A Tale of Two Sister (Parties)

In the field of centre-left and social democratic politics, arguably the most high-profile ideational development in recent years was the emergence of the so-called ‘third way’ in the late 1990s. For a short time at least, there was an explosion of interest in what seemed to be a revival of the fortunes of the centre-left. Under Romano Prodi in Italy, Wim Kok in the Netherlands, Gerhard Schröder in Germany, and crucially Tony Blair in the UK, there appeared to be – albeit briefly – a new wave and type of centre-left government.

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Tony Blair and Paul Keating SourceThe Times

At the time, Anthony Giddens (1998) The third way: the renewal of social democracy was perhaps the most accessible synthesis and statement of the third way politics. Giddens book was something of a publishing phenomena, and became a critical target in the wider debates about the state of the centre-left, more broadly.

In this story, is the tale of two Labo(u)r parties. Much to chagrin of a number of Australian political scientists, the focus on the politics of New Labour tended to marginalise the earlier influence of the ALP, especially the Hawke-Keating governments (1983-1996). Often, scholars of New Labour noted the influence of the New Democrats in the US, but occluded the Australian influence. Important scholarship, by writers such as Johnson, Tonkiss, Castles, O’Reilly and Pierson, all helped shed light on how New Labour was influenced by the Hawke-Keating era.

Yet, political science has, to date, asked, ‘what happened next?’. In a recent special issue for Policy Studies 2016, Vol 37, No.5); with colleagues, we pick up the story of the links, relationship and policy transfer between British and Australian Labo(u)r. What emerges from the articles is that, in turn, New Labour becomes an influence for Australian Labor, first at the state level, and then on the Rudd-Gillard governments.

In the special issue, we explore further the links, influence, and overlap between the two sister parties since the heady days of Blair and Brown visiting Australia to learn the lessons of a new-look Labor party. We examine the links in the realms of political economy (Ben Spies-Bucher and Shaun Wilson); foreign policy (Andrew O’Neill), social policy (Rob Manwaring), party management (Anika Guaja) and public administration (Tim le Grand) and ideology (Lindy Edwards and Matt Beech).

Overall, WE find that whilst New Labour provides a fresh stimulus for the ALP, especially for policy outputs, it remains a limited model for the centre-left. In the chapter on political economy, Spies-Butcher and Wilson examine the core problem for the centre-left – what to do about neo-liberal reforms? The central dilemma is that for both the ALP and New Labour the attendant welfare reforms led to quite contradictory results. The cases are important, because any centre-left government is still left to grapple with how it might re-shape its political economy with these legacies.

In my article for the special issue, I look at how social policy was transferred from New Labour to Australia. Here, there are two key policy agendas worth noting. First, New Labour belatedly developed from the EU and France, a new ‘social exclusion’ agenda (for a prominent critique of this agenda see the work of Ruth Levitas). Second, New Labour pioneered the use of ‘compacts’ to work with the third sector. With Labor dominating the state-level during this time, a number of governments adopted both these agendas. In South Australia, for example, then Premier Mike Rann was a vocal champion of what he termed his social inclusion agenda. After being trialled by the states – with perhaps moderate success – it was eventually adopted by the Rudd/Gillard governments (2007-2013).

In a striking contribution, Andrew O’Neill reflects upon and documents the links and synergies between the New Labour and Rudd-Gillard governments in the realm of foreign policy. Here, O’Neill looks at three core areas, regional engagement, climate change and foreign aid/international development, and finds varying degrees of influence and policy transfer. What is striking is a wider issue, is whether or not there is such a thing a distinctively centre-left approach to foreign policy.

In other articles we also find links, influences and policy transfer. Tim Le Grand, takes a wider look at British and Australian involvement in a new suite of policy networks, what he terms – transgovernmental networks (TGNs). The contribution here is to devote attention to a neglected understanding of how policy can be transmitted, and to a certain extent how centre-left national political mandates are moderated and mediated through these new networks.

Elsewhere in the special issue we focus on more political questions. Anika Gauja looks at the questions of party reform and the extent to which the ALP learnt lessons from New Labour. Gauja detects a broader shift in both parties to find more inclusive and ‘democratising’ processes for crucial internal processes. In these changes, we find both parties grappling with core existential questions, such as what role for the unions in the new political landscape?

In the final contribution to the special edition, Edwards and Beech ponder the ideological linkages between the two sets of governments.  Here both parties struggle with different legacies. For the ALP, the Hawke-Keating years are perhaps a more positive legacy than New Labour has proved since it lost power in 2010. What is clear is that the unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK has meant that ideologically, the two parties are diverging in how they respond to the wider existential crisis in the centre-left. It may well be some time before we see the same level of interaction and influence between the two sister parties, since the dominance of ‘third way’ ideas.

Rob Manwaring is a Senior Lecturer at Flinders University