Labor used to say John Howard had a shameful nostalgia for the 1950s. The ALP is sentimental, too. But Labor's nostalgia is entirely about itself.
That's the lesson from two recent books: Politics with Purpose by former finance minister Lindsay Tanner and Speechless: A Year in my Father's Business by James Button (a former Age journalistand son of John Button, a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments).
Tanner writes of the end of ''labourism'', a pragmatic, union-centred philosophy that dominated the 20th century. Labourism had broad community appeal. Labourism, Tanner argues, is gone now.
Button writes of his failure to recapture what drew his father to the ALP: a world of political combat and idealism and Trades Hall.
Labor's soul-searching about whether the party has values, a base, a purpose, is essentially about the past. It's odd for a progressive party to be so weighed down by its own sense of history. Yet it is. Just before Gough Whitlam staked his own claim to Labor mythology, he, too, was rueing the ALP's decline. Even in the 1890s there were Labor people certain that their movement had abandoned its earlier principles.
You can understand why. The Light on the Hill, the Tree of Knowledge, the turn-of-the-century strikes — how could anybody live up to these poetic legends? They've been so built up they're weaknesses, not strengths.
Liberals fret about their history, too. Malcolm Fraser's ghost haunted the Howard years. No Coalition government wants to squib market reform like the Fraser government did.
Neither major party looks as it did half a century ago. They're no longer ''mass'' parties at all. Membership is shrinking. Branches are closing. Nearly 200,000 people were members of the Liberal Party in 1950. It's now less than half of that. Across the aisle, the 2010 review by John Faulkner, Bob Carr and Steve Bracks showed Labor membership had declined by a quarter since the 2007 election.
Only about 1 per cent of Australians are members of any party. Labor feels the pain strongest. It thinks of itself as a movement. A movement without people isn't very impressive.
The conservatives are more stoic about their shrinking membership. A review by Peter Reith on Liberal Party reform was produced with much less fanfare than the Faulkner-Carr-Bracks attempt.
But both reviews came up with the same ideas. Parties have to give the rank and file more influence over policy. They should experiment with American-style primary elections. In his book, Tanner proposed expanding the ALP's national conference to accommodate some of the lowly branch members.
Many people claim primaries will counter the rising power of party machines. Yet those machines have probably never been less powerful than now. In recent leadership ballots the ALP factions have split every which way. No longer is Australian politics controlled by anonymous warlords. The faceless men are now publicity hounds. They run internal campaigns on Sky News. They taunt their opponents on Twitter.
It isn't lost values or machine politics or a desire for empowerment behind the decline of the mass-member party. It's that the mass party doesn't make a lot of sense.
In the 1950s, Australians didn't have much choice: if they were interested in politics they would have to go to a local branch meeting. We are better off. We can watch Lateline and 24-hour news and argue forever on the internet. For political types, party gatherings were once the best entertainment around. Now, surely, they are the worst.
Parties are vehicles to shepherd politicians into seats and form governments. Why do they also have to be debating societies, ideas factories, or social movements?
But there's a deeper issue. Sectarianism is passe. Choosing a political identity is not a matter of picking one side or another side. We prefer to join lots of causes rather than one team. We tend to take bits and pieces from everywhere, and resent parties that fail to live up to our highly specific preferences. This is healthy — Australia is a nation of individuals, not tribes — but it is a hostile environment for a mass political party.
When federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese said earlier this year he just wanted to ''fight Tories'' it struck a weird note. There is nobody who thinks of Australia in such sectarian terms — nobody outside the tiny, declining fraction of the population who are party members. But that's the dead-end of political nostalgia. Pity those who still think like that.