The UK Labour Party and the Australian Labor Party are sister parties that share not only a western lineage through the British empire, but also a social democratic agenda originating with the industrial working class. Both can trace their roots to the late 19th century, and, as two of the more electorally successful social democratic parties in the Western world, they are important case studies for such parties in the shadow of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. More pertinently, both parties remain electorally competitive at a time of anti-globalist sentiment and are optimistic of forming government at their next respective elections.

Those similarities, however, cannot conceal differences of internal structure and party ideology, which is demonstrative of the ways in which institutional electoral structures and economic conditions have shaped two spiritually-aligned parties. In light of this divergence, this piece considers the institutional features and economic and social policy development that have characterised the present situation and what this means for the social democratic project in both countries.

Instituting ‘the broad church’

From conception, both parties have been broad churches including a range of political persuasions on the left, from centrist technocrats to those with stronger left-wing policy prescriptions.

In March 2014, then-leader Ed Miliband brought about major reforms to the processes through which the British Labour Party elected its leader. The reforms effectively abolished the ‘electoral college’ system in which unions, party members and MPs had a third of the votes each, in favour of a ‘one member one vote’ policy. It also saw an end to the automatic affiliation of union members with the party, in favour of an ‘opt-in’ system. The intention was that this would strengthen the symbiotic relationship between the technocratic leadership of the party and its core supporters: it encapsulated Miliband’s vision of ‘One Nation Britain’. Crucially, the reforms enabled those who wanted to support the party without becoming a full member to vote in leadership elections, by paying a nominal £3 fee. This facilitated an expansion of the Labour membership which has been instrumental to the election of the ‘hard-left’ Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015.

Unlike UK Labour, the antipodean party adopted a 50:50 vote split for the party leader between parliamentarians and party members in 2013. Understood as a compromise between the largely left-wing leanings in the party membership and the right-wing nature of the parliamentary party, the current leader, Bill Shorten, won a narrow victory over the left faction’s contender based on a stronger showing in the party room.

Both the Australia and the British labour parties then, have seen an increasing prioritisation of the party membership, and a corresponding decline in the influence of the unions, though they remain pivotal in the Australian party.

Neither system is perfect and both can be problematic in different contexts. At present, Corbyn leads a party of two wings: his old vanguard of hard-left politicians and a devoted body of new party members on one hand; traditional, Blairite and soft-left Labour party members on the other. The latter has become encapsulated by a Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) that is increasingly disgruntled by both Corbyn’s policies and his way of doing politics. Split voting in Australia also has the potential to expose a disconnect between the party membership and the parliamentary wing; although this has yet to arise to the same degree as the UK, perhaps in part because the reduced financial costs to membership were not similarly taken up ‘down under’.

This comparison yields an important lesson for social democratic parties. In their efforts to democratise and return to a mass membership model, the choice of system will be crucial to future policy direction. Democratisation is a laudable goal but system features such as vote shares and membership fees should be carefully considered.

Institutional setup – creatures of their environment

Australia’s electoral system is significantly different to the UK’s. First, Australia enforces compulsory voting; second, voting is done on a preferential basis. The first design feature is arguably more important in anchoring political parties to median voices rather than honing their policy to particular groups and attempting to win by ‘getting out the vote’.

In the UK, a simple plurality First-Past-The-Post system is used. This institutional setup has traditionally encouraged an adversarial, two-party system in which Labour and the Conservatives tussle for Number 10 (Duverger, 1954). However, there is evidence to suggest that Duverger’s Law – that FPTP discourages voting for third parties – is now unravelling in the UK context. Fragmentation and disillusionment away from the two traditional main parties has been evidenced in the increasing popularity of the centre-left Liberal-Democrats in the lead-up to the 2010 General Election, of the populist right UKIP in the lead-up to the 2016 Brexit Referendum, and of the populist wing of the Labour Party, in the ascendance under Jeremy Corbyn.

A preferential system of voting in the Australian lower house theoretically gives minor parties a better chance of election, but, in practice, Australia has a historically institutionalised two-party system in that house. The Nationals, a regional agrarian party, have a stronghold in the country and maintain a coalition with the conservative Liberals whilst the Greens, an environmentally-focussed centre-left party, hold one seat.

The key contrast between the two systems arises from their upper houses. The UK House of Lords is appointed and largely deferential to the House of Commons while the Australian Senate is one of the strongest of its kind with the ability to both put forward legislation and veto lower-house bills. Elected on a proportional representation basis from each of the sub-national provinces since 2004, the Senate has been the scene for an increased minor party vote that has elected an eclectic mix of populist parties.

From the Median Voter to the ‘Globally Oriented Network Youth’

The concept of a ‘Third Way’ (Giddens, 1998) defined the policy agendas of numerous centre-left parties in the latter decades of the 20th century. This was the case nowhere more so than in Australia and the UK, where the dominant view was that globalisation irrevocably required economies to adapt and modernise. Such agendas were premised upon the capture of what political science refers to as the ‘median voter’.

The move towards a market-based economy was embraced in Australia by the Hawke and Keating Labour governments in the 1980s with numerous economic reforms such as reduced tariffs, pro-business industrial relations reforms, and making the Australian dollar a floating currency (thereby locking a small, industrialised economy into the global trading system). These reforms paved the way for significant advances in living standards, which were rewarded with 13 years of consecutive Labor government until the late 1990s.

In the UK, Tony Blair took inspiration from Hawke and Keating with Anthony Giddens as his ideological lonestar, believing in a ‘modernised social democracy’ with an emphasis on social justice. The Blairite conception of ‘New Labour’ sought to reconcile a centre-right approach to the economic dimension and a centre-left approach to the social dimension of policymaking. The economic dimension was seen in the Labour government’s commitment to fiscal consolidation – not to spend more than the Conservatives within the first 3 years – and its failure to redress the deregulation of the financial sector in the aftermath of Thatcherism. The social dimension was seen in progressive policies tackling social inequality and poverty, including tax credits, Sure Start childcare centres, and the National Minimum Wage.

Fast forward a few decades with the intervening Iraq War and Global Recession, and Giddens’ view that the ‘politics of self-actualisation’ would overtake the ‘politics of inequality’ seems misplaced. Across both the UK and Australia, anaemic wage growth along with significant increases in income and wealth inequality have created a vigorous debate within both parties regarding greater state intervention in economic affairs.

In the UK, the association between New Labour and the 2008 crisis has had an indelible impact on the electoral fortunes of the party. The Conservatives have proved adept at exploiting this association, frequently bandying about comments to the effect that ‘Labour got us into this mess’, and positing austerity as the natural cure for the recession. Yet, as a party, Labour has recoiled from this analysis of the crisis, forwarding instead that the problem was a failure to challenge the neoliberal consensus established in the post-Thatcher era. Hence the leadership of Ed Miliband, and even more so with Jeremy Corbyn, has seen a shift to the left along both social and economic dimensions, with issues of social justice and equitability displacing those of fiscal calculation. Such policies are geared not towards the median voter, but a new demographic of cosmopolitan, educated and (arguably) middle-class voters, labelled by Paul Mason as the ‘Globally Oriented Network Youth’.

Initially at least, the Australian Labor Party was not inclined to follow the ideological direction of its UK sister after 2007. This is in part due to Australia’s lower inequality, better economic conditions, and centripetal electoral system. Nevertheless, the ‘inequality debate’ has finally arrived in Australia and been embraced by a resurgent Labor Party which has been sitting on the opposition benches since 2013. Eschewing a ‘small target’ approach to opposition politics, it has largely been rewarded electorally for taking on the mantle of economic justice with policies to close numerous wealth loopholes on property and stockholdings.

What is notable for both parties is their appetite for tackling the big policy debates. On different sides of the world, each party has taken a bold approach to policy, challenging Conservative governments and presenting the electorate with starker choices than have been present between the major parties since the end of the Cold War.

Women & minorities

Social justice is a key policy agenda of all left-wing parties. In particular, the lack of female representation in Parliament has come under the microscope in the last 30 years leading to internal reform within both parties.

In 1994, the British Labour Party made a pioneering step towards affirmative action in establishing All Women’s Shortlists. In a certain proportion of parliamentary seats, it would be mandatory for all those on a shortlist of Labour candidates to be women. The impact of AWS in the 1997 was striking: the number of women MPs doubled from 60 to 120, with 101 of those being from the Labour Party. To this day, the Conservatives remain sceptical of affirmative action, despite having a poor record on women’s representation.

The Australian Labor Party similarly resolved to amend its constitution in 2015, requiring that a minimum 40% of ‘winnable’ seats preselect a woman, an increase from the prior requirement of 35%, and rising to 50% in 2025. This reform has reaped immediate benefits with ALP female representation in the lower house at 48% and over 60% in the upper house.

Australian Labor has also moved to the left on other social issues including an indication of support for constitutional reform to give Indigenous Australians a ‘voice to parliament’ through an Indigenous chamber and softening its line on refugee boat arrivals away from its previous support for mandatory detention.

These policies are emblematic of a strong left-faction within the party and a greater thirst within the electorate for social innovation in response to the cultural movements around the gender pay gap, Indigenous disadvantage, and refugee crises. Similarly, within the British Labour Party, there have been increasingly radical approaches towards minority policies, including the leadership’s endorsement of the right of transgender women to be included in AWS.

Looking ahead

Across the two dimensions that shape politics – economic and social policy – the left is currently engaged in a vigorous debate over how best to synthesise a coherent and electable policy agenda to counter inequality. Far from being the death knell for social democracy, populism and nativism in the West have reinvigorated constructive debate about trade, the welfare state, multiculturalism and the environment, to name but a few topics.

While the political crystal ball is perhaps more opaque in these times than usual, a Corbyn-led Labour government appears to be a stronger challenge to political orthodoxy than its counterpart in Australia. In this respect, were Corbyn and Shorten to form government in their respective countries in the coming years, it may represent a divergence between the UK and Australian branches of the labour movement, which, given the eminence of these parties in the broader social democratic project, may inspire more heterodoxy in what was previously a reliable global consensus between parties of this stripe.

A comparison of the Australian and British Labour parties demonstrates that the key to the relevancy of social democratic parties lies in their ability to integrate communities of working and middle class, young and old, and men and women. Such social cleavages have come to shape politics in both countries, as encapsulated by the Brexit result and wealth inequality in Australia. Consequently, these cleavages will continue to shape economic and social policy within both Labour parties. To the extent that the fundamental philosophy of Labour–of the importance and value of labour as a complement to the global power of capital–can reconcile these social cleavages, their futures looks promising. In the words of Keir Hardie, the founder of the British Labour Party, social democracy thus conceived offers ‘a platform broad enough for all to stand upon. It makes war upon a system, not upon a class.’


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Mary Reader is a first year MPA student at LSE, originally from the UK. She received a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford. Prior to LSE she worked as a Researcher for Rachel Reeves MP for her book on women and parliament.

Aman Gaur is a first year MPA student at LSE, focussing on economic policy. He holds undergraduate degrees in law and economics from the Australian National University and has previously worked as a lawyer. He is currently working for Mary Creagh MP.

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