Down Under: the danse macabre of labourism

The political quake in Australia echoes what is also occurring in Britain and across Europe: the final demise of social democracy.

Frank Furedi

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During the four weeks I spent in Australia in the month leading up to Saturday’s federal election, I was constantly reminded of the work of Kurt and Gladys Lang. Back in 1951, the Langs – two American-based sociologists – carried out a pioneering study on how TV news can create its own reality.

In the spring of ’51, Chicago laid on a parade for the war hero, General Douglas MacArthur. He was visiting following his acrimonious dismissal as commander of the US military forces in the Korean War. What the Langs discovered was that the TV coverage of the parade constructed a version of the event that was very different to how people experienced it in reality.

The researchers on the ground noted that, for the people who actually took part in the parade, it was a relatively downbeat, going-through-the-motions affair. The news coverage, however, transformed it into a dramatic and intense occasion. In short, the way television depicted the event was in an entirely different league to what occurred on the streets of Chicago.

Travelling through Australia, I was reminded again and again of the Langs’ study, for it felt as if every day was a ‘MacArthur Day’. It seemed as if there were two different realities. TV news broadcasters and analysts talked about what they perceived to be the salient issues. We were told that the ‘betrayal’ of former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd by his deputy Julia Gillard preyed on the imaginations of the electorate. Talking heads reminded us that Tony Abbott, the leader of the conservative opposition to Labor, had a credibility problem and would not be taken seriously by the public. We were also left in no doubt that ordinary Aussie folk were only interested in keeping out asylum seekers, whereas their sophisticated cosmopolitan cousins were focused on the perilous problem of climate change.

After a week of talking to people in Western Australia and Queensland, I came to the conclusion that there was a rather large discrepancy between the alleged wisdom communicated by the media and reality on the ground, at least as I experienced it. Many commentators had built up their own interpretation of the world, and it was seriously out of touch with the experiences of everyday life. What really struck me during my conversations with Australian people was their lack of interest in all of the headline issues.

Even in Rudd’s home state of Queensland, I couldn’t find anyone who was particularly bothered about how he had been shafted by Gillard. Yet to this day – as Gillard’s Labor and Abbott’s centre-right Liberals vie for power, following the failure of either to win an outright majority – many commentators insist that it was Gillard’s shabby treatment of Rudd that ruined her party’s chances at the polls. This is one of those media-created myths that is likely to define this election. The only trouble is that it isn’t even remotely true that Labor’s current misfortunes are down to Gillard’s behaviour.

Almost everyone I talked to in Australia said they thought the Gillard-Rudd spat was just in-fighting amongst professional politicians, which had mostly passed them by. The only people I met who had strong views on the subject were a couple of academics, some party hacks, and of course media people.

Throughout my travels, I was struck by the depoliticised character of the election. Except for hardened party activists, it was hard to find anyone with strong views on any of the so-called top issues. Not even the issue of asylum seekers caught the imagination. Yet people were far from complacent, and they clearly wanted to improve their lives. What really seemed to preoccupy them was their economic security: jobs, high prices, their children’s future. Yet such issues were acknowledged by the political class and their mates in the media only in the most perfunctory manner.

Nonetheless, this was a very interesting and potentially very important election. For what it exposed was the gradual unravelling of conventional Australian party politics. The reasons for this development are manifold, but one of the most significant things is the broader exhaustion of the labourist project (or laborist, as they spell it Down Under). The crisis of late twentieth-century social democracy has now given way to the final emptying out of social democracy. The European and British pattern, whereby labour parties lose touch with their traditional constituencies and become oligarchic networks of middle-class political activists, is now also evident in Australia. The unions clearly played an important role in Gillard’s campaign, but they did so more as ‘mates’ than as movements with any real connection to the public. The unions came across as an influential group of public-sector lobbyists, drawing on their past reputations.

Ironically, while the Australian Labor Party was demonstrating that it had reached its sell-by date, its British cousins were going through a painful danse macabre. They call it ‘a leadership contest’, but this is no contest of leaders. In a different era, people like Ed Miliband or Andy Burnham would be fighting each other for a place on a local council at best. Who are these people leaders of? Their relationship with the traditional constituencies of Old Labour is about as close and meaningful as is mine to Australia’s aboriginal communities.

The other day, the former deputy leader of Britain’s Labour Party, John Prescott, announced that the party was on the verge of going bankrupt. He was referring to financial bankruptcy, but he could just as easily have been talking about the political and moral bankruptcy of this zombie party that is currently going through an embarrassing, lifeless leadership-less contest.

It is not solely the fault of the individual contestants for the leadership of the UK Labour Party that they are not up to the task of leading. They have no experience of struggle or of participating in a real movement. These are people who regard politics as a profession: they make a living from politics rather than living for politics. At least the Australian Labor Party has a real leader. Julia Gillard is no Miliband. She comes across as a genuine and articulate politician, who in a different era might have won an election by a landslide. Today, Gillard is the right woman in the right place at the wrong time. But that’s not something you will ever learn from the conventional wisdom peddled by the media. It seems that in the 59 years since Chicago’s ‘MacArthur Day’, the gap between the two worlds of the media and reality has turned into an unbridgeable chasm. Take your television commentary with a big spoonful of nutritious scepticism.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

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