Don’t ban factions, regulate them

Factions in the Australian Labor Party have a bad reputation. I won’t go over the criticisms as they are well known and many examples of destructive factionalism can easily be cited.

A common suggestion to address problems associated with factionalism is to ban formal factions. For example, in its submission to the McKenzie Review, Open Labor recommends that Labor should:

Make it unconstitutional to be a member of a formal faction.

What those who push to ban factions overlook is that organised, formalised factions exist in many other social democratic parties such as the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Italian Democratic Party (PD), the Spanish Socialists (PSOE) and Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT). It is not an anomaly at all. It is natural for like-minded individuals to come together. Organised formal factions have existed in the Australian Labor Party as early as the 1916 in New South Wales and a lack of formality or the banning of binding does not mean that factionalism will not exist.

The example of the British Labour Party banning factions is usually cited by those seeking to ban factions. Under Clause II, 5A of the British Labour rules:

Political organisations not affiliated or associated under a national agreement with the party, having their own programme, principles and policy, or distinctive and separate propaganda, or possessing branches in the constituencies, or engaged in the promotion of parliamentary or local government candidates, or having allegiance to any political organisation situated abroad, shall be ineligible for affiliation to the party.

In practice, the interpretation of what is a faction is left in the hands of the National Executive Committee (NEC) who have not acted since the expulsion of the far left Militant Tendency. Until the late 1990s, there was the Labour Co-ordinating Committee which existed as a factional body. Slates are also organised for internal NEC elections such as LabourFirst and the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance and pressure groups like Progress give endorsements for party leader and London mayoral elections. It is clear that factional groupings still exist despite this rule.

A more practical solution would be the regulation of internal party factions within ALP rules. The PSOE, PD and Brazillian Workers Party (PT) are examples of parties that have clauses in their rules that officially recognise factions. They do this because they seek to be large broad-based parties which inevitably includes groups that disagree ideologically.

Under Article 4 of the PSOE rules, “currents of opinion” may be formed nationally:

Currents of Opinion is the group of participating members and affiliates of the same political criteria, in accordance with the Statute, program and decisions of the organs of government of the PSOE, developing its activity within the Party.

Registration occurs to the National Executive and requires 5% of members belonging to at least five different regional federations.

Under Section IX of the PT rules, members can also organise into “trends” that are registered under party rules. They are guaranteed freedom of expression within the party and are encouraged to meet in party facilities.

Similarly, the rules of Italian Democratic Party under Article 28 allow foundations, associations and groups to be established that promote ideological debate within the party and they can operate autonomously.

These examples demonstrate that many progressive parties recognise factionalism does occur and seek to regulate it rather than try to ban it and pretend it does not occur. These sister parties understand that broad-based parties have multiple ideological tendencies and like-minded members should be allowed to organise to promote their views.

The real problem within the Labor Party is the lack of competitive, fair elections rather than the existence of formal factions. Combined with greater party democracy such as direct elections for internal party positions and rank-and-file preselections, the regulation of rather than the banning of factions makes far more sense in a broad-based party such as the Australian Labor Party.

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