Bob Gould, 2006

Observations on The Latham Diaries

Source: Ozleft, June 12, 2006
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

(Written for and distributed at the 2006 annual conference of the NSW branch of the Labor Party.)

I have acquired 30 copies of the first hardback edition of The Latham Diaries and am selling them at this ALP Conference because, for evil or good, they are now part of Labor history. This gives me an opportunity to make a few observations about what I believe to be the attitude of many of the Labor rank and file to ex-leader Latham and his book.

Like many on the left I did not support Latham's elevation as leader, but also like many on the left I was won over to his leadership during the federal election campaign. Despite his rather aggressive personal style, exemplified by the weird handshake with John Howard, what mattered to me was the political content of his campaign: his opposition to the Iraq war, his reasonably firm stand against Howard’s approach to industrial relations, and similar things.

It is also routine for rebels, the left and the rank and file to rally behind a leader during election campaigns, and we all did this. At what turned out to be his swan-song meeting at Leichhardt Town Hall, I managed in my usual stubborn way to get the call, and I said much of the above in my contribution, to some applause.

A couple of weeks later, Latham abdicated the leadership, and in effect turned on the rank and file who had supported him so vigorously. This culminated in his much-ballyhooed book.

The Latham Diaries are not without some interest for students of Labor politics. The diary medium is a notoriously self-serving way of writing about politics. Discerning students of the labour movement have learnt to read Labor politicians’ alleged diaries very carefully, and with the proverbial grain of salt.

Diaries usually praise the writer and attack his enemies and perceived opponents, and Latham’s book does this in spades. A lot of the material is possibly true, more or less, but it is all angled to make him the hero, and we only have his word on many disputed questions.

I’m not so concerned about him paying out on other Labor politicians. By and large they can look after themselves, although it must be noted that the usual conventions of political life include a certain amount of confidentiality between colleagues. I doubt if any of the Labor politicians on whom he paid out are likely ever to trust him again — about anything, in almost any circumstances.

I have strong objections to the general political thrust of Latham’s book. He says explicitly that the Labor Party, and less explicitly, the trade union movement that underpins it, are finished as vehicles for progressive change. It’s easy for him to say that after he has walked out of politics.

At the moment the ALP and the unions are involved in the political fight of their lives with John Howard’s government, which is trying to destroy both interlocking labour movement set-ups with its reactionary workplace laws. These laws are even more damaging to the interests of labour than the Taft-Hartley Act in the United States, or the Taff-Vale court decision in Britain early in the 19th century.

The ALP and the unions are the only mass instruments that the working class movement has to defend its interests. What right has former Labor leader Latham, who was the beneficiary of all the privileges associated with major positions in the movement, to attempt to tear down the ALP in a literary way, in his book, in the current circumstances?

At a book signing for Latham at Glebebooks a few of months ago, I said something similar to what I’ve just said and, in further discussion, agreeing with me, a young woman from the Blue Mountains had another slice of Latham.

She made the point that she had joined the ALP as a direct result of the vigorous leadership he had shown during the election campaign. She saw no reason to give the ALP away just because Latham’s leadership ambitions had been thwarted in the election. That’s my sentiment too.

Latham has nothing to teach any of us about the jungle that the ALP-trade union continuum can be in some circumstances. Nevertheless, at a mass level, it’s all we’ve got, and we usually campaign and struggle to change it in the directions that seem appropriate to us.

Despite all the above, Latham’s book is now part of the public record and, in a contradictory way, part of the history of the labour movement. We are told by the media that his ugly mug is about to be displayed, along with those of all the other Labor leaders, warts and all, in the ALP caucus room in Canberra.