I was working in my union’s Darwin office when the UK election results rolled in. Despite the tropical humidity, Britain’s winter reached halfway around the world and lodged itself in my guts. I was reminded of another cold night of electoral disappointment in May, as I stood with comrades at Trades Hall in Melbourne, watching working-class electorates swing to Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National Coalition.
Comparing these defeats, difficult though it is, reveals a deeper truth about the vast difference between both parties as well as the deep challenges facing the workers’ movement in both countries.
In both countries, the previous elections were non-defeats that felt more like victories. In winter 2018, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) reined in the conservative majority after only one term of government. In 2017, the British Labour Party (BLP) made historic advances. Both campaigns seemed to promise victory next time; unexpected hung parliaments in Westminster and Canberra gave credence to this optimism. Twice were these hopes dashed in 2019. It was the worst of times, and it was the worst of times.
Australian Labor won a primary vote share of 33.3 percent, only marginally better than UK Labour’s 32.1 percent. The difference between a large Tory majority in the UK and a scant Coalition majority in Australia can be explained by the different voting systems. Optional first-past-the-post polling is an all-or-nothing game, whereas Australia’s compulsory preferential voting significantly shrunk the margin of defeat, at least in parliamentary terms.
These figures should give pause to those who want to pin the blame on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, as though a moderate may have had more luck connecting with “traditional working-class” regions and towns in England’s north.
In short, we tried that in Australia. Shorten is a child of the party’s right. His moderate, technocratic platform assumed our compulsory preferential voting system would encourage an unenthused population to back the least-worst outcome. It all ended with about the same vote share.
Not Too Far to the Left, but Not Enough Left
How should we explain this similarity? The suggestion that both parties campaigned too far to the left is the most facile.
This is wrong twice over. First, the ALP’s platform was not radical. They made some vague noises about workers’ rights, declared a climate emergency while refusing to take action, and proposed opaque and moderate social democratic measures on taxes. Overall, Australian Labor’s manifesto aimed to show the markets how responsibly it would govern.
Second, insofar as Labor tacked left, it was because its hard-nosed Labor right leadership noticed a shift in sentiment. One may call Bill Shorten many names, but stealth socialist is not among them. Rather, he noticed that in this historic interregnum between neoliberalism and whatever comes next, left policies have polled well across the English-speaking world. In 2017, Labour’s radical manifesto was praised as a brilliant intervention. Bill Shorten’s rhetoric sought to capitalize on this, without a tenth of Corbyn’s substance.
One may blame both leaders’ personal unpopularity. This criticism, at least, is backed up by data. After all, Shorten was recently found to be the most unpopular Labor leader in thirty years. Corbyn went into the December election with a negative 40 percent approval rating.
Yet the political personalities of the two couldn’t be more different. Where Shorten is instinctively moderate, Corbyn is radical. Where Corbyn is skeptical of US power, Shorten firmly supports the US-Australia alliance. Corbyn is a security dove, and Shorten is most definitely a hawk. Where Shorten was seen as mendacious, Corbyn was kicked around for his excessive honesty. Corbyn was an insurgent who led a membership revolt to capture his party’s leadership while Shorten won despite losing the popular membership vote. Shorten is the anti-Corbyn, and Corbyn is the anti-Shorten. Both failed.
History can overstate the power of leadership. The onrush of social forces, economic trends, and nature creates both heroes and pretenders; we often only identify the difference in retrospect. Any one person who thinks their individual leadership is the crucial difference is probably an egoist.
So, focusing on unpopularity confuses cause and effect. The real question is: why have wildly unpopular social democratic leaders become the norm? Or, to put it another way, the miserable personal polling of both men reflects a deeper social reality that is more powerful than any one leader.
This is the point of comparing the diametrically opposed platforms and leaders of both labor parties. The BLP tried a staunchly left strategy while the ALP tried centrism. Both failed; both failures indicate a core social problem.
The Long Erosion of Labour’s and Labor’s Bases
As is the case in the UK and the United States, Australia’s historically working-class regions are largely deindustrialized, thanks to the closure of mines and power plants. As a result, common political outcomes have emerged. In a system that privileges capital and neglects its casualties, those communities in which capital has been withdrawn have suffered the most. This has resulted in a tendency to support the authoritarian right.
West Virginia, regional Queensland, and parts of England’s north have gone from reliable social democratic bastions to bases for the worst elements of reaction. Without class struggle and organization, Brexit and other cultural issues give the illusion of strength. It’s not that the fundamental nature of people living in such communities has changed; rather, atomization and hopelessness learned over the course of decades have resulted in political shifts. Wherever the labor movement played an active role building neoliberalism, as is the case in Australia, or in reinforcing it, as in the UK, this pattern was exacerbated.
In short, the decomposition of left electoral support reflects the localized decomposition of the working classes themselves, a process often managed by their labor leaders, unions, and parliament.
It is wrong to expect any outside force to turn this around. Take nature. Although its power is greater than any party, there is no indication that ecological collapse is pushing society or politics in a positive direction. So much of Australia is gripped in drought and bushfires; Sydney is choking on ash. Yet the latest Newspoll has the ALP stuck on a 33 percent primary vote, still behind the Coalition in two-party preferred terms. Meanwhile, the English floods of October and November seemed only to undermine the so-called red wall of the north.
And yet, despite our alienation from nature, popular support for action on climate change remains high. This points to the real issue: our engagement with the world is mediated by corporate supply chains and market transactions. So long as these forces dominate, their logic is plausible. This is why the patently false assertion that ecological reforms will lower living standards has a commonsense appeal.
This also explains the influence of media support for the Coalition and the Tories. Undoubtedly, Murdoch slanted the electoral playing field. In News Corp’s pages, social democratic policies ranging from the tepid to the transformational were hailed as the second coming of Stalin. Yet the media’s power should not be overstated. It is like the force of gravity; media exercises a weak pull across a vast range within a political community.
The mass media is only powerful in the absence of the living social bonds that produce communal solidarity.
There Is No Alternative (But to Rebuild the Worker’s Movement)
So, the great lesson of 2019 is that electoral politics alone cannot produce change.
The dizzying gap between the measures necessary to avert ecological disaster and what is electorally possible will grow in 2020. Yet, if politics is the art of the possible, social movement organizing is the art of making the necessary possible.
Organizing social movements and building a base is the only route to political power; maneuvers to the left and the right are a poor substitute. Indeed, the base of our movement should itself lead to change. For this project to succeed in a rapidly changing world, we will require new organizations as well as the revitalization of old ones.
This is the salient difference between the Australian and UK elections results. In the UK, Labour begins its rebuild with four hundred thousand additional members, record numbers of whom volunteered. Members and activists are the legacy of Corbyn’s leadership.
The priority of the labor movement must be to build workplace and community collectives in which people can take action and ownership together. This will take diverse forms. We must organize into unions, build for mass strikes, found cooperatives, create mutual support groups, foster resident associations, nurture new media, and occupy that porous border between civil society and the state, local government. This work produces the political geography that elections reveal.
Socialists and social democrats in parliament therefore have a responsibility to dedicate their offices to aiding and assisting with this work. Any parliamentarian that does not help build unions or cooperative structures in civil society is a deadweight on the movement who prolongs conservative rule.
So, the conclusion of this story of two defeats is that now we can begin to appreciate the scale of the task ahead and the means with which we might master it. We should not retreat from the electoral fight, but work to ensure it is a fight we can win.