When the Australian Labor Party splits it does so over policy — not personalities. So bitter are these disputes that those who have left, or been expelled from, Labor are invariably labelled “rats”.

On Thursday, The Australian broke the news that Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon had told the Blenheim Partners podcast that Labor could divide in much the same way as it had in the mid-1950s. He was speaking about the division between those in the party who focus on the interests of struggling regional communities and those who are attuned to the ideological obsessions of the prosperous inner cities.

Fitzgibbon made it clear that he does not want a split to happen. He added: “I hope that’s unlikely but I just don’t know how we reconcile the difficulty of being all things to all people in Batman and another thing to a group of people living in central Queensland.”

Batman is a seat in northeast Melbourne which last year was re-named Cooper. It consists of such suburbs as Alphington, Clifton Hill, Coburg, Northcote and Thornbury and neighbours Green-left Central in Fitzroy North. Once upon a time, these suburbs were home to many working class Melburnians. Now they are inhabited overwhelmingly by professionals who like to proclaim that they are “progressive”.

Former ACTU president Ged Kearney is the Labor member for Cooper. A high-profile and able politician, she held the seat in the May 2019 election — but only did so narrowly in a by-election the previous year.

Labor faces similar challenges in inner-city seats in Sydney and Brisbane and possibly elsewhere. In this sense, Labor’s policy is being dragged to the progressive left due to the challenge it faces from the Greens. And then there is the fact that the party’s rank and file membership is more left-wing than Labor voters as a whole.

It would make ideological sense for the Liberal Party to give its preferences to Labor in seats like Cooper, Melbourne (held by Greens leader Adam Bandt), Grayndler (held by Anthony Albanese) and Sydney (held by Tanya Plibersek). For Liberal voters such a move would be consistent with what many would regard as the national interest. But, alas, contemporary politics is motivated by base long-term political rivalries to a greater or lesser extent.

Fitzgibbon is a rare breed in the modern day ALP. He is a frontbencher (shadow minister for agriculture and resources) who holds a seat (Hunter) in regional Australia covering such central NSW towns as Cessnock, Muswellbrook and Singleton. Moreover, Fitzgibbon has worked as an automotive electrician and part-time TAFE lecturer and has run his own small business. This is not a common resume in today’s Labor Caucus in Canberra.

Fitzgibbon foreshadowed his comments to Blenheim Partners in a speech delivered at the Sydney Institute on October 9 last year — in the wake of what was to many Labor’s surprise loss in the May 2019 election. He pointed out that Australians are inherently conservative and found comfort in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s no change message — including coal miners and retired miners in Hunter.

Fitzgibbon also had a message about Labor’s equivocation over the proposed Adani mine in central Queensland, saying that “we satisfied neither the right nor the left”. He added: “We failed to point out that if you achieve a 50 per cent renewables outcome by 2030, then automatically, the other 50 per cent will come from fossil fuel sources … because that message would not have suited our city-centric narrative.”

The point here is that Labor is gradually losing its regional voters, including those who belong to what was once called the working class. These days miners are well paid — much more than many who work in the government subsidised renewable industries. What is involved here is a policy issue as to whether Labor should appeal to its traditional support base in industry, mining and among agricultural workers. Or whether it should focus on the interests of middle class essentially professional radicals in the inner-cities and nearby suburbs. It is unlikely that Labor will break-up anytime soon, as Fitzgibbon acknowledges. But the current divisions within the party involve policy as was the case in past Labor splits.

In November 1916, when William Morris Hughes was Labor prime minister, the party divided over conscription for overseas service during the middle of the First World War. When the party refused to endorse Hughes’ proposal for reinforcing the Australian Imperial Force on the field of battle, he and some colleagues left Labor and joined the political conservatives of the day. Hughes went on to lead what became the Nationalist Party to election victories in 1917, 1919 and 1922.

Labor won the 1929 election and soon had to counter the problems of the Great Depression. In February 1931, Joseph Lyons (a former Tasmanian premier) resigned as treasurer in James Scullin’s government essentially over economic policy. He, too, joined the political conservatives and led what became the United Australia Party to election victories in 1931, 1934 and 1937.

In 1955 Labor split over a number of issues primarily concerning what should be the party’s attitude to communist influence in the ALP and globally. The divisions bit hardest in Victoria in 1955 and Queensland two years later. On this occasion, the dissenters were expelled from the party before they could resign.

The leaders of the breakaway group, which became the Democratic Labor Party, lost their seats in the Federal parliament. But DLP preferences directed to the Coalition certainly saved Coalition prime ministers Robert Menzies in 1961 and John Gorton in 1969 — keeping Labor out of office until Gough Whitlam’s victory in December 1972.

Fitzgibbon is concerned that the growing divergence between Labor’s traditional and progressive supporters today is not dissimilar to that which occurred between the anti-communists and those who opposed them in the 1950s.

The future is a country yet to be discovered. But the lesson from the past is that when Labor divides on big issues of policy the party goes into a dark place for a decade or more.