Explanations of working-class politics in Australia and Britain have traditionally been heavily rooted in domestic 'bread and butter', socio-economic factors, including the much-debated issue of social class. 'Traditional' and 'revisionist' accounts have greatly advanced our knowledge and understanding of labour movements in general and labour politics in particular. This book offers a pathbreaking comparative and trans-national study of the neglected influences of nation, empire and race. The study is about the development and electoral fortunes of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the British Labour Party (BLP) from their formative years of the 1900s to the elections of 2010. Based upon extensive primary and secondary source-based research in Britain and Australia over several years, the book makes a new and original contribution to the fields of labour, imperial and 'British world' history. It offers the challenging conclusion that the forces of nation, empire and race exerted much greater influence upon Labour politics in both countries than suggested by 'traditionalists' and 'revisionists' alike. Labour sought a more democratic, open and just society, but, unlike the ALP, it was not a serious contender for political and social power. In both countries, the importance attached to the politics of loyalism is partly related to questions of place and space. In both Australia and Britain the essential strength of the emergent Labour parties was rooted in the trade unions. The book also presents three core arguments concerning the influences of nation, empire, race and class upon Labour's electoral performance.
The ability of workers to influence parliamentary elections, of course, was limited by the nature of the political system. In both Australia and Britain the essential strength of the emergent Labour parties was rooted in the trade unions. Despite the often considerable setbacks of the depressed 1890s, both 'old' and 'new' unionism made considerable headway in Australia and Britain from the later nineteenth century to the immediate post-World War One years. Further evidence that Australia had overtaken Britain as the trade union capital of the world was provided in 1919, when Australia's union density stood at 50 per cent, in contrast to Britain's 43 per cent. Two important differences should be highlighted in terms of the union-party connection in Australia and Britain. First, the system of political parties was far more established in Britain than in Australia. Second, not withstanding the continuing strength of Lib-Labism in Victoria.
The newly born federal Australian Labour Party (ALP) loudly proclaimed itself to be the foremost representative of Australia as a 'new world' nation. The vital importance of 'the national' to Labour was clearly revealed during federal elections. In Australia the ALP's primary commitment to the unions was demonstrated by its programmatic support for 'White Australia' and compulsory arbitration. In Britain between 1906 and 1910 the Labour Party 'campaigned strongly for public programmes to remedy unemployment, and to establish the "right to work". Some historians, working within the discrete national frameworks of Britain and Australia, have argued that Labour's, albeit limited, success in appealing to working-class people was further enhanced by a renewed or new sense of class among workers. Australian labour historiography has, on balance, tended to adopt the view that class took precedence over nationalism in terms of the formation and subsequent twentieth-century development of the labour movement.
Key events and processes of World War One and the post-war years shaped the development and character of the Right's anti-socialism and the attempt successfully to portray Labour as disloyal and extreme. In Australia serious conflicts took place between the authorities and returned soldiers and sailors during the huge peace celebrations in 1919. The politics of loyalism in Australia at this time were both highly symbolic and fiercely contested in character. The Labour Party in Britain emerged from the war far more united, expectant and confident of the future than it's fundamentally split and beleaguered counterpart in Australia. Despite electoral successes in 1929, neither the British Labour Party (BLP) nor the Australian Labour Party (ALP) was able to withstand the whirlwind of the Depression. Conservative political hegemony was particularly marked in Britain. In Australia the Nationalists' ability to retain federal office from 1931 onwards was also impressive.
The Australian Labour Party (ALP) closely linked its radical nationalism to qualified anti-imperialism and mounted a fierce critique of the Right. The response of the British Labour Party (BLP) was much softer, moderate and defensive. The BLP and the ALP were united by a common, strong and consistent commitment to the liberties, traditions and values of British-inspired 'popular constitutionalism'. For most of the interwar period the ALP adopted a more critical attitude to Australia's relationship with Britain and British imperialism in general than between 1900 and the outbreak of World War One. In the pre-war period, the Australian Worker's viewpoint was an exaggerated and misleading reflection of the mainstream ALP's attitudes and practices towards the British Empire. In both countries, therefore, the importance attached to the politics of loyalism is partly related to questions of place and space.
Britain first 'total' war, between 1914 and 1918, had played an important part in the Labour Party's youthful 'rise'. Clement Attlee and his colleagues drew the public's attention to past Tory failures, especially their 'reactionary' and discredited socio-economic, defence and foreign policies of the 1930s. Labour won the 1945 election because Attlee's pragmatic socialist message was far more in touch with what the Manchester Guardian termed the 'silent revolution' in people's experiences. The Australian Labour Party's (ALP's) victories in 1943 and 1946 were built upon the successful realisation of its pledge to gain 'Victory in War and Victory for the Peace'. Labour's reforms and its articulation of the spirit of progressive nationalism continued to exert a powerful appeal in the country up to and including the next general election of 1950. Interwar Australian criticisms of the coercive aspects of British imperialism increasingly faded into the background.
An essential part of the politics of the Cold War, the Right once again tarred the mainstream labour movement as subscribing to the 'alien', 'extreme' and 'totalitarian' doctrine of socialism. The post-war Australian economy was booming, largely on the back of rapidly expanding exports. The Australian Labour Party's (ALP's) proposals for bank nationalisation, petrol rationing and other forms of 'bureaucratic controls' were all portrayed as steps 'further towards the development of a totalitarian state'. The politics of Cold War loyalism were also an important part of Britain's post-war history. Britain Catholics were also prominent among labour-movement anti-communists; they were far less likely to attempt to smear Labour's mainstream leaders than were their counterparts in Australia. Ernes Bevin, Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison saw possession of an independent nuclear deterrent as 'commensurate with Britain's great power status and moral influence in the world'.
Gough Whitlam's recast Australian Labour Party (ALP) was in many ways the product of the new radical mood of the 1960s in its national, international and transnational aspects. Attuned to international developments, he was confident of providing Australians with the 'progressive national reform'. He considered 'progressive national reform' to be necessary after such a long period of Conservative domination of federal politics. By early the 1960s Britain was experiencing growing economic problems. Like Whitlam, Harold Wilson sought to end Labour's many years 'out in the cold' by establishing a 'new' and 'modern' nation. The ending of the international 'golden age' in 1973-74 deepened the country's economic gloom. Britain, like Australia, experienced serious stagflation. Between the end of 1974 and the election of May 1979 Wilson and James Callaghan continued to tackle the country's political, economic and social problems.