NO FUTURE IN TALKING DOWN TO THOSE WHO LACK A VOICE

The findings of Labor's inquiry into its federal election defeat will be handed to the ALP National Executive tomorrow, but we already know several things that help explain the result and the challenges ahead for the party.

Those challenges run much deeper than the explanations favoured by commentators who attribute Labor's loss to supposedly unpopular tax policies or the failings of individuals.

We were tripped up by the profound anxieties that blue-collar voters, our traditional base, have about social change. It was not our policies that those voters rejected. Our messaging was off-key and the message they sent in response was that the opinions of elites cut no ice with them.

Much has been made of Labor's low primary vote. But what has been ignored is that the Liberal vote also fell, by 0.6 per cent. What, then, delivered a 1.2 per cent swing on the two-party preferred vote, and victory, to the Coalition? The role of far-Right populist parties, especially Pauline Hanson's One Nation and Clive Palmer's United Australia Party, cannot be ignored.

The overall result was close but across Labor's heartland in the outer suburbs of the big cities and in the regions, there was a surge in support for far-Right parties, whose preferences went to the Coalition.

The long-term danger for Labor is that many people who were once its core voters are beginning to doubt whether it speaks for them. That is not about "aspiration", or Labor's proposed reform of negative gearing and dividend imputation. Those voters live in electorates where people own the least number of shares and the fewest investment properties.

But they are anxious about their economic security, because of wage stagnation, automation and loss of manufacturing jobs and increasing workforce casualisation. Many don't believe the political system can deliver them a better life with secure, well-paid jobs. That has led to resentment of those perceived to be political insiders and hostility to the identity politics of inner-city elites. The economic anxieties are being aggravated by a great cultural divide.

Those anxieties are easily manipulated by the deceits and distortions in social media and campaigns orchestrated by Rightwing demagogues, even when those demagogues are billionaires like Clive Palmer, whose life is so different from theirs. Palmer spent nearly $60 million on election advertising, more than the Liberal and Labor parties combined.

This phenomenon is not unique to Australia. It has happened in the US with Donald Trump and it is happening in Britain with Brexit.

To many outer suburban and regional voters, Palmer or Hanson seem more authentic than the progressive activists of the ALP, because Palmer and Hanson present themselves as somehow not part of the political system.

That is nonsense but the peril for Labor, and for democracy, is that increasing numbers of people believe it. Blue-collar voters are suspicious of activists from the affluent inner cities who seem to represent the disproportionate power and influence of those who live there. They are rightly resentful of people who condescend to them by telling them what is good for them.

The economic anxieties have produced a backlash against elites, a revolt against political correctness that has driven increasing numbers of voters to support far-Right populist parties.

As has been seen in Trump's America, many of those voters are men who have lost manufacturing jobs or who can no longer find fulltime jobs. They feel worthless.

Many women in working-class communities are affected by the job losses and insecurity of the men they live alongside and identify more with those men than with middle-class women.

None of that means the great social transformations of the past 50 years, especially the move to gender equality, can or should be undone. But it does mean that progressive activists accustomed to moving in circles where those transformations are not questioned need to understand that it is not so everywhere.

Above all, it means that, to bridge the cultural divide between the inner-city elites and those who live in the outer suburbs and regions, Labor must show that it will again deliver what our opponents are not delivering: highpaid, secure, full-time jobs. That is what will restore power to the powerless.

As former US president Barak Obama recently told a conference of progressive activists in Chicago: "If all you're doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get very far."

This was first published in The Herald Sun on Wednesday, 6 November 2019.


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