A rule of so-called quality journalism is that one should never use clichés. But they are unavoidable in describing today’s Labor party. What Australians are watching here is the political equivalent of a slow-motion car crash: every aspect is a disaster, and the caucus seems powerless to stop it. Hardly anyone, save perhaps Barrie Cassidy, disagrees. Every poll in the nation shows that voters are sick of the shabby, sordid ways of Gillard and her lot. Left-wing commentators view the leadership crisis with dismay and disgust. Labor true believers are angry and alienated. In between, there is much sighing and shaking of heads.

When Julia Gillard became our first female prime minister less than three years ago, Labor partisans and their media mates acclaimed a new era in Australian politics. Who can forget Peter van Oscillator saying that Labor would gain federal seats in 2010? Or Richo’s prediction, in these pages, of a decade-long Gillard prime ministership? Ever since, however, her government has lurched disastrously from one crisis to the next. To paraphrase a disgraced Nixon, whereas Labor was once on the highest mountain top, it is now in the deepest valley.

It was not meant to be like this. But the fact that it is calls for some explanation, for the sake of attributing blame and understanding the lessons of the past.

The temptation, scarcely resisted, is to blame it all on Gillard herself. This explanation has a lot going for it. As Gillard is not only hopeless and desperate, but also looks hopeless and desperate, it is a persuasive argument. How else to explain her party’s war on Tony Abbott, all the while accusing him of partisanship and bemoaning what Bill Clinton called the ‘politics of personal destruction’?

Above all else, Gillard is an oxymoron. This is a woman who once championed an ‘independent’ foreign policy (left-wing code for snubbing Washington) only to now march in lockstep with Uncle Sam in a way that would make Harold Holt proud. A woman who implemented a carbon tax after promising she would do no such thing. A childless, unmarried feminist who is to the right of Dick Cheney on gay marriage. Meanwhile, she is bleeding authority as if from an open wound. Those who rally around her — Swan, Shorten, Howes, the AWU — do so with little more than fatalism. Theirs is the contemporary Charge of the Light Brigade.

Then there is Kevin Rudd, famous in the Old Dart (thanks to YouTube) for dining on his own ear wax more than a decade ago. Of course, he has never stopped plotting his return to the Lodge since being knifed in 2010. Treachery and hypocrisy, as Mark Latham often remarked, are integral to his character; and his political career has been marked by such qualities. He has learned little from when he stood for the Labor leadership a year ago only to find the caucus had had enough of him. For many colleagues, Rudd is a ‘psychopath’ and a ‘complete and utter fraud’ who lacks the skills of leadership and fundamental conviction needed to lead Labor out of the mire.

In fairness to Rudd, at least he won the prime ministership in his own right; but then he found he did not know what to do in high office. His constant striving to be all things to all men merely insulted the electorate’s intelligence.

Of all his flip-flops, one stands out as particularly staggering: border protection. In 2007, he tried to neutralise a Coalition strength by pledging to ‘turn the boats back’. In 2008, he won plaudits from the sophisticates for discarding the Pacific Solution. In 2009, he appealed to Howard’s ‘battlers’ by preaching a ‘hardline’ policy against ‘evil’ and ‘vile’ people-smugglers. Then, in June 2010, in a last-minute pitch to Labor’s left to rescue his besieged leadership, he warned the party not to ‘lurch to the right’ on illegal immigrants. Why no journalist worth his or her pay has bothered asking Rudd what explains his twists and turns on one of the most important public policy challenges is a great mystery of the modern media.

Meanwhile, there is something frankly weird about ‘Heavvie Kevvie’. When the bloke next to you in the pub starts referring to himself in the third person as ‘K. Rudd’ and who utters cringe-inducing Australianisms like ‘Happy Little Vegemite’ and ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’, you make an excuse and leave.

That has not stopped commentators calling for Rudd to replace Gillard. Never mind that they share a credibility problem: they lack deep conviction, gut instinct and willpower. That is why, unlike say a Menzies, Whitlam, Howard or even a Keating, they lead no movement, are spokespersons for no cause and have no cheer squad.

Which brings me to the most plausible explanation for why Labor is in dire straits: its identity crisis. It is seriously wedged between two core constituencies fundamentally at odds with each other: inner-city social progressives on the one hand and the outer-suburban and regional voters on the other. By embracing teachers, academics, young voters, climate enthusiasts, gays and urban professionals, the ALP is alienating traditional blue-collar workers, who are once again defecting to the Coalition. The Greens divorce changes nothing. A party that represented ‘the cream of the working class’, in Kim Beazley Sr’s memorable language, now represents the dregs of the middle class.

Complicating matters, Labor remains connected at an organisational level to trade unions increasingly resistant to the demands of a market-based economy. This means Labor is out of touch with the development states of the resources boom, Queensland and Western Australia.

Some Labor strategists say Tony Abbott, and the public’s ambivalent views about him, is their great hope. But Labor’s feelings transcend politics in the usual sense: Abbott is loathed with a passion once reserved for apostates. In Swan’s telling, Abbott would only become the nation’s leader if he is foisted on the country by the dark and powerful forces of immorality and insecurity — in other words, misguided voters.

Other more sober Labor figures fret and wail that Australia’s oldest party, which has experienced three splits in the past 100 years, is tearing itself apart again. Until Labor finds a way of working out what it stands for, and whom it represents, that scenario remains a real possibility.

Meanwhile, Abbott’s challenge is to take advantage of Labor’s crisis and put forward policy alternatives. To secure a real mandate for government, he needs to promise Australians not just an end to Labor’s shenanigans but spell out how the Coalition will help deliver a better future. By beginning the hard work of tackling the deficit and giving support to the wealth-creating sectors of the economy, he can do a Reagan. If so, it will be morning again in Australia.