Strong medicine needed for Labor's pain

Labor's disastrous primary vote said as much about its revolving door of leadership as it did about a fundamental lack of direction. Today's caucus meeting must go much deeper than picking Bill Shorten or Anthony Albanese.

With the remnants of the Labor caucus due to meet in Canberra today for the first post-election debrief, there is a long list of questions facing the newly minted Opposition. Chief among them is who Labor’s next leader will be but of significantly more consequence is the question that has been hanging over the party for more than a decade now: who does modern Labor represent?

Until Labor decides and communicates that, it will never install a stable leader as that leader will be standing on shifting sands. And until there is a competent, long-term leader at its helm, the public will not be ready to begin its healing process with Labor (this after all is the real breach that needs to be healed, not the internal wounds).

This renders the touted choice between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese as moot. Addressing the structural deficits of the Labor party requires far more urgent attention that the physical vacancy of a parliamentary leader. This is in no small part because of Labor’s positioning of itself in recent years.

Labor fancies itself a reader of the zeitgeist – moving policy in the direction public opinion pushes it. Kevin Rudd’s symbolic backflip on same-sex marriage and a significant lurch to the right on asylum seekers are merely the latest in a long line of Labor’s pandering to a perceived middle ground.

But what the party fails to comprehend is the fluidity of its beloved social barometer.

Through its addiction to polling (Labor must finally break its addiction, September 9) and its previous leaders’ addiction to social media, Labor has become part of the zeitgeist – and no political party will ever be able to accurately gauge a spectrum it has gracelessly inserted itself into.

The zeitgeist after all is a fickle thing and Labor’s pursuit of and positioning of itself inside it further alienates its traditional supporters.

Any smart leader will know remedying this is step one of Operation Rebuild Labor.

Kevin Rudd spent much of his concession speech addressing an “army of true believers” but if Labor’s primary vote is any indication of the size of its “army” for the sake of the party, let us hope that hand-to-hand combat doesn’t break out in the House of Representatives.

The Australian Electoral Commission estimates Labor’s primary vote to be just 33.8 in last weekend’s election, considerably lower than the 38 per cent in 2010, and in a whole other ballgame to the 43.4 per cent in 2007 that Rudd first rode into the Lodge.

By contrast, while the Coalition’s primary vote has fluctuated over the last four elections – 46.7 per cent in 2004; 42.1 per cent in 2007; 43.6 per cent in 2010; and roughly 45.6 per cent in 2013 – its tight range and constancy above the key 40 per cent benchmark is testament to the attentive maintenance of its key constituents.

So how does a party recapture its primary vote? By getting to know its primary voters, of course.

In his 2007 valedictory address Kim Beazley recalled the central question that faced Labor in the 1960s: “Are we a party whose basic ideology is committed to the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange, or are we a party where our fundamental ideology is equal opportunity for all?”

Fifty years on, it’s still a loaded question to ask of the modern Labor party, and one the caucus would be wise to consider today. Certainly key reforms such as the national disability insurance scheme, the national broadband network and the Gonski education reforms have been delivered in the name and rhetoric of opportunity for all. They were sold as equalisers – even if it meant temporary financial hits or spiraling deficits.

Alternatively, the long-held central statement of the Labor party focusing on “democratic socialisation” harks back to the party’s long association with the union movement – a source of long-standing internal support, but more recently sharp criticism. Rudd’s removal as prime minister did little to assuage fears it was a party for unionists first, and Labor members second.

The hot-button issue of the carbon tax further illuminates the discord inherent in Labor. Socialisation would be loath to inflict the kind of financial burden on the community that, as the Coalition has so gleefully pointed out, followed the introduction of the tax. On the other hand, failure to act would surely go against Labor’s long-held mantra of social and environmental justice.

Of course, these are but two of the competing ideologies dogging Labor. In the mix also are tags such as 'centre left’ and ‘progressive’ – the latter the political residue of Tony Blair’s ‘new Labour’ movement in the UK. While both are relatively new by historical standards, they are important branding tools in a time of profligate political parties and widespread scrutiny.

The posturing that has unfolded this week as Labor sifts through its ranks for a leader suggests the party could very well fall into the all-too-familiar trap of conflating a fresh leader with a refocussed, clear ideology.

There has long been friction between Labor's left and right factions, and it's not rewriting history to say that the last six years have shone a light on these differences. But the mere positioning of union-backed Bill Shorten as leader, with the more left-leaning, progressive Tanya Plibersek as deputy, smacks of a party looking to plaster a band-aid over a bullet hole.

If Shorten speaks to Labor's union-heavy right, and Albanese to the socially liberal, centre-left rank and file, as Michelle Grattan suggests (Labor faithful urge Albo to come to the party, September 11), then the question remains as to whom the Labor party as a whole speaks? More importantly, whom does it speak for?

Installing any leader at the top of the Labor pyramid without a credible answer to this question, far from guiding the party towards Ben Chifley’s 'light on the hill’, will surely plunge it further into the darkness.

Follow @mitchneems on Twitter.