The popularity of Malcolm Turnbull reveals a problem with the modern left.

Less than a week ago Tony Abbott faced off, and survived, a spill motion that may well have seen him replaced as Liberal leader – and hence Prime Minister – by Malcolm Turnbull. Many of my lefty friends, despite (or perhaps because of) their hatred of Abbott, rejoiced at the outcome. This joy was driven in part by a somewhat cynical and quasi-Leninist desire for Abbott’s incompetent government to continue to bring angst and suffering to the Australian people, ensuring the Liberals’ demise in 18 months time. This attitude is understandable; Lenin is reported to have said in the lead up to the 1917 revolution “the worse, the better”. The unhappier the people become, the more likely they are to demand change – bringing about their own salvation. Should Turnbull replace Abbott he may be able to make people happier and win the next election, condemning us to at least a further three more years of this awful Liberal government.

Indeed many people I meet admit to me that a Turnbull Prime Ministership would make them happier. Happier to the point that they would consider voting Liberal. The latest polls back this up, suggesting that Labor’s lead would be reduced from a massive 14 to a meagrely 2 percentage point, if Turnbull replaced Abbott as leader. What’s more, Labor and Green leaning voters approve of Turnbull much more than hardcore Liberal voters. This seriously concerns me. It is very jarring to hear someone who appears left wing to admit that they would consider doing something that I would never do – vote 1 Liberal Party. Some might argue that this is due to the failures of successive Labor leaders to inspire left wing people, causing them to look for alternatives. The failures, real and perceived, of the ALP have been much discussed and I won’t go over them again here. Especially because there is something else at play here, something I think worth highlighting – the failures of the modern left wing voters themselves.

When the Soviet Union collapsed political theorist Francis Fukuyama famously declared that this was the “end of history”. Liberal capitalist democracy had finally and totally triumphed over communism and socialism and political systems all over the world would now reach equilibrium by converging on this system. Most westerners, including most lefties, appear to accept this thesis. Many have even implicitly accepted that the old debate between left and right – socialism and capitalism – is over and so they don’t call themselves left wing; rather they are “progressive”. (This is what I hear when I see Adam Bandt condemn the “old parties” as irrelevant, he’s condemning the old debate that they represent.) These modern lefties and “progressives” seem to believe that since capitalism has won and the economic system we live in is settled, we must focus our efforts on social and environmental issues. Marriage equality and fighting climate change, the two “progressive” causes that Turnbull is known to be sympathetic to, top the list.

As Tobias Wolff points out in This Boy’s Life, “only children and the corrupt” – with self-serving interests – see symbols in everything. The end of the cold war was symbolic of nothing more than the failures of some people in a specific time and place being greater than the failures of others in a specific time and place. The underlying issues that drove that “old debate” remain more than ever; issues of economic equality and class. Modern lefties care about gender, race, sexuality, the environment, animal rights, free speech and much else. All extremely important issues. Yet many forget class. And so modern lefties aren’t suspicious, like their predecessor would have been, of the fact that Turnbull is a multi-millionaire who lives in a mansion in Australia’s wealthiest suburb. His adeptness at technology and social media may mean that he seems somewhat in touch with the young and modern voter, but he is not in touch with the working class voter.

Modern Turnbull lefties are also willing to overlook the fact that Malcolm opposed Rudd’s second economic stimulus. Turnbull’s opposition preferred more tax cuts to business over Rudd’s 26 billion in school infrastructure spending. Not only did Rudd’s package improve the quality of education in this country, it certainly saved Australia from recession and an accompanying spike in unemployment. Turnbull is a small government kind of guy and he would have seen us enter recession in the name of his Sydney Grammar School/Oxford Uni ideology. As Minister for Communications, Turnbull has continued putting his small government neo-liberal ideology into practice, slashing government funding for the ABC and SBS. His other main “achievement” as Minister has been to slow the rollout of the National Broadband Network and to flag its future privatisation. As far as I’m concerned the NBN is a project in increasing opportunities for all classes. For example the NBN would allow people in small rural towns (almost always poorer than their urban counterparts) to be examined by world class doctors in the city over the internet. Young modern lefties, who tend to overlook class, think the NBN is about downloading Game of Thrones faster – they’d like to be able to do it, but they don’t see it as essential and they’re willing to forgive Turnbull’s efficiency drive if it saves our precious tax payer dollars. Modern lefties are even willing to overlook the fact that Turnbull said last year “I support unreservedly and wholeheartedly every element in the Budget. Every single one… I support every element, of course, including the Medicare co-payment… I support the reforms to higher education.” Turnbull lefties overlook this, partly because they’re so desperate for a cool leather jacket wearing saviour that they don’t believe him, and partly because the budget is about class and class doesn’t matter to them as much as social and environmental issues. All is forgiven Malcolm because we know deep down you support marriage equality, even if that nasty Tony Abbott forced you to vote against it where it counts – in the House of Representatives.

The Marxists say that class underlies and drives all other issues. I’m not sure that’s totally true; probably opposition to marriage equality boils down to old fashioned bigotry rather than classism. Yet there is no doubt that class and economics do influence most other issues lefties and “progressives” care about. This is one reason why modern lefties are wrong to ignore class. The area of the electorate that is most worried about being “overrun” by refugees is the working class suburbs of western Sydney. Some of them might be pure racists, but I suspect many have simply been fooled into thinking that these “boat people” are coming for their jobs. People in secure work, living in a flourishing inclusive economy, do not fear for their job. Fix the job security of the working class and you will fix the refugee problem (the refugee problem being that too many Australians are scared of refugees). Similarly if you’re concerned about logging then you have to worry about providing a broader range of job opportunities in rural Australia. People with alternative work may be less inclined to see chopping down the environment of their local community as an economic necessity.

Class even seems to underlie the support for Malcolm Turnbull. I live and work in two demographically different areas, Melbourne’s inner north and Melbourne’s west. Both areas though are solidly left wing. Yet I encounter far more Turnbull lefties in the middle class greens-leaning inner city than in the working class western suburbs. In the west – an area with more recently arrived migrants, higher unemployment and lacking in adequate infrastructure and institutions of higher education – more people feel issues of class directly in their own lives. Most people that I talk to there do not admire the fact that Turnbull would be the “most business-wired Liberal Party leader in its history” (to quote the Australian Financial Review, a paper that should know). The middle class lefties in the inner city are too willing to ignore class perhaps because they don’t feel its impact as significantly. There is nothing wrong with being middle class – most of the middle class are products of great Labor reforms that have given people the opportunity to increase their standard of living. Being middle class certainly doesn’t mean you can’t be a true lefty. What is a shame though is that many of these modern day lefties – or “progressives” – seem to have, to some extent at least, lost their solidarity with the working class and to have de-prioritised class. And that makes them more inclined to support Malcolm Turnbull. Which makes me sad.

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