As Western economic systems go, democratic-socialism has proven to be less than a roaring success for fundamental reasons. Foremost among these is humanity's innate need to compete. One of the oldest examples of this is of course trade. When competition is stifled by over-regulation then incentive dwindles, enterprise flags and the economy stagnates. However it's opposite, extreme capitalism, also fails for inverse reasons: unregulated free markets inevitably produce either monopolies or monolithic multinationals, which in turn create huge disparities in wealth and boom & bust cycles. The recent Global Financial Crisis is a prime example of poorly regulated capitalism. In general, Western democracies usually stay close to the centre, leaning either left or right - liberal or conservative.
Over the past few years there has been a clear shift to the left in the Australian Labor Party (currently in government) beyond the centre-left comfort zone that made the Hawke-Keating Labor governments of the 80s and 90s so successful. The shift can be put down to union affiliated faction leaders gaining greater influence over the party's direction than can be justified by union representation (16%) of the workforce. The result? A perception around the nation that the ALP is becoming irrelevant to the needs of ordinary people in an enterprise-driven consumer society. Such a perception is not entirely without merit. What exactly is a worker today when factories and industrial facilities are becoming more mechanised by the year? Many so called "workers" are now self-employed or contracted on an hourly basis. The people Labor has traditionally represented are fast moving into other areas of the workforce or now aspire to the middle class.
Though Julia Gillard's government has been a good one in many respects, its faulty political judgement and poor managment in some important areas of policy have made it an easy target for Tony Abbott's right wing Coalition - not forgetting conservative media pundits who propagandise daily to a largely politics-illiterate public. Perceptions and image may not be everything in politics but they go a hell of a long way to determining who's in power. The government is now seen by the majority as being controlled by unionised faction leaders - the so-called faceless men - who determine policy direction. It's seen that way for a good reason: it is. The people are speaking loudly right now before the federal election, but come this September there may be a blood bath of historic proportions causing unprecedented soul searching for Labor. Whatever happens they must finally, once and for all use their time in opposition wisely and introduce profound changes to the party. One such change could be a change of name from The Australian Labor Party (ALP) to the Australian Progressive Party (APP).
The narrowing of Labor's political agenda is alienating other sections of the Left, best demonstrated by the emergence of the Greens as a more than minor player in the game. Even those moderate conservatives and swing voters who are inclined to look favourably on some socially progressive initiatives are distancing themselves from Labor. But the sharpest indicator that the ALP has lost its way is its stagnate primary vote of around 30%. To turn this around the party needs to wrap itself around the left cause in its entirety. This can only be achieved by loosening political ties with the trade union movement.
Unions of course have an important role to play in an egalitarian society but the democratic-socialist ideology that underpins the movement is problematic in today's Australia. Rebranding itself as The Australian Progressive Party would be a powerful statement that the party is serious about its new inclusiveness. But if it continues down the path it is currently on it may end up a relic. Only time will tell whether the Right in the party can wrest control from the Left and begin the long process of party reform.