I am writing this letter to anyone who considers themselves as part of the left movement. Excuse my lack of salutation. I was going to address everyone with Dear Comrades; however, that only poses my first problem. I don’t know if comrades is even a fitting greeting anymore. I don’t even know where I fit in anymore.
I am almost 50 years old and since I was a young girl of about 12 years of age, through the words of the great Bob Hawke, I have felt a belonging and an affiliation with the labour movement. Through the greatness of Hawke and many other great Labor leaders, be they Prime Ministers, Party Leaders, Union Leaders, MPs or Senators, I have felt seen and understood by the labour movement. My whole life, regardless of paid membership, I have always identified as a member of Labor. Therefore, I have always considered myself as a member of “The Left”.
Until recent times, the majority of people on the left of politics, shared an affiliation and predominantly that affiliation was the heart felt desire to protect and progress the workers in this great country. Yes, there are variations of ‘the left’ however, the dominant strand of leftism in Australia has always been grounded in Marxist thought. That is, that a worker’s labour has value and progress was centered around the advancement of workers and anyone who could not work for whatever reason. Progressive ideas were and are still centered around egalitarianism and fairness. Progress has always been made for the worker-centric left through democratic socialism and pragmatism.
The reason I am writing this letter is that I see comments all the time that the Labor party has abandoned them. However, I hold a growing fear that people are abandoning the worker centric left. There appears to be an increasing demand that Labor also abandons the worker centric left and focus on major issues from a radical perspective, with no consideration for workers.
A few years ago, I started penning articles regarding the anti-worker approach of the Stop Adani movement. As someone who is very grounded in Marxist thought that labour has value and workers should have agency in the means of their work; I very wrongly assumed that these articles would be well received. I thought that there were more people who were like-minded and they too would raise their voices and insist workers be the focus of this looming urgent change. Sadly, not so.
The opposite of my intent occurred. Instead of being seen as someone standing up for workers in regional Australia, I have been frankly, targeted, abused, ridiculed, you name it for years now, by those on ‘the left.’ The spaces where this has occurred has been on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and also up close and personal. I am not talking about a one off instance, it has been constant for years.
Even today, someone who I don’t engage with that often, randomly tagged me in something about Adani and why there will be no jobs at all in coal. Because you know, I’m obviously the first person some people think of on Twitter when they feel relief that they have found something that really shoves the point back to me that coal workers no longer matter in the whole scheme of things, probably three months after the original discussion.
The sad thing is, this vindication they feel is not being vindicated for a left wing ideal at all. It is something that John Howard would be proud of. To increase profit with no human labour input costs at all. People are literally welcoming and rejoicing in automation that puts workers out of work, because it suits their key political issue of climate change.
At first, these attacks were highly distressing and very, very confusing. Because all my life I found where workers issues were raised, there was camaraderie, support and an engagement of how to ‘win that battle.’ I am writing this letter because in my view, that has died. It no longer exists. If workers are an inconvenience in addressing a challenge, the advocates are fine with workers being the negative consequence of action they demand. I have for about a year now, really tried to clarify that what I interpret is what is meant by really pushing people to clarify on Twitter.
Responses go from anything to the environmental leftists praising Margaret Thatcher for shutting down the mines and insisting that that didn’t cause any problems. Or that coal workers will just have to move to where jobs are. Or the most common, the stance that coal workers need to ‘have the guts’ to give up their jobs for the greater good.
Other comments centre around the ‘greed’ of coal workers for not giving up their jobs, or the laziness of coal workers for not pulling themselves up and thinking ahead and retraining themselves. And then of course the indignant ‘there are no jobs in this dying industry anyway and everything will be automated.’
And for others, the fact that Abbott shut down Car Manufacturing and ‘it didn’t affect anything and we all survived’ is a point made that coal can shut down and ‘coal workers will find other jobs, just like Holden workers did.’
By far the most damaging impact by the left on the left, is their top down authoritarian approach of demanding change. That is, targeting a particular region in Australia and then without any consultation or understanding of what that area is about, demanding that they close down their industry and give up their jobs. This movement is literally denying affected people the agency to be participants of change. Instead they take the approach that ‘they know what is best for them.’ I don’t know about others, but this is new to me. I’ve never known or understood the wider left movement in years gone by to deny affected people the agency to be participants in change. It goes against the grain of democratic socialism. And that is a huge fear and a driver for me writing this letter.
Not only are so many of these beliefs simply so ill informed, it is a very dangerous ideological territory that people are venturing into and embracing.
Every single example above is not a worker-centric left wing narrative. It is the language of John Howard and Tony Abbott. These ideas resonate with the ideology of the Australian Liberal party, that workers are a disposable commodity. It also centres on the Liberals key ideology of Individualism or ‘anti-socialism.’ The key ideology since Menzies, that it is the Individual’s responsibility for himself and the rejection of socialist intervention to assist those who can’t fend for themselves.
The examples above are also anti-community and are far from egalitarian. This movement is not advocating for everyone to do their fair share and abolish a range of practices and industries that may impact on climate change. They are placing the entire burden on regional Australians. When this burden was rejected the environmental left were shocked! Instead of understanding why this burden was rejected, they vilified regional QLDers as bogan, as a disgrace and a demand for a ‘Qexit’. Simply because these people still wanted food on their table, as no tangible, solution they can see, exists.
When there are thousands and thousands of people online everyday and thousands marching in the streets demanding to shut down jobs, this opens up the political opportunism of the right to take over this space. The right wing parties, took over this space and campaigned that they would protect jobs and workers. There is nowhere to go for Labor when that type of opportunity is allowed to occur and is in a context as such that it is believed. At the last election, that is what the left allowed to happen. Including the people with the decision making powers within the Labor party itself.
The key working class issues of the Change the Rules movement, around precarious employment, labour hire, dodgy contracting, unfair wages, penalty rates, protections for workers locked out or mine companies shutting down and opening and hiring more ‘compliant’ staff, and worker safety etc., etc., etc., were suffocated with Stop Adani and the convoy in QLD. These issues simply were not heard and were not given the respect and interest they would have been given in years gone by because they were simply drowned out – by ‘the left’.
In fact, within the Change the Rules movement with the Greens heavily involved, I felt awkward and out of place, listening to people in that movement sprout their hatred for the Labor party. I also felt it strange with not having the inclusiveness of unions and Labor at the booths. This is because it was seen as a ‘separate’ movement to the Labor party – that is separate to the only party who was able to legislate any of these demands being fought for. I’m not sure if this was nationwide, or just in my area of Capricornia, where our Labor candidate was a coal miner and the CFMEU were insisting upon protection of jobs and this made the Greens uncomfortable.
In addition to the above, further divisiveness and moving away from worker centric left, is the demands of radical action, over pragmatism. Also the demands and the ‘wedging’ of Labor on issues, by very vocal champions of the environmental left, that are impossible to act upon in opposition. Issues that require power, pragmatism and democratic leadership, giving affected people actual agency as participants in change.
The purist demands of radical action over pragmatism, are on the increase and fly in the face of how the left has overcome struggle for over a century. Labor has always led the way with great national reforms and have always either achieved progress through incremental change, or through the democratic leadership style of inclusiveness and listening to all voices.
However, in the modern day, affected individuals (i.e. coal workers and people in regional communities) are being increasingly voiced as a problem, rather than hearing or even wanting to hear their voices, because many on ‘the left’ don’t want to confront the ugly truths of what some of their demands mean to real people. These advocates, in abundance are applying great pressure to Labor to do the same.
When Labor finally after the election, came out and said they will stand by coal workers (remembering workers are a traditional ingrained reason for being Labor) this stance has been largely ridiculed online as ‘Right Wing!’ and ‘abandoning the base!”
When people like me who raise concerns about the affect on workers in the midst of great challenges and change are repeatedly attacked by a great number of people, there is a serious issue with the survival of ‘the left’.
When the Labor party stands by workers and this is shunned as being right wing, there is an even greater serious issue with survival of ‘the left’.
I’m not sure who ‘the left’ think the base is now, but the idea that you attack one worker you attack us all, is obviously also dead.
When standing up for workers is seen as ‘shifting to the right and bowing to the right’ I don’t just fear for the death of the left movement, I grieve the loss of our history, our common sense and most of all our compassion.
To me, these are the greatest challenges for the survival of the left of politics in Australia.
The rise of the environmental left is a key concern and a challenge for the left movement as a whole. Climate change is a major challenge for every single country and every individual on this planet. However, it is not the only issue.
People still live out their everyday lives on a daily basis. A challenge as great as climate change is a complex issue and approaches to address climate change, must respect the here and now of individuals and communities. To achieve progress and balance, a worker centric approach to climate change, must be taken. A fair and equal view of everyone sharing the burden, not just a few regional communities, also must be taken.
The current demands of the environmental left, are suffocating the issues of the working class left and every single vulnerable person in society. When workers perceive the choice of no job, or precarious employment, the chants of the union movement against precarious employment are insignificant and ‘the left’ is seen as the enemy.
This is the enabling environment we are currently building for the political opportunism on the right of politics and that means an enabling environment is built for them to win elections and hold power.
In a democracy, people will voice their opinions and we have great platforms now to do so. People will also be very passionate about their key issues. However, in a democracy it is also up to people to voice concerns and challenge others where approaches to change – climate or otherwise – place the worker second, vilify workers, or see workers as an inconvenient consequence and any negative impacts should just be accepted.
The Labor party also has a huge challenge in this democracy. They need to find a way to put forward very strong worker centric arguments and enable workable solutions to change that are acceptable to all. They need to find a way to rise above the purist demands and convince thousands of radical and unhappy voices that incremental change and democratic leadership, and the protection of all workers and is what has built this country in the face of some monumental challenges in the past. They need to find the right words and the right approach that Labor, will continue to do so in the future.
The Labor party are currently reviewing their policies and approach from the last election. I feel very strongly, that we no longer just need to counter the right wing of politics, but there are equal challenges on the left of politics to address. Labor needs to come up with innovative ways to ensure people feel included in decisions about change. The town halls were great, but there is an overwhelming amount of technology that bring people together and these are not being utilized. A new approach using modern technology could be used to make landmark changes to democratic action and progressive policy ideas. I urge Labor to think hard about this.
The result of the the divisiveness of ‘the left’ and pushing the workers secondary, we are living everyday. A paternalistic, degrading regime, with a hatred of unions and workers and a mass dehumanisation of the jobless. The fight against that is why Labor exists and we have three more years to watch this contempt on society by the Liberals from the sidelines.
The left of politics created the enabling environment for this to happen. It is time people looked at themselves and how they engage in politics and seriously ask themselves if their approach is actually helpful or harmful.
So thanks for reading. This is why, at almost 50 years old and a political awakening instigated by Hawke, I no longer know where I fit and I no longer feel a camaraderie with ‘the left.’ I am hoping that people will give me some hope after reading this, rather than reinforce my fears.
p.s. Please do not respond with any but, but, buts about a just transition. Thousands of people day in day out targeting regional communities, angry contorted faces all over the internet demanding to shut down industry, gluing themselves to the footpath or chaining themselves to railway tracks, devising ways to ‘birddog’ Labor, creating a campaign that QLD Labor is corrupt, and taking a convoy to a small country town to protest their very existence, announcing a policy in an election to shut down all coal, causing a huge amount of fear in regional communities – is not a just transition. The intent has certainly not been displayed in the behaviour and when people vote, that is what counts.