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Issue #1501      18 May 2011


Labor’s core values

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) was formed by the trade union movement following sharp struggles during the last decade of the 19th century in which they suffered heavy losses. By establishing a party of their own, they saw it giving the working class a voice in parliament and with it a means to counter the employers and bring greater justness and equity to the capitalist system. Like other social democrat parties that were formed in that period, it was never a revolutionary party. It was a party of reform within the system of capitalism, claiming to rule for all Australians.

Over the decades the term social democrat became synonymous with opportunism and reformism, the delivery of reforms reflecting the strength of organised labour and the economic capacity of capital to make concessions.

In government, over decades they sought reforms that would improve the lot of working people but never sought to use their power in government to organise the working class and launch an offensive against the system of capitalism.

A number of readers have commented on a letter from Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam to the Socialist Party of Australia, republished in last week’s special 1500th issue of The Guardian (11/5/2011). They were surprised by the position he took on US bases and foreign policy. They were also interested in the many progressive Labor reforms of that period. The position of the Whitlam government in the early to mid-1970s is in stark contrast to that of Labor governments that followed.

The contrast between the Gillard and Whitlam governments highlights the significant transformations in social democracy over the past century. The requirements of the capitalist system resulting from the global expansion and domination of monopoly capital – commonly referred to as globalisation – have changed. They are expressed through neo-liberalism. The capitalist system claims it cannot afford the social concessions won by the organised working class in past decades.

Social democracy, including the ALP, adjusted its policies to meet the requirements of monopoly capital. The Hawke Labor government was the first to take up neo-liberalism (economic rationalism) and begin winding back past social and economic reforms. Bit by bit financial and economic deregulation, competition policy, privatisation and the attacks on trade union and democratic rights have taken their toll.

The membership of the ALP was predominantly working class. The party took for granted the vote of the working class – no way would they vote for the Liberal Party. This has changed. The working class has left “its party” in droves. Many traditional Labor voters turned to the Coalition for the first time in the last federal elections and in the most recent NSW elections punished the ALP with a vengeance. They can longer be taken for granted.

Now Labor is attempting to win back the working class vote. This was evident in a speech given by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to the Sydney Institute on April 13. She drew on what she calls core “Labor values”. She was not talking about organising workers in trade unions, fighting for better working conditions and higher wages or improving job security. Quite the contrary.

The reference is a cynical and dishonest attempt to equate her attack on progressive reforms of past Labor eras with basic working class values of equity and social justice. Gillard’s values are not working class values.

Gillard, preparing the way for throwing tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people into the arms of philanthropists and unscrupulous exploitative employers, cynically said that “everyone who can work should work ...” It is the old “dole bludger” line reworded by her spin doctors to sound as though it is about fairness.

Treasurer Wayne Swan trotted out a similar line in the federal budget last week saying, “We believe in the Australian promise; that if you work hard, you won’t be left behind.” His speech was riddled with rhetoric about equity and opportunity – an appeal to “the battlers” in Labor’s former heartlands. The policy actions did not match the fine-sounding rhetoric.  

Next article – Oz 2 Gaza – Gaza Freedom Flotilla 2 sailing in June

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