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Working class voters get driven away from Labour

January 25, 2011

Astute comments from a friend of mine, British Labour MP John Spellar, about the threat to social democratic and labour parties in the western world, something I have spoken about below, see “European Diary: Vienna.” John Spellar is a bluff, straight talking former union official who has been in parliament for 20 years.

He knows more about Australia, by the way, than any other member of the British parliament and has been here countless times. 

Here’s what he wrote on the Labour Uncut website:

A mistake common to both the radical Conservatives and the intellectual left is to believe that the voters want to be in a constant turmoil of aspiration and change. In fact, they want a quiet and comfortable life with steady improvement.
That middle portion of the electorate is very much a type B rather than type A personality. That was the secret of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair: they offered non-threatening change. These voters want to go to work, be fairly rewarded and treated with respect. They want the opportunity to move up a bit at work, but not to feel pressured to do so. They are diligent and reliable workers and have a concern, bordering on contempt, for those who they believe are fiddling benefits or are work shy.
However, work is not the only, or main, focus of their life. The most important things are home, family and hobbies. They are law abiding and expect others to play by the rules. They want to live in a peaceful, orderly neighbourhood. If they do not, then they are hostile, both to the perpetrators and the authorities who permit it to happen. They expect the state to protect them from threats at home and abroad.
Following this, they want structure and stability in their lives and their surroundings. That is the huge gulf between them and the intelligentsia who value novelty and fashion above all else and who have a significant and disproportionate influence over public policy. Ordinary people expect the state to defend them against louts in their street and terrorists in their cities, which is why they support ASBOs and control orders.  At work, they expect proper procedures for deciding their pay, benefits and any disciplinary matters. They expect their children and other children to behave in school and to come out literate, numerate and employable. They expect their health service to be clean, caring and efficient.

Spellar goes on to report that in Sweden, the Social Democratic Party only receives 20 per cent of the votes of those in work. In Stockholm the figure was down to 14 per cent. He refers to the debate in the Australian Labor Party about whether the party tilts towards the socially liberal policies of the Greens or the socially conservative policies of the suburbs. He refers to the drop in support to the US Democrats among white workers.

His conclusion:

For us to survive and thrive as a Labour party, we need to reconnect with working people and their views and hopes and fears. And the sooner the better.

By the way, the reason I adhered to explicit law and order policies as Premier was to hold the support of working class people who expect Labor governments to keep their streets safe and lock up the criminals who degrade life, especially in public housing estates, making existence hell for law-abiding citizens. If Labor parties spend more time apologising for the wrong-doers than they do backing law enforcement and community safety they run the danger of being crushed in a right-wing populist backlash.

  1. Chris Johnson permalink
    January 25, 2011 7:13 pm

    Mr Carr, both you and Mr Spellar are correct that there may be a decline in support for Labo(u)r parties throughout the world, but I believe, and sincerely hope, that you are both very much mistaken as to the reasons why.
    A successful social democratic party, even a party of labour, is not about “reconnect[ing] with working people”, it’s about articulating and delivering effective solutions to myriad challenges that face voters every day, forged from deeply-held principles and beliefs about how a society can best function. Often, and I would argue necessarily, delivering these solutions requires reform both in way we do things and the way we think about things. The next generation of voters understand this instinctively and a party distracted by a battle to win the hearts and minds of some imagined constituency will never survive.
    If any party of labour believes that its salvation relies on some antiquated notion of the ‘working man’ then I fear they will not be equipped to lead the next generation of voters further into this millennium – and those voters will know it. These voters increasingly understand that the “labour vs capital” dichotomy has passed its use-by date. Increasingly, younger ‘workers’ (both men and women) are now either self-employed or small business owners, or they aspire to be. These people are not looking for a party that defines them by their employment – they don’t necessarily identify with or want to be branded ‘working people’. Like all voters, they want a party that will assist them and lead them through the difficult and complicated world in which they live; whether they work for a living, stay at home or run a business.
    Rather than staid, these voters appreciate the need for and respond well to change and reformation. Federally, John Howard lost the 2007 election not least because of the growing feeling that his government was unable to handle the twin convulsions of a technology revolution and a carbon constrained world. These voters are less hung up on some antiquated sense of the “good ol’ days” when stability and conformity (especially in work) were essential to one’s wellbeing. Over the last 2-3 decades we have seen the veil lifted on the inner workings of institutions. No longer do they accept that government, employers, unions or even the church will ‘look after us all’ come what may – they understand all too well that these institutions are either not inclined to do it or not capable of it (or both).
    In dystopian Labo(u)r Party of Mr Spellar, these voters will be asked to vote for a party whose only guiding principle is that it must, come what may, stand by some ill-defined collection of virtuous ‘working people’ – people that require clean and safe streets not necessarily by dint of a well-functioning society but by marginalisation and force. In my view, the constituency that you and Mr Spellar have imagined while real is illusory both as a long-term support base and as a natural constituency for a party of labour.
    Political labour cannot survive being wedded to an anachronistic (and shallow) view of its origins. At a time when large numbers of people were terrorised by an institutionalised and loaded social Darwinism, Labo(u)r parties aspired to a society that valued equity, fairness and diversity (notwithstanding the bigotries of the times). Political labour delivered to the disenfranchised the means to realise these ends – organisation, collectiveness and empowerment – but not so that in a more enlightened time it would be used to entrench intolerance and exclusion. The world that your ‘working people’ inhabit, is more likely to be one that has succumbed to the imagined protection of conservatism; breeding intolerance, exclusion and fear rather than equity, fairness and diversity – and where would that leave the party of labour?
    To believe that a party of labour must sacrifice its principles for some working class conservatism is narrow minded, destructive and risks creating a party of reaction. Labo(u)r parties were and are social democratic parties and, at a time when people rightly refuse to be defined by the circumstances of their employment (or not), a modern party of labour needs to overcome the urge to trivialise and undermine its primary values in the hope of reconnecting to some nebulous and potentially discordant constituency.

  2. January 27, 2011 10:28 am

    I think it’s the Labor party’s committment to universal public services that defines us best in the eyes of workers – public health insurance, hospitals, public education, roads, railways, buses, public utilities. We believe that most people rely on the state to provide these for their quality of life, and workers do as well. It’s also about equality – everyone requires good roads, good health care and a good education, rich or poor.

    I don’t think we can ignore anymore the voices of those who say that labor is too close to the liberals. Part of the problem facing modern social democrats is that we find it more difficult to define the method by which we assist working and middle class people, as distinct from the approach of the liberals. We have adopted some neoliberal approaches that have de-emphasised the role of the state, and this has annoyed much of our base.

    Right now in NSW people think that the state labor party has been taken over by imposters, especially after the latest electricity privatisation attempt. Our core constituencies feel that we have either failed to deliver basic public services and infrasrucutre, or they feel we have run away from those basics in favour of the private sector. Other voters feel angry because government services and infrastructure haven’t caught up with urban sprawl. This feeds into a sentiment of “I’m overtaxed, the government is spending all this money, but I don’t see anything for it”. When you add a whiff of incompetence that will turn away middle class professionals, it’s a dangerous cocktail to be taking into an election.

  3. Matt permalink
    January 27, 2011 1:29 pm

    We always run the risk of gross generalisation and stereotyping with these kinds of debates. Through the eyes of some the suburbs represent mono-cultural banality, the reality is of course is much more complex and more diverse than a lot of the urbanite elite would ever allow themselves to believe.

    I don’t like the tricks employed by modern political professionals to pander to those who live in the suburbs of which Mr Spellar talks about. Genuine understanding and engagement with this constituency cannot be achieved by monitoring talkback and the tabloids, it can’t be gained through a few targeted focus groups and it certainly can’t be achieved by sending an MP on to a border security vessel in Darwin.

    As both Government and party political business becomes more centralised in terms of geography, it is natural that centre-left parties lose the tangible connections to the areas it seeks to represent. Political professionalism is essential for the times but should compliment genuine ties between party and community, and shouldn’t just be the art of tricks and spin.

    I agree with the Carr Government’s refusal to be outflanked by the right on law and order. If there was a feeling in the community that justice wasn’t being properly executed we could have a radical system imposed on the courts. Though again, the suburbs are more complex on this point than many give us credit for. If they weren’t the conservative parties tendency of running policemen as candidates in some areas of NSW would have bore more fruit.

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