Why Labor's not working

This piece was originally published in the National Times 1 December, 2011

Rock-bottom support. Plummeting membership. A broken structure. Labor is in trouble and its very existence is at stake. But if the hacks are serious about fixing the party at its national conference this weekend, they must deal with one issue underpinning all of Labor's woes - the collapse of the party's traditional base.

While opinion polls this year have hammered home the dire level of support for Labor, with its primary vote often wallowing in the 20s, the party's main concern is the plummeting number of paid-up members. Official numbers are hard to come by, but insiders report that membership is now below 20,000, the lowest level in decades and half the number the party had as recently as 2007 when Kevin Rudd was elected. The swiftness of this loss is compounded by the changing nature of Australian society, presenting the question of whether numbers can be regained quickly or indeed ever.

Australia's working class has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. With the opening of the Australian economy in 1980s and the spread of technology, cheap international manufacturing and transport, the manual component of the workforce has declined significantly. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of workers in traditional blue-collar jobs has fallen from about 50 per cent of the workforce in 1980 to barely 30 per cent today. This loss of Labor's natural base presents a more critical problem over the medium term than simply rebuilding the party's shattered polling numbers.

The perverse tragedy for Labor, though, is that past success has created the current malaise. For more than a century, Labor fought to improve the lot of the labouring classes by establishing public education, healthcare and workplace protections. In doing so it brought about greater equality and a fairer distribution of resources to Australian society.

The traditional base now enjoys stable employment, workers' rights, public healthcare and education. There is no longer the fear of debilitating economic hardship or deprivation.

Furthermore, the reforms of the 1980s opened markets and boosted GDP, delivering unparalleled economic prosperity and security to the nation.

Paradoxically, these previous successes play a key role in the party's current dire straits. Because its core needs have been met, the traditional base no longer requires the party, and Labor has been unable to present an alternative vision that resonates with it.

Labor's strategy to deal with this appears centred on chasing the former base, and it's not working. Here's why. The party no longer intrinsically understands the group, and as such the policies it offers to lure people back ring hollow. This can be seen in the current conservative policy offerings from Labor, which it hopes will win back the Liberal-voting rump of the base.

Take Labor's current approach to asylum seekers. Its strategy is centred on ''tough on refugees'' posturing and playing up the threat to national security. In other words, reading straight from John Howard's 2001 campaign diary. The approach does not reflect Labor's commitment to social values and rings hollow to even the casual political observer. Yet the apparatchiks in the party believe this is what must be done to win back the base.

It is a plan that won't succeed. Producing reactionary policies that pander to conservative demands and xenophobia is trying to outplay the Liberals at their own game. This won't wash with voters. Why choose Liberal-lite when you can vote for the real thing?

The same hollow approach to policy development and presentation is seen time and time again across a range of issues, from the resistance to gay marriage to arguments for a carbon price and defending the initial mining super profits tax.Labor is consistently missing the opportunity to build community support for a more progressive Australia, primarily because it no longer understands its former base.

To deal effectively with this challenge, the party must recognise that its traditional base has almost disappeared. A party built upon the foundations of manual labour can no longer survive. The typical worker is now more likely to be employed in the service industry or to be an educated professional than to be in the manual jobs that the party traditionally relied upon for support. Labor must reconfigure its base to encompass the 21st-century Australian workforce and develop policies that resonate with it.

But time is running out. The Greens are better positioned to benefit from the new Australian workforce and their focus on sustainability has more traction today than Labor's traditional focus on workers' rights. As the impacts of climate change accelerate, this trend is expected to continue.

The evolving nature of the Australian workforce poses more problems. The educated professional class, a segment expected to grow, already votes Greens. More concerning still for Labor are the growing numbers of green-collar workers who will dominate industry this century.

The political allegiance of these workers is still in doubt, but where they fall will ultimately determine Labor's future. Already we have seen the Electrical Trades Union, whose membership includes growing numbers of green-collar workers, start preferencing the Greens in an ominous warning for Labor. If the Greens consolidate the support of professionals, and corner the green-collar vote, Labor would be unlikely to keep, let alone increase, its depleted base.

Trapped between parties of fear and vision, Labor is being squeezed into irrelevance. Unless it cultivates a new base and develops a vision appropriate for the 21st century, Labor will not survive.

Tom Quinn teaches politics at La Trobe University.