Corbynism (in suitably diluted form) has arrived even in the NSW branch of the Labor Party – long the bastion of the pragmatic and neoliberal right wing of that party. Our Blairites, if you will. If you are in any doubt about their disreputable antecedents, note they conferred life membership on Graham ‘Whatever it takes’ Richardson at the weekend.
But at that same annual conference held over the weekend, the delegates applauded Bill Shorten’s promise to end tax loopholes for Trusts as part of his ‘war’ on inequality. They also unanimously voted to limit rent increases to the rise in the cost of living index and to abolish no-grounds evictions. When it came to climate change and renewable energy, they endorsed the creation of a super public enterprise – the Renewable Energy Futures Corporation – to build and operate renewable energy projects and upgrade the grid. Even on Palestine they shifted to the left.
Each of these policy initiatives can be critiqued on the grounds that they don’t go far enough (why not 100 per cent renewable energy target by 2030 rather than 50 per cent? Why not give the recognise-Palestine policy teeth?) and that these policies are examples of the rank opportunism of Labor in opposition.
The first charge is certainly true but it cannot cancel out the fact that there has been a shift towards the required policy stance. These Labor policies are far from perfect but they are less imperfect than what preceded them. They are a shift in the direction of some version of left Keynesianism or left social democracy.
It is worth noting that Labor’s renters rights policy is nearly identical to the Greens’. As far as renewables are concerned, Labor has actually stolen an advance on the Greens. Our policy is in general favorable to public enterprise in building towards 100 per cent renewable electricity – see the general commitments at points 31 and 34 in our energy policy – but lacks Labor’s specificity. It is true that our policy was framed in an earlier pre-Corbyn era but we have been caught rather flat-footed. I can recall raising with John Kaye the need to push public enterprise as an essential part of our response to the climate emergency and John readily agreed, but added that the problem would be getting the party, even in NSW, to agree to foreground such a policy.
That was 2014. Times have now changed and at least two Greens NSW MPs have recently talked of nationalisation in the energy field but these are thought bubbles at present rather than policy.
As for that second charge of opportunism, certainly true, however it is significant that the opportunism involves a shift to the left. This branch of the Labor party is notorious for its electoral opportunism. The fact that it sees its prospects best served by this shift to the left is what is important. Nor should we ignore the fact that many of the policies adopted are sincerely supported by the more left-wing members.
This shift to the left throws into relief the opposite shift of the leadership of the Australian Greens towards a pragmatic centrism. Talk about misreading the portents of our times – social democracy everywhere shifts to the left and the Australian Greens parliamentary leadership decides to go in the opposite direction.
Fortunately this shift has not been entirely unambiguous. Certainly the RDN and Bob Brown attacks on Senator Lee Rhiannon and the Greens NSW and the invitation to Left Renewal to leave the party are signs of entrenching the centrist shift. But earlier in the year, in his address to the National Press Club, the AG parliamentary leader Senator Richard Di Natale tried out what we might call some Corbyn-lite ideas – lifting restrictions on unions, tackling growing inequality, curbing tax loopholes particularly in housing, founding a people’s bank and reducing the working week to four days or 32 hours. However, rather than pursue and develop such ideas, the emphasis has been on curbing any radical elements in the Greens and endangering our alliance with public school teachers in a desperate search to be pragmatic and ‘relevant’ to the conservative federal government.
It now seems that the Australian Greens are being upstaged by a leftward swinging Labor. This is, of course, what has happened elsewhere in English-speaking countries. It appears to be happening in Germany too as the Social Democrats shuffle leftwards. Elsewhere – France and Spain, for instance – the Greens have been overtaken by the radical left.
There does not appear to be any easy solution to this phenomenon although shifting to the right can definitely be ruled out as a solution. And any leftward shift on the part of the Greens that does not keep the ecological crisis at the centre of our orientation would be extremely short-sighted not to mention unacceptable – although we do need to be saying that capitalism is a danger to the conditions of the good life for humanity on this planet.
For the medium to longer term, a principled orientation around an activist extraparliamentarianism and carrying popular causes into parliament, plus a commitment to cooperative, democratic, decentralised, ecological socialism, appears to me to be a more useful orientation. It could help in pulling the whole political conversation to the left and help confirm Labor in its comparatively ‘moderate’ leftwards change of course. As well, it would act as the catalyst to the political reawakening and shift to a critical, active citizenship that is so important to our future and which we can now see emerging.