September 15, 2013 by brettdgale
The British Labour Party is set to win the next UK election whenever it occurs. Consistently ahead in public opinion for most of the last few years, with the Conservative Party experiencing a One Nation style assault from its right, Labor should end up with a comfortable 76 seat majority in the House of Commons. Ed Miliband will be the next Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Yet for the first five months of this term of Parliament the Labour Party that Miliband leads was effectively leaderless.
The reason? The very same issue that has exercised so much heat and light in Australian political discourse in the last few days, British Labour has a democratic and open election process for its Leader, voted on by Labour’s parliamentary representatives, unions, and rank and file party members.
The leadership contest that elected Milliband Leader of Labour is superbly chronicled in Medhi Haasn and James Macintyre’s Ed: The Millibands and the making of a Labour Leader. All those criticizing Australian Labor’s current leadership contest and worrying about the damage it may inflict on the party could do worse than read “Ed”. Miliband was elected Leader in a process that was thoroughly unremarkable to the British public and that over time will become equally unremarkable in Australia.
Why the heat and light in this country? Most of the criticism of Australian Labor’s new system can be boiled down to two points; fear of the new and protection of entrenched power.
The loudest voices protesting the change have been the ones that have the most to lose – their power, and, (perhaps just as importantly to their egos) their status as “power-brokers”. The new system represents a threat to their vested interests. No wonder they are screaming .
There is also a Luddite like fear of the new from internal party critics. Some have called the new system a farce. Perhaps Gough Whitlam transforming and opening up the Labor party also seemed farcical to the original faceless men.
However, having just come off a thumping electoral defeat it is unbelievably easy to make the case that Labor needs to change and it needs to change now.
The most important and prosaic reason is that the Labor caucus can no longer be trusted on the question of its own leadership.
After the revolving door of the last four years at State and Federal level what possible reason do the Australian people have to trust that Labor’s leader will be in place from one day to the next? First New South Wales and now Federal Labor have so degraded the concept of leadership contests that only radical change can restore some semblance of trust. As a friend of mine once remarked in the dying days of the last NSW Labor Government as Iemma changed to Rees changed to Keneally, riffing off Warhol, “in the future everyone will be Premier of NSW for 15 minutes” . When serious practices become a standing joke you know something has to give.
Done properly and in the right spirit as seems to be happening, this contest will take place without the bitterness and backbiting that has characterized so many Labor leadership contests in recent years.
Given Ed Miliband beat his own brother, Hasan and Macintyre’s book is as much a study of family dynamics as it is a straightforward political narrative. Indeed, at times the contest between David and Ed got willing, yet it was done without the constant off the record rancor that has become as much a hallmark of modern Australian Labor as support for Medicare.
The leadership contest will reinvigorate Labor as a brand.
It gives Labor membership more meaning than it has had for at least three decades. No longer will the extent of Labor members’ contribution be simply handing out on election day or turning up to draughty school halls to be droned on to by local councilors. Labor membership will now have an extra purpose – the chance to have a direct say in the selection of the potential next Labor Prime Minister.
In years to come this will be an important tool for growing the breadth and diversity for Australia’s only traditional mass membership party. Take the British example again, according to Hasan and Macintyre “the so-called ‘long contest’ appealed to party officials as it offered a means of recruiting new, paying members, who were offered the opportunity of voting in the leadership election”.
“Ed” also offers a study for the two candidates involved in Australia’s contest. As Hasan and McIntyre make clear the five month leadership campaign which involved 56 hustings (or local party debates), multiple TV appearances and newspaper opinion pieces allowed each candidate to define themselves, what they stood for and where they would take the country.
Or as former Treasurer Chris Bowen has said in his own manifesto for Labor Party reform (which this blog will review shortly), “a contest like this would mean that the candidates’ campaigning mettle would be tested in a mini-campaign, which would allow the party to judge how successful the candidate might be as a campaigner in a national election”.
One of the key criticisms of the ALP proposal has been to suggest that somehow if the party rank and file vote differently to the caucus it will provide instability for the new Leader. In response I present exhibit number 1 – Ed Miliband.
Ed junior won the election after preferences with 50.654% of the electoral college, defeating his brother by 1.3%. Yet, he was beaten into second place in both the MPs and MEPs section (15.52% to 17.81%), and Constituency Labour Party section (15.20% to 18.14%), and only won in the trade unions and affiliated organisations third of the electoral college (19.93% of the total to David’s 13.40%). Now Miliband leads a united team (or as united as any group in politics can be) totally focused on beating the Tories.
Exhibit number 2 may well be Margaret Thatcher whose Cabinet of 21 had only two people who voted for her in it. It turned out alright for her in the end didn’t it?
The other major criticism of the new reforms is that the Labor party membership base is more left wing than the population as a whole. The criticism being that to win this base Labor’s new Leader may be too extreme for the general populace. Hogwash, a quick check of the track record of both candidates shows that both very much fight in the mainstream of Labor values. And for evidence that this is not actually a problem even if true we need just turn to the other side of the Atlantic and see the lack of a problem this has caused for the US Democrats in recent years – winning 4 of the last 6 elections despite a Primary process that supposedly causes candidates to tack left.
Finally the complaint runs that this is Labor once again talking about itself rather than concentrating on issues that matter to the Australian public.
Actually if done properly as “Ed” demonstrates, it’s not Labor talking about itself, its two potential Prime Ministers talking about what they would do for the country. Given the superficiality of political debate and media analysis in Australian politics in recent years it might make a refreshing change.
As Labor’s leadership contest proceeds smoothly over the next month perhaps there needs to be a new rendering of Shakespeare’s famous phrase from Heny IV rather than “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” it may well become “rest easy lies the head that wears that the Labor crown” and after the tumult of the last four years that’s something Federal Labor surely needs.