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What Bill Shorten Can Learn From Jeremy Corbyn's Vision

The time for Labor to be bold and brave is now.

14/06/2017 10:23 AM AEST | Updated 14/06/2017 10:24 AM AEST
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Australian Labor Party leader Bill Shorten's challenge is to show voters a new future.

Now both Jeremy Corbyn and Bill Shorten know what it is to emerge victorious from an election they haven't won. In 2016 Shorten's Labor Party sliced deep into the Coalition governments majority with just 34.7 percent of the primary vote -- it was seen as a win for Shorten and a massive blow to Turnbull. Now Corbyn has reduced the Conservative government from a haughty majority to relying on the extreme Democratic Unionist Party to cling to power.

Something deep and guttural is stirring in the electorates of the Western world, and it is something that established assumptions about how politics is supposed to work seem unable to predict and understand. If Shorten's Labor is to win government, rather than just "not lose" the next election, it is something it will have to harness.

What is clear is that the status quo is gradually, painfully, changing. While on the conservative side there has been a desire to return to the certainties of the past, to "Make 'Insert Country' Great Again", the British election shows that there is another collective will that is stirring. This is the desire for an alternate future, a different way of organising society, and the belief that what we do in the here and now can actively shape that time to come.

Electorates are weary of those who seek to win power without a purpose.

Since the end of the Cold War, it has been presumed that the future is set. The "utopian" dreaming of old was outdated. The future was now. We had reached, Francis Fukuyama famously declared, "the end of history". This matched the neoliberal consumer-capitalist ethos well. Gone were the days of actively planning what would come next; leave it to the market to decide. Future market trends replaced active government intervention, and politicians reduced their horizons to the end of the next electoral cycle.

And so the future lost its value. Why fund higher education for the possible benefits it may bring in the future, when its immediate use can be quantified, commodified, and judged? Why invest in infrastructure to build the society of tomorrow, when the promise of a tax cut is more likely to secure government now?

The result was a diminished belief that our lives would be better in the future than they are today. It all became about now. The worst off, of course, are young people. What has the future become for them? A casual job? A life of renting, with a housing market they have been cut out of? Higher and higher fees to pay for degrees that matter less and less? If that isn't enough climate change threatens the very existence of life on the planet.

Just as those who wanted a return to the past have spoken in recent times, in Britain we saw those who demand a better future say: no more. Corbyn did not win government, but his leadership saw a swing to Labour unparalleled since 1945.

Much attention has been drawn to Labour's 2017 manifesto, and its now infamous title, "For The Many Not The Few". But just as significant is the content of that "for". This campaign was for the future. Labour pledged to break with the present as well as the past, to cast off the stifling orthodoxies that have constrained political decision making and "move beyond the narrow approaches of the past, and mobilise the talents and resources of our whole country to deliver an economy fit for the future".

Labour's vote cut across generational lines, but it is clear that it was the votes of younger people that propelled Labour to this result. People who were written off, considered apathetic and cynical, have fuelled the resurgence of Labour as a viable electoral force. Central to this was its promise to forge an alternate future, to challenge the certainties, to cast aside the assumptions about how things must be done. This was an incomplete, yet creative, act. Theresa May promised to be "strong and stable", more of the same. Corbyn's Labour, for all its weaknesses, promised to look beyond the horizon. And so the political earth shook.

Britain is a deeply polarised society. What happens there cannot be directly applied to Australia. But Corbyn has demonstrated something that Bill Shorten needs to pay attention to: a bold vision for the future can cut through to a disaffected electorate and engage precisely those that Labor will need to win office: younger people who have been so consistently damaged by the current state of affairs.

Without a doubt, the ALP has lost credibility as the party of the future. Many younger Australians vote for the Greens almost habitually now, and to no small extent, this is because Labor has been associated with the status quo. It has largely lost the ability to inspire. To do so again, it needs to find an alternate vision of the future, one that it fights to realise today.

Signs are in this parliament that the party is content to sit back and wait for the Turnbull government to run out of steam. It is a good strategy, if your purpose is to win an election. But as we have seen internationally, electorates are weary of those who seek to win power without a purpose. The time for Labor to be bold and brave is now, and this requires bold thinking about the possibilities the future can hold.

This is the lesson for Labor from the British election. The future must again become a realisable place. This will require bold thinking, and a willingness to defy orthodoxy. It will mean back rhetoric with action, and opening itself up to possible attack, just as it did with its negative gearing pledge. But the time for small targets is past, and the era of big-picture planning is here. It is time for Labor to ideologically come out of hibernation and start the detailed policy work that can set the template for generations to come. The task is urgent, but there has never been a better time for the future to start.


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