have increased six times since the 2004 election, undermining housing affordability. Radical industrial relations reforms were unpopular. Howard was slow to respond to climate change.

Labor offered a younger but reassuring leader, thereby providing electors with a viable alternative. The government had ruled for almost twelve years. Howard had undertaken to hand the Prime Ministership over to his Treasurer before the next election, making the bid for a fifth term look like an arrogant request for a lap of honour before retirement. The government ran a hopeless campaign; Labor’s was nearly faultless.

None of these factors individually, or even taken together, made the government’s defeat inevitable. Australians change their governments rarely, and Rudd is only the fifth Labor leader since Federation in 1901 to lead his party into government at an election.

There’s understandable euphoria among Labor supporters. One told me in an email that she found election night even more exciting than in 1972, when Gough Whitlam led Labor into government after twenty-three years; another, that she and her family had tears of joy in their eyes as the results came in.

But Rudd, in a gracious victory speech, began by paying tribute to his predecessor. Here was a hint of continuity, combined with enough talk about writing a ‘new page’ in the nation’s history to make electors feel like it was necessary to change government without unacceptable risk.

After all, the euphoria won’t last. But following more than a decade in the barren wilderness of Opposition, Labor powerbrokers will want to ensure that their government does.

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