Book review: Looking for the light on the hill

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Plagued with leadership anxiety”, “suffering from an identity crisis”, and “dying internally”, this is Troy Bramston’s analysis of the situation facing the Labor Party today. While you could agree with all three statements in isolation, ‘Looking for the Light on the Hill’ misses the central contradiction facing Labor – the fact that it claims to represent working people, while pursuing a pro big business agenda.

The first half of the book is rich in detail of the problems facing Labor. Bramston details the dysfunction of the Rudd government, leading to the coup that brought Gillard to power. He points to the many failures of the Rudd and Gillard governments, highlighting that when it comes to policy areas such as Afghanistan, same-sex marriage rights, refugees and climate change, the government is to the Right of the majority of voters.

Having worked as a speech writer for Rudd during the 2007 election, then as a government advisor, Bramston provides an interesting insight to the modern Labor Party. The book is an attempt to analyse the crisis engulfing Labor and aims to provide a way forward. The book however falls short on both counts.

The lack of political difference between Labor and the Coalition resurfaces several times throughout the book. Bramston quotes former National Secretary of the Labor Party, Karl Bitar: “If you took all the policies Labor has taken to the last few state and federal elections… and mixed them with all of the Coalition’s policies, and then asked an average voter to choose which policies belong to Labor and which to the Coalition, they would struggle to do so.”

This is just one admission from a Labor insider that emphasises what the Socialist Party has long argued; that the differences between Labor and Liberal are more about style rather than substance.

Amongst ordinary people there is a complete lack of enthusiasm for any of the major parties. Bramston recognises this but his solutions are more technical rather than political in nature. He looks to Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ in Britain for inspiration, despite the utter failure of that project, and the widespread hatred of Blair in Britain today. In contrast to Bramston’s conclusions working people desperately need a new party that represents their interests.

In a number of areas where Bramston is critical of the Gillard government, he unwittingly reveals the true nature of the Labor Party. The significant watering down of the already modest mining tax; the unambitious and inadequate measures to address climate change; the cuts to areas such as child care; all of these measures benefit the wealthiest in society at the expense of the majority.

While Bramston is correct in his characterisation of the Labor Party as undemocratic, recognising the dominance of factional heavyweights, he brushes over this and seems to hope that they will somehow realise the error of their ways and voluntarily open the party up to democratic structures. This is nothing but a pipedream.

It is in the second half of the book that Bramston really falls down. He descends into a repetitive series of general platitudes on the need for strong leadership, a re-evaluation of Labor’s core values, and organisational changes.

Time and again Bramston emphasises the need to rewrite Labor’s mission statement. He argues for the need to abolish the socialist objective in the current statement. While the socialist objective has long been irrelevant to the politics of the Labor Party, it is only socialist solutions that can point a way forward out of the current capitalist crisis.

If nothing else, ‘Looking for the Light on the Hill’ provides ample ammunition to those on the Left who argue that Labor is now an out and out party of big business. It can not be reformed. If you are looking for genuine solutions to the crisis of working class political representation however, this book offers very little.

Reviewed by David Suter

Looking for the light on the hill – Modern Labor’s challenges
By Troy Bramston
Scribe Publications
RRP $32.95