So my friend Penelope asked that I write a letter to her explaining why she should join the Party. I couldn't think of a better week to release it as we remember Gough.
National healthcare, Federal funding for unis, land rights, racial discrimination act, landmark equality for women–it’s helpful that I write you this letter on Labor in the week we’re reminded of Gough Whitlam’s achievements through his passing. A man responsible for so much positive change that could’ve only been done by a Labor person in a Labor Government.
‘It wasn’t created to take us to heaven but to keep us from hell’, a quote I once heard about the United Nations. And I wonder if you can apply it to the Labor party. We face a hellish existence under constant conservatives because they generally lack both empathy and optimism. And most of the time, we should have those things. I know you’re not on that side, but I understand that you’re not necessarily on Labor’s side, although I wish you were.
There’s two possible reasons people don’t support Labor: because Labor doesn’t totally represent them or because they don’t believe Labor is trying hard enough. I wouldn’t expect anything less of progressives than to be super-critical of people purporting to be on their side. They know what’s at stake because they’ve got the imagination. The other side just doesn’t get it. It’s almost worse to be progressive and not do enough. Because it seems that, while you know, you don’t care enough. As for not representing the progressive side well, I agree that Labor doesn’t always get it right. Of course.
To achieve comprehensive and lasting progressive change is to try to bring most people along, and that’s what being part of a large, institutional, mainstream vehicle can do. It’s the final decision point, it’s where the outcomes are created. It’s like bringing a big iron ball of change up a hill. We need to get behind that ball to push it, or in front to pull it. But what’s not achieving much is running to the top of the hill with your friends, looking down on those lagging and saying, ‘I’ve found the higher ground!’ Well, yes, we can all see the higher ground. But we’re trying to achieve the right compromise and bring everyone else along with us, by pushing or pulling that iron ball.
‘Have you met Australians?!’ Is what I say when exasperated with the insular left. Australians are diverse, and we do believe in democracy, so change needs to happen at a necessarily slower pace than you or I would like. And that’s frustrating. But while Australians, as you know, can be well-intentioned, they can do, think, and say some pretty horrible shit. We need to respond with deep breaths and ‘uh-huh, yep, okay. Let me try to understand that perspective and talk through how you got there’.
Labor will miss an opportunity. Aim too low. Be too cautious. Sell out too much. But what that means is that we need more intelligent people on board. Politics is always about choosing ‘the lesser of two evils’. I would rather work hard to support a lesser evil than allow a greater evil to win. It takes more than voting. We expect perfection and purity in politics but it’s naturally, beautifully, understandably, messy. Politics represents the interests of the most complex societies in human history–how could it not be messy?
There’s the temptation of course to join those smaller, more progressive groups, be they a party or just political. But I’m not interested in those groups. Because they’re not interested in connecting with ordinary people; the people who just want to get on with their lives as best they can and who don’t have time for politics. They’re the people we have the power to change, and they’re usually the people who would do the right thing if only they knew. The message is simple, ‘this conservatism will hurt you, here’s how, and here’s why you need to support different ideas’. The progressive elite are preaching to the choir, and while the choir needs to know how to stay in tune, it’s not the frontline. It’s the back office.
Choosing the frontline above the back office are those Labor people making uncomfortable compromises and confronting in calm conversation the racists, the misogynists, and the classists. These Labor people are the bravest people I’ve seen in politics. Because of what they give up and what they swallow in order to achieve some change.
The real battlefield isn’t glamorous. It’s not even that interesting. It’s getting the retiree who always voted conservative but has been ‘a bit uncomfortable with what’s been happening lately’ to maybe consider a change. It’s getting the pearl-necklaced mum who’s noticed ‘teachers seem a bit stressed, maybe schools need a bit more’ to maybe consider a change. It’s getting the blokey-bloke who’s thinking ‘maybe it would be better if my girlfriend could earn almost as much as me’ to maybe consider a change. Yeah, I know, it’s not exciting but it’s the real work that gets the progressive job done.
We’re reluctant to sign up to one side, or even to sign up to the political system. Because no organisation is fully ‘me’, or politics itself isn’t ‘me’. Whether it’s you or not is irrelevant, because the party is going on without you, whether or not you choose to attend. And they’re deciding your fate and that of society’s. No organisation can be fully you but the reality of abstention is that it’s the equivalent of ‘no'; you’re making a decision even when you’re not. It’s actually a question of whether you would like some influence on what people are saying on your behalf. Someone said that ‘the world is run by those who turn up’. In my 10 years studying and doing politics, I am still surprised at how true that is. And how staggeringly small that group of people is, as Margaret Mead observed.
I’ve been constantly inspired by my Labor colleagues’ simultaneous ability to criticise the party in cuttingly accurate terms, and fight for the party til their eyes are drooping from sleep deprivation. Because they know that while Labor isn’t bringing them to heaven, it’s keeping us all from hell.
Originally published as Dear Pep: open letter to a friend about Labor