Six years ago the Australian Labour Party (ALP) was all-powerful. As a party, it controlled every single state government and had just achieved a stunning Federal Election result which even saw the Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, lose his seat. Today they are surveying the wreckage. Labor have lost control in five of the six states. In the case of Queensland and New South Wales, where Labor managed to retain seats, there was a huge swing away from the party in the Federal Election on 7th September.
Yet as a government, the ALP was a proven success over the last six years. It presided over economic prosperity and improving living standards at a time of global austerity. Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd as Labour Prime Ministers introduced a raft of popular and socially progressive legislations such as the Disability Rights legislation.
What went wrong and what can the British Labour learn from the experience?
Well the first rule of modern politics – division is death – was played out to spectacular effect with the ALP. Australian Labour’s politics turned into a Punch and Judy show: Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister before the General Election in the 2010 and Rudd replaced Gillard earlier this year, just before the federal election. This confused the public and created huge divisions within the Parliamentary Party. Simon Crean, a former leader and respected MP, summed it up in the Australian: “Their strength was in their combination,” he said. Rudd and Gillard was a godsend for Australian Labour politics; but Rudd vs Gillard was a disaster. The experience of the ALP over the last three years proves a stark reminder that the UK Labour Party, too, needs to move on from secret briefings and rivalries of the Brown-Blair, Ed-David type.
The Australian Labour Party failed to deal with long standing issues of party mis-management and dubious behaviour, especially by certain MPs and Trade Union leaders in New South Wales. The public punished such behaviour by a record 25% swing away from Labour in the last New South Wales state election.
Trades unions have a deep impact on Australian society. They are the default provider of private pensions, which every worker has to subscribe to and every company has to provide. These union pension funds have proved extremely popular, with low charges and better returns than commercial pensions. The trade union-led culture of decent pay means that few workers expect tips. Instead workers have a higher level of wages including guaranteed premium rates for unsocial hours. This embedded trade union culture meant that even Tony Abbott – the new Prime Minister leading the Liberal-National coalition – had to pledge to keep much existing employment legislation, in his manifesto.
Given the current fraught discussions in the UK, it was wonderful to see how strong the association between the trade unions and Labour Party remains in Australia. Trade unions and their members were absolutely central to the General Election campaign for Labour. One of the highlights of my time here in Australia was a party fundraising event where Bob Hawke – the veteran Labour Prime Minister – had the whole audience singing ‘Solidarity Forever’. Somehow I can’t imagine Tony Blair doing the same.
Whilst battered, the ALP survived the election in better shape than many predicted. In Victoria this was down to a grassroots campaign using trades union members to canvass friends and colleagues. Because Australia has compulsory voting, this campaign was not about securing turnout, but about understanding Labour’s core values both for this and future elections. The election also saw success for a number of new women Labour MPs such as Clare O’Neill in Melboune, Kate Harris in Adelaide and Alannah Mcternan in Perth.
For UK Labour, with the General Election looming in 2015, the need to maintain party discipline is absolutely critical. It is depressing to see battle lines being drawn up at senior levels over Party and Trade union links. The lesson from Australia is that such links need to be developed at a personal and local level, campaigning and joining together to secure rights at work for all employees, not just existing Trade Union members. Get that right and we could transform our electoral chances in 2015.