Unity And A Social Wage

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There is much room for debate about what constitutes a core Labor value, and even the current National Platform describes Labor values in such broad terms that any number of interpretations could be derived from their reading.

A core historical truth is easier to pinpoint: we are a Labor party within a labour movement, and we are a party with that movement at its core. That movement does have an identifiable backbone and historical principle: unity. It is unity, manifest through the union movement, through communities of struggle, and through a communion of belief in a shared future, that is the principle that rests at our core.

The idea of unity defines how we see ourselves in the world, and why we are a party of activism which privileges equity and the rights of all over the prominence of some: we believe that there is something bigger than the splendid isolation of the individual – that there is such a thing as a society that binds us together. It is a very small next step to realise that everything we do contributes to the health of that society, and to ourselves as part of that society.

Rowan Williams has written about us having a common identity shaped by the fact that each of us depends on all others for their life. He says that “no one is exempt from damage or incapable of gift within the community”, and that really frames who we are in a way that makes a commitment to unity and activism an entirely sensible and achievable proposition.

The labour movement has always understood the lack of exemption which Williams expresses, and how that makes an attention to social regard an entirely practical concern: we are each affected by the whole of us – by the fragility of the vulnerable as much as by the successes of some.

Contrary to the logic implicit in a conservative celebration of privilege which pays little heed to social vulnerability, a rising tide does not lift all boats. In fact, a rising tide can be catastrophic to those who are tied to moorings of disadvantage. We know this, and our sense of unity and of our place in the world tells us something else too: we are not boats in isolation – we are all on a single raft of interdependence, and when the integrity of any part of that raft is compromised, we are all in trouble. This is the pragmatism of unity: the knowledge that we do best together when we share our fortune and our risk, and that the allure of individualism both illusory and pernicious to us all.

Labour politics has always sought to share. It has always been a politics of social regard. Through our political arm, and through civil society and our industrial arm, we have always been about sharing risk, wealth and opportunity. It is this agenda, and this attention to the social conditions which enable the potential of all of the members of our collective union, which defines the ambition of the Labor party.

This is a big ambition: it is an ambition which is tied to a regard for the whole of society, and it is an ambition which ceases to make any sense at the moment when it ceases to be inclusive of everyone. Labor is the party of everyone, and through this lens, our base can be understood as being far broader and more differentiated than one imagined under a demarcation as 'the party of work'.

This is a simple proposition – a party of social regard is one for which a narrative about fairness is central, and a narrative about fairness fails to make sense if it is limited in its remit. In fact, it becomes unfair. But expanding our concerns beyond ‘workers’ does not mean lessening our mission in regards to their wellbeing. It means the opposite. This is precisely what Kelty and Keating always understood as they shifted their attention to the big ambition of optimising the conditions of the social wage.

A demarcated focus on workers shifts the attention from a broader social democratic regard for collective disadvantage. It consigns the disabled, the sick and the unemployed to a second tier of our concern. From a collectivist point of view - thinking from a position of unity - and even from an industrial point of view, this makes no sense: welfare is part of the social wage, and the protection of those requiring social assistance is part of the social wage. Maintaining the integrity of the raft that carries us is part of the social wage. It is a protection which the labour movement has fought for, to protect people who slip between the precarious fortunes of work and workforce exclusion, and between the challenges of health, situation and ageing.

A good social wage is as much of an industrial imperative as a real wage rise, and a focus on the social wage and a good society ties industrial labour concerns to social democratic aspirations in a way which centralises the core labour principle of unity. It also foregrounds inclusive Labor values of fairness, shared risk and shared ambition, and a collectivist sense of ourselves in which no one is exempt from damage or incapable of gift.


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  • commented 2015-01-23 12:10:44 +1100
    Thank you Ian for your thoughtful piece on Unity and a Social Wage. You are right, I think, about its fundamental importance. In their prices and incomes accords, Hawke and Keating offered social dividends as trade-offs for wage restraints of various kinds. And, these were generally accepted as fair and reasonable.

    However, I believe that there is a case for more targeted social wages. Social wages, as you say, benefit everyone. But wage restraints affect adversely only those whose wages are restrained (and of course their dependents). Fairness requires that those whose wages are most restrained should, somehow, be most compensated.

    In my view, the task of any future Labor government must be to begin the process of building a welfare state for the 21st century. And this process is going to be very difficult. For, in a world in which prices of internationally tradable goods and services are set by world markets, those working in industries producing such goods and services must inevitably accept wages that are determined by world markets. Therefore, we must either: (a) cease to produce goods or services in these areas, (b) pay workers in these areas less than those working in areas producing non-tradable goods or services, or © subsidise workers in the threatened areas. The best solution is surely ©. The first option is the motor manufacturing option, which means that we export the whole industry. The second is manifestly unfair. Therefore, if we wish to reach a fair and just solution, © is really the only option. That is, we must, somehow, be prepared to subsidise the workers (and managers) in threatened industries, unless we are prepared to abandon just these industries.

    What are your views on this Ian?

    Brian