The Blog

UK Labour Has Nothing Left to Offer Mainstream Progressives

All of us in the labour parties are accustomed to making compromises, but always with the aim of achieving a fairer society. For moderates, the formula no longer stacks up. What compromise could possibly make up for the fact that the leader is now a self-identified "friend" of Hamas?

When I joined the Australian Labor Party at 17, I was in my final year of high school. I didn't have a credit card and neither did my dad, who raised me alone, so one afternoon after school I caught the bus from suburban Perth into the city centre to pay in person. With my meagre earnings from a casual job at a pizza shop in hand, I filled out my membership application and handed it to the receptionist. Since that day, back in 2007, I have remained a member of the ALP.

Nobody recruited me. At the time of my joining the conservative Howard government was engaged in a full-frontal assault on the rights of working people, and was being challenged in this arena by a united union movement and a capable opposition led by Kevin Rudd. While the Tories were busy going after the most vulnerable people in society, Rudd was presenting an alternative vision for the country. He and the unions persuaded an inherently conservative electorate of the need for a fairer industrial relations system, while simultaneously winning arguments on health, education and climate change.

Labor was able to sell its ideas because the party had done the hard work making itself appear credible. Rudd's technocratic demeanour, moderate economic policies and aversion to lofty rhetoric earned him the trust of Australian voters, including me.

I joined the party that day after school because I believed in what Labor wanted to do for the country, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to end injustice in the workplace, I wanted to help fix our education system and I wanted Australia to move away from the backward-looking conservatism that had sprouted as a result of Howard's unchecked reign after the spectacular implosion of former opposition leader Mark Latham.

I got to do all those things because Labor won. The party successfully prosecuted its argument, and in six short years in government changed the country for the better. It abolished the heinous Workchoices regime, started construction of the National Broadband Network, conceived the National Disability Insurance Scheme and removed scores of legislative rules that discriminated against gay people. It would be charitable to say that the Rudd-Gillard government ended anything other than disastrously, but that does not diminish any of its many achievements. It helped people, as Labor governments are supposed to do. That's why I got into politics.

The party that once recorded thumping consecutive election victories under Blair and used that mandate to introduce a minimum wage, doubled education funding and cut crime by 32 percent is now led by a man who wants Britain to reopen coal mines, nationalise railways, quit the EU and cosy up to some of the worst human rights abusers on the face of the earth. Some of these ideas have clearly appealed to the fringe left, but that group has always been more concerned with ideological purity than actually helping people. For the moderate progressives who used to dominate our parties, there is no saving grace to be found in Jeremy Corbyn.

Like the Blair and Brown governments, Australia's best Labor governments are remembered not for how radically left-wing they were, but how they modernised the nation while keeping true to their values. The floating of the dollar, the wage accord and the dismantling of tariff barriers all rank alongside the introduction of Medicare and the NBN among Australian Labor's many achievements. At the core of all these achievements can be found one enduring Labor value: pragmatism.

Guided by values but unconstrained by dogma, Labor Prime Ministers like Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard all shaped our nation for the better. How can we expect that of man who describes himself as a Marxist and whose supporters routinely label moderate progressives as "fascist scum"? Both Labor and Labour's rank-and-file members range from communists to those on the centre-right, so it's fair to say the movement is a broad church. It is that inclusiveness that has provided the foundation for both parties' pragmatic progressivism, but Corbyn's election has undone the deal that dates back to the 1890s.

All of us in the labour parties are accustomed to making compromises, but always with the aim of achieving a fairer society. For moderates, the formula no longer stacks up. What compromise could possibly make up for the fact that the leader is now a self-identified "friend" of Hamas? What policy bargain could undo the irreparable damage to international security that would come from a NATO exit?How could any moderate involve themselves in a Labour party run by a man who has called for Tony Blair to stand trial at the Hague, while supporting Middle Eastern regimes that routinely throw people off buildings for the crime of being gay?

Compromises are the oil in the engine of the labour movement. They have kept it running for more than a century, allowing supporters with varying beliefs to work together for the common good. Now, the common good is out of sight. Through political negligence and a bizarre electoral system, Labour has been foisted with a leader who many progressives simply can't swallow. For the first time, they must ask themselves an uncomfortable question: Are the Tories any worse?

For the first time in my involvement in the labour movement, I can't find a reason to say yes. David Cameron's austerity has hurt the working class, but Corbyn's aggressively anti-business policies would cost them their jobs, too. Cameron has been reticent to do his bit for Syrian refugees, but Corbyn is so wilfully naive he believes that sanctions and diplomacy will be enough to defeat ISIS. Cameron's penny-pinching has contributed in part to Britain's slow recovery, but Corbyn sees no fault in the profligate spending that has destroyed the Greek economy and turned the country to extremism.

Like many others near the centre who have supported the labour movement for all it has done for the working class, I am forced to confront an unpleasant reality. As someone who has spent countless hours volunteering for Australian Labor at local, state and federal election campaigns, it is one I acknowledge with a mix of anger and disappointment, but ultimately, a great sadness for the party that once achieved so much.

The painful truth is; I am no longer a supporter of UK Labour.

Ben Dickinson is a political staffer, trade unionist and former journalist.