Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Part 6: Lessons from History: The Risks of a Divided Progressive Movement

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

Lessons from History: The Risks of a Divided Progressive Movement

The final lesson that the ALP must learn from its history of responding to left wing challenges within the progressive movement is that while The Greens must be actively confronted and their agenda rejected, the ALP must ensure that the necessary confrontation does not alienate future Labor voters and members. In this respect, Labor has handled past divisions in the progressive movement poorly. All too often, Labor leaders like Kidston, Lang and Evatt have responded to internal divisions with an aggression and personal acrimony that split the party and the progressive movement for years to come. The early signs of such a fractious division between the supporters of the ALP and those of The Greens are already observable.

Many in the Labor party, particularly those in the inner cities, resent the way that the Greens actively court Labor voters, without the constraint of having to make their appeal palatable to the broader population. The feeling that The Greens are opportunists betraying the broader progressive movement’s electoral prospects in pursuit of their own narrow political self interest is palpable and the source of much anger. The Greens’ tendency to frame their campaigns as black and white morality plays in which the ALP is condemned not simply for adopting a different electoral strategy or policy approach, but as being actively morally inferior to the Greens particularly grates. As Proust once said, those that we hate the most are those who are most like ourselves, but with our faults uncured. Given that to many on the Labor side, the world view of The Greens is that of a left wing student politician who never confronted the realities of democratic politics, it’s easy to see why there is so much animosity towards the party within the ALP.

Despite this, Labor must learn from its’ history to resist the temptation to engage in personal attacks on The Greens. The animosity that has accompanied historic splits within the Australian progressive movement over nationalisation, conscription, the response to the depression and communism has wastefully diverted the energies and distracted the attentions of those who ought to be working for Labor’s electoralist mission. Labor members should remind themselves that one of John Curtin’s first acts as Leader of the ALP was to establish a series of ALP Unity Conferences in which the motions to expel Lang Labor supporters were rescinded and Lang Labor MPs were invited to rejoin the Labor caucus. The resulting d├ętente brought the McKell Government into power in New South Wales and the Curtin led Labor Party into power federally not long after. If the rancour and betrayals of a party split could be successfully overcome in this way in the name of progressive solidarity, so too can the petty frustrations of responding to opportunism and hypocrisy.

Instead of engaging in counter-productive ad hominem attacks, Labor must adopt an approach to confronting The Greens that keeps an eye to a future in which these voters (and members) are brought back into the fold. Instead of either belittling The Greens and their supporters, or engaging in an unwinnable ideological auction for their support, Labor should seek to confront The Greens asymmetrically, competing for the support of these voters using the comparative advantages of the ALP in political philosophy and policy making.

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