Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Part 3: A Direct Historical Parallel to the Challenge of the Greens: The Lang Labor Split

The End of the Party? Labor History and the Rise of the Greens.

A Direct Historical Parallel to the Challenge of the Greens: The Lang Labor Split

For the pessimists, the ALP’s collapse in surveyed primary support since the 2010 election is frequently cited as the most compelling evidence of Labor’s impending demise. In the past 12 months, Labor’s surveyed national primary support has fallen as low as 26% and has generally struggled to lift much above 30%. This is truly a disastrous situation and would result in the wholesale rout of the party should it be reproduced at an election. Many have speculated that such a rout would leave Labor vulnerable to being overtaken by The Greens. However, those with an eye to history will know that this is not the first time Labor’s primary support has been this low, nor is it the first time Labor has been electorally challenged from the Left.  

At the 1931 Federal Election, the Labor Government led by Prime Minister James Scullin suffered a swing against it of -22%, leaving the ALP with a primary vote of just 27%. Labor MPs of the calibre of John Curtin, Ben Chifley and ‘Red Ted’ Theodore all lost their seats in the ensuing rout. While this result occurred in the throes of the Great Depression, Labor’s catastrophic performance was not merely a function of economic circumstance. Instead, more than half of the collapse in Labor’s support was directly attributable to the emergence of an opportunistic Left wing challenger to the ALP; the Australian Labor Party (NSW), more popularly referred to a ‘Lang Labor’.

Lang Labor was a splinter group of left wing Labor MPs loyal to the New South Wales Premier Jack Lang who triggered the 1931 election by voting with the conservative Opposition against the Government on a confidence motion. Lang Labor MPs advocated the adoption of the Lang Plan in response to the Great Depression, a populist left wing programme which called for a repudiation of Australia’s foreign debt (what we would call ‘default’ today) and the abandonment of the gold standard in favour of a goods standard that would significantly increase the monetary supply. While Conservatives and moderates were aghast at such an extreme proposal at the time, Lang Labor was able to capture around 10% of the national vote in the 1931 election. As its support was largely concentrated in NSW, it was further able to convert this support into four seats in Federal Parliament (including the infamous hard left MP Eddie Ward, who would go on to become a constant thorn in the sides of both Curtin and Chifley).  At the subsequent election in 1934, Lang Labor increased its support to 14% and its Parliamentary representation to nine seats. Meanwhile Labor’s primary support fell even further to just 26%, consigning the divided progressive movement to continued Opposition.

The similarities between the circumstances in which the progressive movement found itself in the early 1930s and current electoral environment are significant. In both cases, the progressive movement is deeply divided. On one side is an insurgent minority group supported by 10-15% of voters and advocating an extreme policy agenda to which the majority of the electorate is actively hostile. On the other side is the bulk of the progressive movement, weakened by internal conflict and external vicissitudes, fighting a war on two fronts and losing the vital middle ground necessary to form government.

So what does history tell us about the prospects for the Greens and the ALP within this context?

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