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Calls for ‘class quotas’ in Young Labor to bolster party’s blue-collar ranks

He said the narrowness of the party’s membership had contributed to the cultural problems and electoral weakness at the federal level.

Dr Nick Dyrenfurth of the John Curtain Research Centre.

Dr Nick Dyrenfurth of the John Curtain Research Centre.

“Labor was once a working-class party that needed middle-class votes to win elections; it has since become a university-educated, socially-liberal, white-collar party that needs blue-collar, non-tertiary educated, precariously employed votes to win,” Dr Dyrenfurth writes in The Tocsin, the centre’s quarterly publication.

Young Labor draw upwards of 95 per cent of its members from university campuses, mainly from the top-ranking institutions he writes, and not from the 72 per cent of non-tertiary degree holding Australians.

Dr Dyrenfurth wants a Young Labor membership ratio of one-third university students, one-third TAFE and vocational students and one-third young workers not studying by 2022.

“Such an approach would bolster the role of Labor’s affiliated trade unions, which currently shoulder the load in keeping the party connected to its working-class base but find themselves all too often ignored by an arrogant parliamentary wing,” he writes.

“Too many Labor MPs and especially its young activists look and sound the same as their ostensible Greens rivals: university-educated, socially liberal and likely non-religious or atheist, and destined for white-collar, higher-income secure work, living in the inner-cities.”

Former Labor minister Craig Emerson, who now chairs the ALP-aligned McKell Institute, backed Dr Dyrenfurth’s idea but with some reservations.

“The idea of getting more young people from working class backgrounds is fine and quotas have been effective in the past, especially in relation to getting more women into Parliament,” he said.

“But I don’t think that it’s a good idea to tell university students they are [worth less] … A lot of university students come from working class backgrounds. There are a lot of first-in-family university graduates and I wouldn’t want to be signalling to working-class kids who want to go to university they are less valuable [to Labor] for doing so.”

Emma Dawson, executive director of progressive think tank Per Capita, said she agreed with the aim of broadening the party’s membership but quotas were not the way to get there.

“It’s really important the Labor Party remains a labour party, but you can’t coerce people into joining a political party,” she said.

“The key thing is to devolve some of that decision making and some of that gatekeeping and listen more responsively to what people need, and that’s different in different parts of the country.”

Long-time frontbench MP Joel Fitzgibbon quit shadow cabinet this week after 18 months of disagreement over climate and energy policy, which he said had alienated its blue-collar constituency and cost it millions of votes outside capital cities.

He said the party had provided too much focus on progressive issues while ignoring its traditional base and the policies that working people need to “help them meet their aspirations and the aspirations for their families”.

Labor's political opponents seized on the Adani issue throughout the campaign.

Labor’s political opponents seized on the Adani issue throughout the campaign.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Labor’s post election review found the party had moved to address political grievances of a vast and disparate constituency during its time in opposition and warned working people experiencing economic dislocation would lose faith if they do not believe the party was responding to their needs.

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Low-income workers swung against Labor at the May 2019 election with the review finding its ambiguous language on the Adani Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland, combined with anti-coal rhetoric, devastated its support in the coal mining communities of regional Queensland and the Hunter Valley.

But it found higher-income urban Australians concerned about climate change swung to Labor, despite the effect Labor’s tax policies on negative gearing and franking credits might have had on them.

Labor’s assistant climate change spokesman Pat Conroy said on Friday the party could only govern when it unites it two bases of working class Australians university educated, progressive voters. “We’re at our best when we represent both of those groups,” he said.

with Jennifer Duke, Michael Koziol

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