To quote that literary genius, Yogi Berra, I think the Labor Party has come to a fork in the road and is about to take it.
Of course, there are likely to be some gains from a divorce between the unions and the ALP, although not for the union officials seeking employment in the sheltered workshops in the upper houses of the various parliaments.
There may also be some losses, particularly in terms of connection with real working people with socially conservative views (Nick Cater’s point).
Don’t be fooled that there is much substance to a rule change that loosens the union membership requirement for belonging to the ALP. Completely minor stuff.
The real issue, in my view, is that the membership is likely to be much more inner-city, university educated, public sector employed with radical social views. Some of the unions, at least, keep the party closer to the mainstream. Here are some points of difference between the two segments:
- Fitzroy v Cranbourne – Glebe v Sylvania Waters;
- Kale smoothie v Bundy and Coke (or local beer, eg. VB, Tooheys, XXXX, etc.);
- Quinoi patties with side of heritage tomatoes and aged Balsamic v Steak and snags on the barbie (don’t forget the Rosella tomato sauce);
- Fair trade double shot espresso v Mug of capuccino from Maccas (special treat) or Farmers’ Union Iced Coffee;
- Hand made loafers from soft leather (a vegan concession) v steel capped boots;
- Alliance Francais lessons for the four years olds v Aus Kick down at the local oval;
- Second hand fan v whole house airconditioning, industrial size;
- Gambling is evil v a flutter on the TAB, no harm there;
- Smoking is evil v what’s happening to the price of fags?;
- Marriage equality now v I can’t understand all this stuff, I think I disagree;
- More asylum seekers now v Aussie jobs for Aussie workers;
- Climate change action now v Our electricity bill is going through the roof.
And the list goes on – come on, Cats, you know you can add to the list.
But the real issue is that these two divergent groups have nothing in common and of course the inner-city trendies look down their noses (rhinoplasty only if necessary) and sneer at their fellow citizens living in their large houses in Cranbourne.
The Labor Party can please one group only by disaffecting the other. And that is the dilemma – there is no middle ground. And electorally speaking, there are not enough kale munchers to allow the Labor Party to win office. Moreover, the fair trade set are increasingly likely to swing to the Greens.
But here’s the dilemma: handing more power to the membership is likely to throw up more candidates with inner-city values which alienate a lot of voters.
(Just on the issue of nearly 50 per cent of federal Labor politicians being ex-union officials, a distinction has to be made from previous times. These people have generally never worked in the occupation which the union represents, with the possible exception of teachers and nurses. For them, the union is just a convenient stepping stone to a parliamentary career, having completed some soft university degree. Mind you, I’m not sure this arrangement is actually helpful to the unions or for retaining membership numbers. At least Ben Chifley did actually drive trains.)