Labor campaigners are calling for an urgent change in the party’s direction to address household concerns about costs and wages, adding to fears the party is “sleepwalking” to a federal election loss.
In a warning to Labor leader Anthony Albanese, local party figures in the NSW Hunter Valley said the party’s loss at a state byelection last Saturday was a sign of a national challenge in winning back blue-collar voters.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is facing concerns within his party about how to win over blue collar voters.Credit:Alex Ellighausen
Cessnock deputy mayor Darrin Gray said the party had to “put Labor back into Labor” by throwing more weight into policies to tackle household costs, wages and the day-to-day pressures on families.
Another long-standing Labor member, former Muswellbrook councillor Malcolm Ogg, said the federal caucus members had to “decide what they stand for” and give voters a clear message on policies such as climate change.
Their views conflict with senior figures in the federal party who are backing Mr Albanese after the federal member for Paterson, Meryl Swanson, told the federal caucus she feared they were “sleepwalking off a cliff” at the next election.
Mr Albanese spoke to Ms Swanson on Tuesday night to hear her concerns but he and senior frontbenchers have insisted the party is doing well at tapping into community frustration with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government.
Mr Gray, who handed out how-to-vote cards in the Upper Hunter byelection last Saturday, said the party needed a stronger message for households.
“We’re starting to lose middle Australia so we’ve got to move back to the centre, back to the base and support the Labor working class,” he said.
“The environment and climate change are really, really important but I think there’s a mass of silent Australians who are living day-to-day. Their concerns are about paying next week’s bills.
“Yes, social justice issues are important but are they core? Are they the most important for middle Australia? We have to put the Labor back in Labor.”
Mr Gray said the workforce had evolved over time to include contractors and tradies but the party had not changed with the times.
“We have to win coal seats,” he said of the party’s chances at the next federal election.
Mr Ogg, a Labor member for decades and a volunteer at previous elections, said the party needed a clear message on climate change and energy to set it apart from the Greens and win back ordinary workers.
“Labor needs to give a clear explanation of what it stands for in the transition from a coal-based economy to something that is carbon neutral,” he said.
“But it needs to be communicated and explained so that all people can get it.”
Mr Ogg said Australia needed to reduce emissions and transition over time away from coal but politicians in Canberra on all sides were failing to outline exactly what this meant.
He said Mr Albanese was “doing OK” as leader but the federal caucus had to unify behind a position that could win over workers outside the inner cities.
Deputy Leader Richard Marles said Ms Swanson was a “fantastic” local member but the party was focused on the government’s failure to vaccinate Australians and build fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities.
“As I travel around Australia, what I see is a great deal of discontent with the way in which this government has been going about its business over a very long period of time,” Mr Marles told the ABC.
Asked about the party’s loss at the Upper Hunter by-election, he said the party had to take the result seriously but noted the seat had always been held by the Nationals.
Federal Labor MPs declined to speak publicly about the calls for a shift in direction from Ms Swanson and former minister Joel Fitzgibbon, whose federal seat of Hunter overlaps with the state seat contested on Saturday.
One MP said the party was not doing enough to win seats outside the major cities, while another said Mr Albanese had allowed himself to be wedged by the government on issues like climate change. Another said Ms Swanson was right about sleepwalking to an election loss.
Others including Queensland MP Milton Dick and Victorian MP Peter Khalil defended Labor’s direction.
The fact that federal Labor does not hold a federal seat north of Blair, just outside Brisbane, has senior figures concerned that the NSW result may indicate a problem in Queensland cities like Gladstone, Townsville and Mackay.
“The reality is that places north of Brisbane didn’t vote Labor last time because Labor forgot the yellow and orange shirts who work in the mines,” said one party figure in Queensland, referring to tradies in hi-vis vests.
“Labor is going to have to really start talking about supporting blue-collar jobs and getting away from just talking about social issues.”
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