Late in 2020, in a long line of attention grabbing moments, Joel Fitzgibbon did an interview with Andrew Probyn of ABC News standing in front of a map of Australia. In the segment, Fitzgibbon points to different parts of the map to explain why he had been so outspoken against his own party following the loss of 2019.
There is a small tendency within the Labor Party that has become increasingly outspoken. The theory of change offered by this tendency goes something like this: “Labor’s base was blue-collar men. We’ve lost that base. We have to win them back if we are to win government.” The fact that Fitzgibbon spent half the interview pointing to the desert (in one moment he points at the remote Pilbara region of Australia and describes it as a marginal seat) tells you everything you need to know about the level of sophistication that they often bring to this debate.
Like all good pieces of ideological warfare, it starts with an element of truth. It is definitely true that Labor suffered big setbacks in coal mining communities. In the Federal Election Review authors Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill made the following finding:
“Finding 38: Labor’s ambiguous language on Adani, combined with some anti-coal rhetoric and the Coalition’s campaign associating Labor with the Greens in voters’ minds, devastated its support in the coal mining communities of regional Queensland and the Hunter Valley”
There were 60 findings of the Federal Election Review and Finding 38 is the only one that references the loss of support in blue collar communities. That’s not because there has been some active attempt to downplay the importance of those communities to Labor’s electoral coalition. Rather it reflects the fact that Labor lost the election because of our loss of support
amongst a range of communities.
As well as losing support amongst workers in coal mining communities (mainly white men), Emerson and Weatherill also found that Labor also lost support amongst economically insecure workers in outersuburban and regional communities (mainly white women). Labor also lost support amongst people of colour (particularly those that are devoutly religious), based in the metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne. In March this year, the Lowy Institute published a paper titled “Being Chinese in Australia”. In their polling, they found that Labor had a primary vote of just 21% amongst Chinese Australians.
In NSW, those communities are heavily represented in electorates like Reid, Banks, Lindsay, Macquarie, Robertson, and Dobell. They are represented in occupations like nursing, social work, cleaning, administration, and retail. They are concerned about issues of economic security like wages, education, and planning for retirement.
These are communities that Labor is heavily reliant to form Government. They have a right to be considered Labor’s base. Most importantly, they are key to winning the next election.
So what does it mean when some people say they’re putting the labour back in Labor? Who are they standing for when they say they are fighting for the Labor base? It’s unlikely they’re talking about the nurse living Cambridge Park, the Indian-Australian retail worker in Revesby, the receptionist in Woy Woy, or the school cleaner in Seven Hills. They are normally referring to a very narrow segment of Labor’s electoral coalition and one that cannot deliver us government on its own.
Electoral campaigns are full of contradictions and opportunity costs. A policy offering that wins you votes in one community can often come at the expense of votes in another community. At the heart of it, Fitzgibbon is offering a strategy to hold on to his seat of Hunter but at what cost? As a party of government, we have a responsibility to find a platform that can win the full range of seats we need to form government while staying true to our enduring values.
To win the next election, Labor can build a platform capable of meeting the aspirations of people being left behind by this Government and this economy. Those who are being left behind are diverse. If we want to win back trust and support amongst communities that rejected us in 2019, we should fight for all of them.
George Simon is the NSW Labor Assistant General Secretary