Unions’ Labor Party strategy unable to stop Coalition

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Labor have managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The May 18 federal election saw the right wing Liberal-National Coalition cling to power. The result was at odds with the polls, all of which had Labor slightly ahead. Many people are now asking how this happened.

While Labor had been marginally ahead on a national two-party basis, the results varied wildly state to state. For example, a small swing to Labor in Victoria was cut across by a much bigger swing to the Coalition in Queensland. Overall both the major parties saw their vote drop a bit compared to 2016.

The Coalition however benefited from increased votes and preference flows from smaller right wing parties like Clive Palmer’s United Australia and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. This was a key factor, pushing them over the line.

Unpopular leader

One of the issues that dogged Labor was the fact that Bill Shorten was always individually unpopular. He came across as fake and untrustworthy. While these traits were no doubt part of his personal make up, they were also an expression of Labor’s politics.

On all the key issues affecting working class people Labor’s policies were inadequate. Behind the sometimes-populist rhetoric, Labor’s election program was designed to placate their big business backers. Behind closed doors they told corporate Australia that they would be a safe pair of hands.

On industrial relations, Labor paid lip service to the union movement’s ‘Change the Rules’ campaign but only ever promised to make a few token changes. Wage stagnation is a major issue, but no one believed that a non-binding submission to the Fair Work Commission was ever going to amount to much.

On climate change, Labor said they wanted to reduce emissions, but refused to come out against the destructive Adani coal mine. They also supported the expansion of coal seam gas in the Northern Territory. Students have been engaging in climate strikes, but because of their weak position Labor were unable to connect to the movement.

Despite housing stress affecting millions of people, Labor’s housing policies amounted to handouts to landlords and the banks. No initiatives to improve renters’ rights were proposed, let alone to build much needed public housing.

Labor’s attempts to have a bet each way meant that people had questions about their sincerity. It also allowed the Coalition to undermine them with scare campaigns and present them as a risk as we head into more difficult economic times.

Scare campaigns

Bill Shorten did try to outline a plan to make big business pay a bit more tax, but even this fell flat. There was very little focus on tackling big corporate tax cheats, and this opened up space for the Coalition to run a scare campaign about changes to franking credits and negative gearing.

They presented these modest reforms as attacks on people who have invested in shares and housing to pay for their retirement. In the absence of other policies designed to secure a decent future for older people, this had some impact on swinging voters.

The big shock to many was the result in Queensland, where Labor suffered a swing against them of around 3.6%. But the Coalition itself only increased its vote by a tiny 0.3%. It’s clear that many of the votes Labor lost went to the small right wing populist parties.

United Australia and One Nation made gains in every state but did particularly well in Queensland. Clive Palmer spent a record $60 million+ on United Australia advertising but did not manage to win any seats. Their ads and preferences did however benefit the Coalition.

Along with One Nation, United Australia made some inroads in regional areas. Much of regional Queensland is already suffering recession-like conditions, with high levels of unemployment and poverty. Many people in these areas feel let down and ignored by the major parties and they are worried about the future.

Some voted to stick with the devil they knew, while others went with right wing populists hoping that they will shake things up.

Neither United Australia or One Nation have any solutions to the problems regional Australians face. They wrongly blame migrants and minority groups for problems created by capitalism, but they sometimes get an echo because Labor are seen as disingenuous.

This highlights the dangers ahead as recession-like conditions threaten to become more widespread right across Australia. Right wing populism can grow even in the cities if a genuine left alternative is not built.

Trade union campaign

The trade union movement bears significant responsibility in this regard. For the last couple of years, the union leaders have spent their time almost exclusively campaigning for Labor. They have had no discernible industrial strategy, instead putting all their eggs in the ‘vote Labor’ basket.

Their strategy has been an abject failure. The combined money and efforts of the trade unions and Labor failed to stop the Coalition returning to power, first at the New South Wales state election, and now again federally.

Their main pitch was “change the government to change the rules”, but in the absence of clear and specific Labor policies they struggled to get traction. The absence of an industrial fight in the workplaces and on the streets meant that there was no pressure on Labor to commit to more than the most minor of changes.

Many people also understand that there are lots of rules already in place that the bosses don’t adhere to. Even if the rules were changed, how would they be enforced? This can only be done by a combative trade union movement.

That the unions instead present themselves as slick marginal seat campaigners gives workers no confidence that real change can be carried through. A major reassessment of the trade union movement’s political and industrial approach now needs to take place.

In recent months the major environmental groups essentially mimicked the trade union leaders’ approach. A mood for more climate strikes exists, but the conservative leaders of the climate movement instead tried to channel the anger into a vote for Labor and the Greens at the election. This failed to garner any enthusiasm.

The Greens vote flatlined as they largely focused their efforts on campaigning in well-to-do conservative seats. Despite having policies that are mostly to the left of Labor, working class people generally see the Greens as a bunch of inner-city snobs.

If the trade union and social movements continue their electoral focus further setbacks are inevitable. Not only will the unions struggle to redress their membership decline, but continued allegiance to Labor risks further opening the door to the populist right. The Queensland experience can be replicated in other states and move from regional to suburban areas.

Unstable government

The new Coalition government will have a slim majority but it will be far from stable. The last term showed how a majority of just a couple of seats can be turned into a minority very quickly. The other major issue is the economic situation this government will have to oversee.

The first recession in three decades looms at a time when people are already hurting from low wage growth and housing stress. The Coalition’s plan to reduce taxes will inevitably lead to cuts to public services and this will be compounded if economic growth is squeezed and unemployment rises.

The risk of a housing crash is something else that threatens people’s livelihoods, not to mention all the international problems like the US/China trade conflict. That Australia has avoided the worst of these issues so far is the real miracle. It cannot last.

The trade union and social movements need to prepare now for what is to come. We need to draw all those opposed to the government’s big business agenda together to say that we are not prepared to pay for the next economic crisis. We will not accept any cuts to social services or attacks on our living standards.

In addition to drawing this line in the sand, we should demand that society’s wealth is used to raise our living standards and deal with the climate crisis in a way that lifts working class communities. It is clear that the wealth already exists to do all this, but it is being horded by the super-rich. They will not give it up without a fight.

That fight over the wealth created is what the trade union and social movements need to focus on. The best way to wrestle back a bigger share of what workers create is to mobilise people into taking action. Strikes and protests are potent weapons. Our power lies in our collective strength.

Get on the front foot

As a first step we need union delegate and campaign meetings to be called in the coming weeks to discuss the way forward. Plans should be made for a major one-day national strike and demonstration, bringing together workers, students, climate activists and community campaigners.

We should pre-emptively put our collective stamp on the political situation, making it clear that we do not consider that this government has any mandate to implement a pro-big business agenda.

While this election result is a setback for working people, it should not be seen as a decisive defeat. The Coalition did not win this election so much as Labor lost it. The few seats that shifted hands would not have been lost if Labor had genuine pro-worker and environment policies.

We don’t need a fake Labor party that tries to hedge its bets between the interests of ordinary people and big business. We need a party that unashamedly stands up to profit interests and fights for socialist solutions to the problems we face. These solutions include bringing the key parts of the economy into public hands and running them democratically to cater for the needs of ordinary people.

A new political movement that was based on trade unions and community campaigns would be a much more effective weapon than a fake Labor Party. It would also have the potential to win over many of those currently drawn to right wing populists.

Uniting our movements in a fight against the Morrison government would not only give us the best chance of pushing back the big business agenda, but it would help lay the basis for a new working class political alternative.

Let’s draw the lessons from this election, but let’s not waste any time. We need to get back on the front foot.

Editorial comment from the forthcoming June 2019 issue of The Socialist