Why Labor Must Stand For All, Not Just Workers


There is much room for debate about what constitutes a core Labor value, and even the current national platform describes Labor values in very broad terms.

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 has an identifiable backbone and historical principle: unity. Unity, manifest through the union movement, through communities of struggle, and through a communion of belief in a shared future, rests at our core.

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’.

The labour movement has always understood that lack of exemption, 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 conservative logic, 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 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 is both illusory and pernicious to us all.

Labour politics has always sought to share. 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 our ambition.

This is a big ambition but it ceases to make any sense 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’.

A party of social regard is one for which a narrative about fairness is central, and that narrative fails to make sense if it is limited in its remit. But expanding our concerns beyond ‘workers’ does not mean lessening our mission in regards to their wellbeing.

This is precisely what Kelty and Hawke/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 and even from an industrial point of view, this makes no sense: welfare is part of the social wage, and the protection of the vulnerable is part of the social wage. Maintaining the integrity of the raft that carries us is part of the social wage. The labour movement has fought 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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