We live in a world where public opinion has “only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy”, or at least that was what was found by a Princeton University study of American democracy. Based on the statistical evidence, they conclude that the US has a form of “Economic-Elite Domination”, and that “when a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose”.
While no comparable study of its depth exists for Australia, it’s nevertheless relatively clear the situation is the same here. The population overwhelmingly sees education and health as the most important issues for Australia, and, in case after case, the majority of Australians would rather see increased spending in that direction than the periodic massive tax cuts we’ve seen introduced over the last 30 years, all of which have predominantly benefited the top 10% of the population.
Further, 84% of the population want the government to focus on renewables, and 58% see climate change as a “threat to the vital interests of Australia”. Yet government policy over the last two decades has been consistently, directly opposed to renewable energy and good climate policy. As underlined by the recent UN report on the unprecedented biodiversity crisis we’re facing, this is a dangerous problem. Though communities are leading the shift to a sustainable economy from below, it is imperative we also have good government policy from above. As the Princeton study shows, this is difficult. But it is not impossible.
The Labor Party, I think, sees the same picture as I’ve outlined. The question for them is, what to do about it. There’s more or less two paths open to them: either stay conservative, and present a more progressive version of the Coalition policy in the hope that this will placate and be endorsed by the ‘Economic-Elites’; or, follow public opinion closely and present a vision for an inclusive, radical restructuring of the economy.
On this, shadow environment minister Tony Burke’s recent comments are revealing. Burke said Labor’s climate policies over the last decade had been based on “what stakeholders, including major business groups, said they wanted”. This alludes to the fact that Labor, so far, have taken the first path – placating economic elites in the hope of receiving endorsement. But the economic elites, Burke rightly observed, “never come to our defence when we have been under attack”. Labor are left advocating for a policy designed for economic elites, without elite support, having to sell it to a population whose opinions they’ve essentially ignored. They’re left, ostensibly, in no-man’s land.
This was a lesson we should have learnt by now from the election losses in 2015 and 2016 in the UK and the US - Ed Miliband’s UK Labour Party and Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party respectively. Both ran platforms which, relative to their opponents, were progressive, but which were far from matching up with public opinion. The public were “far to the left” of Miliband’s Labour; in the US, following eight years of an Obama Presidency which had significantly accelerated inequality, 75% of voters were looking for someone who could take the country back “from the rich and powerful”. In both cases, the elites backed the right-wing party, and the population didn’t see either candidate as “being on the side of the working people”. There’s a perception that Cameron / Trump / Scott Morrison won their elections, but the truth is that it was Miliband / Clinton / Shorten who lost them. In the US election, the story was that people just didn’t show up. The Republican vote didn’t increase – the Democratic support collapsed. It wasn’t working class people voting against their interests – it was the “increasing numbers of average Americans [that could] no longer stomach voting for parties that only pretend to represent their interests”. The same was true in Australia: as Laura Tingle has said, the Coalition vote didn’t increase – it was unchanged – the problem was that Labor lost 3-4% of the vote. People just didn’t show up for Labor.
Just like Clinton and Miliband, Australian Labor were left in no-man’s land, with a progressive policy designed for elites but without elite backing, and a population alienated by the elite-designed policies.
What about the other path open to Labor – to follow public opinion closely and present a vision for an inclusive, radical restructuring of the economy?
A recent article in the Financial Times passed judgment on this: “the future belongs to the left, not the right”, they said. Centrist liberalism is on the decline because “liberal regimes have proved incapable of solving problems that arose directly from liberal policies”.
“This is a political environment that favours the radical left over the radical right. The right is not interested in poverty and its parties are full of climate-change deniers.
Some of the rightwing populists may speak the language of the working classes, but the left is more likely to deliver. We have entered an age that will favour radicalism over moderation, and the left over the right. It is not going to be the age of Donald Trump.”
There’s good evidence in favour of this thesis from Jeremy Corbyn. Labour policies under Corbyn match popular opinion, and, for that reason, have received vicious attacks from the mainstream. One careful, rigorous statistical analysis found that, in their treatment of Corbyn, “the majority of the press did not act as a critical watchdog of the powers that be, but rather more often as an antagonistic attackdog”. This was the case from the right-wing media right across to The Guardian. In fact, just before the 2017 general election, The Guardian Editorial view on Labour stated that it was “not up to the job: As Britain heads for the EU exit door under a government that botched the budget, Jeremy Corbyn’s party are failing to offer a credible vision”.
Yet, despite the extraordinary media hostility, and because Corbyn’s policies matched popular opinion so closely, the Labour Party won an extra 30 seats and took away the Conservative Party’s majority. “Jeremy Corbyn confounds critics with ‘gobsmacking’ gain” ran the headlines.
While the evidence isn’t direct, it looks like Bernie Sanders would have done the same in the US had he won the Democratic nomination: excited people; given them a reason to go and vote; given them policy-based hope (different from the cynical hope-as-a-brand practised by Obama).
The message is clear for the major leftist parties like Labor: people need a reason to show up and vote for you, and if you give them a good reason, they will.
In an excellent post-election article, Amanda Cahill, who has worked in coal region communities across Australia, wrote that “people tell me they feel abandoned by the government and don’t trust the main parties”. We need “to work with communities to tease out the complexities of a just transition, and co-create the constructive solutions that we urgently need”. That is, we need a version of the Green New Deal – the massive investment necessary to re-align our economy to get it onto a sustainable path; the concomitant jobs this would bring; the sense of togetherness we would feel in working together to save the world (and I don’t mean to exaggerate in saying that).
It is an exciting prospect that soon we could have governments all over the world signing up for a Green New Deal – that it could become an internationally coordinated phenomenon. There are hints the US and UK could be heading in this direction. There are moves to bring the EU on-board as a block.
In the UK and the US, however, there have been impressive movements to co-opt the major leftist parties in order to align them with the public. The Momentum group got Corbyn the Labour Party leadership against the will of most Labour Party MPs; and the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign volunteers have continued their impressive work through Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a notable success of theirs. There’s no obvious analogue with respect to the Australian Labor Party.
Here’s to hoping. Electorally, Labor MPs should be hoping too.