Once upon a time, Mark Latham, giving some signs of the combativeness for which he later became notorious, made a speech accusing me of being born with a silver spoon in my mouth, something which was untrue and certainly came as a surprise to my Father, and I think would have also surprised my classmates at Kedron State High School. Latham’s accusation, the theme of which was that I was one of those then storied inner city elites and thus to be totally disregarded, was in response to a critical review I’d written in the Journal of Australian Political Economy of a book he’d co-edited with Peter Botsman, The Enabling State.
It’s interesting for me to re-read that book review, because Mark Latham’s basic political orientation in his Quarterly Essay, ‘Not Dead Yet‘, doesn’t seem to have changed too much, though it’s pleasing to see some of the combativeness replaced with some charity.
The sub-title of Latham’s essay is “Labor’s Post-Left Future”. I would have thought that the Global Financial Crisis would have demonstrated to the apostles of the end of left and right that their thinking had itself been transcended by reality. But that’s probably the problem – I’m yet to read anyone call for the left to de-left itself who isn’t themselves either on the right, or part of a Great Moving Right Show. And this politics, associated with an era of early New Labour and Antony Giddens as Tony Blair’s court guru, now seems resolutely old-fashioned.
The nostrums about ‘aspirational’ voters, on show again in Latham’s piece on Julia Gillard’s visit to Western Sydney, represent a fantasy. To some degree they are grounded in shifting structural patterns of work and class identities (but only to some degree – wasn’t Paul Keating’s dad a self employed small business person?). But, really, it’s the Lindsay Line writ large, as much as Latho might decry the emptying out of the New South Wales Labor Right.
The endless dichotomism strangely employed by politicans and thinkers who’d often talk Hegel-ese and preface a range of statements with “neither, nor” and “both, and”, has not gone away. Labor has nothing to learn from inner city elites, etc, etc. I’d have thought that a former Member for Werriwa, Gough Whitlam, might have disagreed. So, too, might that epitome of an ALP politician blokey and blue collar in style, Tom Burns, who when Queensland Opposition Leader after Joh Bjelke-Petersen almost wiped the party out, quickly turned to UQ and Griffith academics for policy ballast.
In fact, Labor has been at its best when it has not scorned education or thought, and when it has built around itself some intellectual and policy thinking. Mark Latham, while he tried hard, demonstrated that it’s difficult to develop that culture in a vacuum, at the same time displaying one of his many antinomies – simultaneously flayer of the elites and social democratic intellectual and author.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of Mark Latham’s occasional writing in the Financial Review and in Crikey, but I don’t think Australian Labor has a lot to learn from ‘Not Dead Yet’. Nevertheless, it’s a good thing that he’s written the essay, as debate among Labor people and sympathisers about its political philosophy and strategic direction is much to be welcomed.
For a much more comprehensive (and balanced) review, I urge everyone to read the redoubtable Matt Cowgill’s post at We Are All Dead.