Wayne Swan can’t appeal to the traditional Labor base (because it doesn’t exist)

No need to laugh, Wayne, your base has disappeared. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

In recent days, Treasurer Wayne Swan has been prosecuting a puzzling assault on a few billionaire mining magnates. Commentators have struggled to come up with a plausible explanation for his political strategy. Many have resorted to the idea that it is an appeal to “the ALP base”.

But is there still a base to hear the appeal?

Base, class and inequality

The idea of a “base” hints at the existence of a working class that has interests in common. It suggests a broader political project to reduce inequality and the disadvantage caused by wide disparities in wealth and income. Class and inequality, however, are concepts that few modern ALP leaders would dare to mention in polite company.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, our family was very much of the base. One of our articles of faith was that the worst ALP government was better than the best Coalition Government. The ALP was our party, the party of the workers. The Liberals were for the bosses and, as my mother warned, even the good bosses will throw you out on the street when it suits them. The divide was clear.

In two major speeches on the ALP given by Prime Minister Gillard in 2011 the words “equality”, or for that matter “inequality” were not mentioned. Gillard’s campaign speech in 2010 also made no mention of equality and inequality. By way of comparison, Whitlam’s famous 1972 campaign launch speech mentioned “equality” 17 times, “inequality” seven times and “inequalities” five times.

The ALP’s rhetoric has changed to reflect the declining relevance of the unionised blue-collar working class.

The collapse of blue-collar unionism

Union membership and union density have been in steady decline in Australia since peaking in the late 1940s or early 1950s. It fell far more sharply in the 1990s. Between 1986 and 2008, union density fell from 45% to 19%.

Union density did not drop below 40% between 1913 and 1992, and was usually much higher. In areas of blue-collar employment, the union density figure was closer to 75% at its peak levels in the 1950s and the blue-collar working class consistently made up two-thirds of the workforce between the 1890s and the 1950s.

By 1981, white-collar workers made up almost 40% of the workforce compared to 28% in 1969. The typical union member today is female, university-educated and working in a professional role in a service industry, particularly health, education and community services.

A study done for UnionsNSW in 2003 found that more highly qualified employees (i.e. in terms of educational attainment) were more likely to hold positive views about unions, and that employees with lower or no formal qualifications were more likely to think Australia would be better off without unions.

A new base?

The collapse in the old base was partially offset during the past few decades by a new urban middle class concerned with rights-based issues and the environment. In recent years, this new base has been deserting the ALP for the Greens.

ALP branches started to attract white-collar members in the late 1940s. During the 1960s, the ALP began to draw increasing numbers of teachers and other tertiary educated professionals. By 1981 blue-collar workers comprised just one-quarter of employed branch members in the Victorian ALP.

Unions affiliated to the ALP, mostly blue-collar, have felt the full effects of the collapse of union membership. Big unions covering university-educated professionals like the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) and the Australian Education Union (AEU) have been far more successful in maintaining high unionisation rates.

Unions like the ANF and AEU remain outside the ALP and have not been included as part of a new base. Former union officials still dominate the federal ALP caucus, but very few of them come from these more successful unaffiliated unions.

Despite many internal reviews, the ALP has yet to change its structure to attract a new, or broader, base.

Suburbanisation

Inner city areas where people supported the ALP with loyalty and intensity broke up as post-war generations headed out of the terrace rows for more distant quarter acre blocks.

In some of these new suburbs, cultures have grown up characterised by aspiration, mega churches and self-employment. They live in big houses and drive big cars. But there are also lost suburbs of congregated social disadvantage where hundreds of thousands of children grow up in homes where no-one has ever had a full-time job.

The sense of tribalism that underpinned the old ALP unionised blue-collar base has dissipated during the suburbanisation process.

A fractured picture

There is no longer a clear divide, and no base held tightly together by shared work, union and community experiences. The ALP left its old blue-collar base as the traditional working class was collapsing. Now, the it faces the more difficult challenge of winning support from a range of social groupings that share much less in common.

Sentimental appeals to the world of 50 years ago are unlikely to do much to unify the ALP’s fractured base.