Last month’s by-election in the federal seat of Batman in Melbourne’s inner-north was one of the most tightly contested in recent memory. The election shone a spotlight on the identity crisis facing Labor and the Greens after voters have been alienated by their right-wing policies.
Previously considered a safe Labor seat, the Greens have eaten into Labor’s vote share in recent years. In 2016, Labor barely held onto the seat with a 1% margin. The state seat of Northcote, in the same area, was lost to the Greens in 2017 with a swing of more than 11.5%. This process has also played out in Brisbane, where some progressive inner-city voters deserted Labor for the Greens in the Queensland state election last November.
For many people, the sheen has come off Labor’s token efforts to position itself as a progressive party. A prominent issue in Batman was Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, which Labor supported until being forced to moderate their stance somewhat during the Queensland election. Despite pressure from environmental activists, Bill Shorten has refused to rule out allowing the mine to be built if Labor is elected to federal government.
At the same time, around the country Labor is losing its traditional social base in the working class. This is because Labor governments consistently act against the interests of ordinary people; there is no support for the cuts and privatisations they carry through when they are in power.
A political vacuum clearly exists to the left of Labor. It came as a shock to some people that the Greens failed to fill this void in Batman. Not only did Labor cling to power, they increased their two-party preferred margin.
The most decisive reason for this was that Labor positioned itself more to the left than in previous campaigns in an attempt to win former Labor voters back from the Greens. Their candidate in Batman, former nurse and ACTU president Ged Kearney, was specifically chosen as a figure from Labor’s Left. Her slogan of “Action, Integrity, Real Change” was an attempt to set her apart from her predecessor David Feeney, best known for “forgetting” to declare that he owned a $2.3 million second property in Northcote.
Greens nominee Alex Bhathal’s campaign was seriously damaged by multiple internal leaks, including a 100-page dossier containing allegations of bullying behaviour. In addition, the bitter public factionalism within the Greens has contributed to a perception that they are the same as the other establishment parties.
However, a more important overall factor in the Greens’ lacklustre result is the party’s accelerating rightward trajectory and conscious orientation towards middle-class voters. Under Richard Di Natale, the Greens have further distanced themselves from their activist roots and sought to attract votes from more affluent areas, including from Liberal supporters. This strategy has been unable to attract the mass of working-class people who can be won to causes like refugee rights but whose main concerns are issues immediate to their own lives: low wages, jobs, and cost of living.
Kearney’s success does not mean Labor’s problems are over. Labor as a whole remains committed to a neoliberal agenda of helping banks, developers and other major firms profit at the expense of the community. While Kearney has criticised some aspects of Labor policy, such as its criminal treatment of refugees, she has committed to obeying party caucus discipline and voting with the majority in parliament. Any enthusiasm for her will wear off in time when the reality of Labor’s business-friendly, anti-worker policies are felt.
The fact that Labor was able to scrape back from the brink on the basis of a mild leftward turn shows that there is an appetite for left-wing politics. A more radical program could have galvanised even greater support. UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn demonstrated this last year when his call to raise the minimum wage and scrap university fees received a mass echo. Unfortunately, the Australian Labor bureaucrats are a million miles from Corbyn and there is no serious left challenger within their ranks on the horizon.
Opportunities to build a real left wing alternative to the major parties will increase as anger at the status quo develops further in Australia. The emerging movements for social and economic justice will seek an electoral expression. If Labor is not seen as a viable option, other formations will be thrown up. Building a new left party in Australia will be a crucial step in the fight for a democratic socialist society.
By Jeremy Trott