An intellectual reawakening: Chris Bowen’s ‘Hearts and Minds’

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The first observation from Chris Bowen’s book out today is how fast politics moves. Written only weeks ago as a backbencher who had recently left Cabinet and expected his next role to be in opposition, our author is back on the frontline as Treasurer before the manuscript could be printed. In the text of the book, he suggests that Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey would call a number of his proposals ‘courageous’. This is undoubtedly true, and that was before it was possible to know he would be holding the government’s purse strings. While the normal ‘when resources allow’ caveats are included, there are bold and radical ideas in the text. As such, its content will be much poured over by his political opponents and the Murdoch-owned media in the days and weeks to come.

The timing and nature of book are clearly as in vogue, as Bowen himself is with the new Prime Minister. Kevin Rudd has already announced almost word-for-word the direct election of the Australian Labor Party leader model Bowen advocates. It gives the reader a real sense that this edition will not be sitting on shelves gathering dust, but being implemented. Those wanting party reform will look forward to seeing his other suggestions – primaries, conference changes and democratic senate pre-selections – being implemented. Just weeks ago the Labor government was continually referred to in its final stages. With everything now to play for, Bowen’s contribution could be to Rudd’s second prime ministership what Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle’s ‘Blair revolution’ was to UK Labour’s 1997-2010 period in government.

Bowen argues Labor should ‘mean what we say and say what we mean’.

Bowen dedicates a whole chapter to the ideological pursuit of the ALP. Calling for a ‘Clause IV moment’ to what is known as the socialist pledge in the ALP constitution, Bowen argues Labor should ‘mean what we say and say what we mean’. Kicking off the debate, the Federal MP for McMahon sets out his own a modern statement of values. Many will call this debate unnecessary and divisive. The same was true of Blair’s efforts to do the same thing in the 1990s; former Labour MP Chris Mullin, in the foreword to his own diaries covering this period, writes ‘several thoughts occur to me. First, how much Tony Blair got right … His decision to rewrite Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution – implying as it did nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange – was in retrospect a master stoke, though it didn’t feel that way at the time.’ The same could be true for the ALP.

In addition, the Treasurer asserts that ‘social liberalism’, as opposed to democratic socialism or social democracy on its left and neo-liberalism, libertarianism and conservativism to its right, is the ideology that best describes the current intellectual direction of Australia’s oldest political party. This chimes, as Bowen points out, with Lenin’s early analysis. Writing in 1913, the future Soviet leader writes ‘the ALP does not even call itself a socialist party. Actually, it is a liberal-bourgeois party, while the Liberals … are really conservatives’. The social liberalism of which he talks, while not being the language of least resistance in the party, draws heavily on the socially liberal traditions that informed the UK Labour Party’s most successful intellectual reawakenings, from the Attlee government (both Keynes and Beveridge were social liberals) and Anthony Crosland’s work, to the 1987 Labour manifesto ‘Choose Freedom’ and New Labour that followed.

Those who followed the marriage equality vote in Canberra will be looking for more social liberalism from its Federal MPs as Labor goes forward. This is something Bowen himself could lead next time the bill appears.

The Labor Right in Australia describe their project for the party and country as unique because the Liberals only understand growth and the Greens opportunity and equality. Only Labor understands the transformational effects of both. Bowen’s book is crafted around these two Labor pursuits. Growth for the many dovetails perfectly with opportunity. He suggests that the Hawke-Keating governments are the hallmarks of this, with reforms that kickstarted ’21 years of continuous growth’.

Kevin Rudd has already announced almost word-for-word the direct election of the Australian Labor Party leader model Bowen advocates.

While the former Human Services Minister outlines ideas on tackling health inequalities, multiculturalism and closing Aboriginal disadvantage, where his chapter on opportunity comes to life is in proposals to tackle the ‘deficit of ambition’.

The relentless number of serious proposals on everything from teacher training to laptops for pre-school kids come together nicely and would transform Australia’s education system. His idea for the international university sector’s ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs) to be used in the secondary education system to show students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds that ‘they are “up to it” and illustrating [university study's] opportunities and thought-provoking nature’ should be implemented across the country.  School leaders don’t need to wait to be told to do this. He agues ‘MOOCs can also play an important “taster” for older people’ considering first time university study. Having followed closely the Charter School and Academies debates in the US and UK respectively, the former Tertiary Education Minister suggests ‘Opportunity Academies’ in certain circumstances, because ‘a Labor Party which believes in doing everything possible to reduce the impact of socioeconomic disparity should develop and embrace the idea of more people and organisations battling educational disadvantage’.

Bowen borrows heavily from Crosland’s ‘Future of Socialism’ which acted as the intellectual guide to much of the twentieth century’s Labour movement. A genuinely interesting read, ‘Hearts and Minds’ could in turn become the twenty-first century’s ‘Future of Social Liberalism’.

Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress and on secondment to New South Wales Labor Party.

Hearts & Minds: A Blueprint for Modern Labor’ was launched on Friday 12th July and is now available for purchase ($24.99) from Melbourne University Press.