This morning, The Age carried an exclusive story claiming the Labor Right had lost its ALP National Conference majority, based on internal party numbers. The possible loss had been couched in a Guardian Australia article and I did a rough estimate many months ago that suggested numbers would be close.
No final breakdown has been provided so it is unclear whether the Queensland Old Guard is counted in the Right camp or how close the margin is. The lack of a Right majority, however, does not guarantee that the Left’s agenda, particularly on reform, will get up, even with the support of unaligned delegates.
While The Age spins a tale of independents controlling the balance of power, it is far more likely that sub-groupings in the Left and Right will be courted to split off on contentious issues. They may be “bought off” by Labor leadership giving them concessions on issues they care about. Independent delegates are unlikely to be more than a handful at most and they are not an organised grouping.
Neither faction is a homogenous group and each is made up a number of sub-groups with different stances on a range of issues. On a range of issues, there is no factional consensus. Party reform is one such issue where there is no consensus on the detail. For example, the NSW Left did not bind on party reform proposals at the last NSW State Conference because left-wing unions could not agree to John Faulkner’s proposals.
For a pro-reform agenda to get up activists must be disciplined and strategic. Common ground needs to be found with left-wing unions and antagonising them by talking about how bad “union influence” is only makes reform less likely.
There are a range of possible reforms and actions that could gain broad support, including from the unions. These reforms could include:
- Cross-preferencing to ensure no Right majority on ALP National Executive
- Direct election of rank-and-file National and State Conference delegates by members (not by Federal Electorate Council or State Electoral Council delegates)
- Directly electing Presidents at a State level and giving them and National Presidents full voting rights
- Entrenching the direct election of Parliamentary leader
This is not an exhaustive list but they are achievable outcomes that will have a long lasting impact and help make the party more contestable. Arguably ending the Right majority on National Executive is the most important as it makes real reform of the NSW ALP possible through an intervention and will flow through to future National Conferences.
Rather than seeing this as a one-off chance to push for everything, the priority should be to ensure lasting changes that ensure that Right never has an absolute majority again. This Conference is a chance to make that happen. If that chance is lost, it may not be regained for decades. It means the focus should be on a set of changes that will bring together a majority pro-reform coalition that will support lasting change. That coalition will require left-wing unions as allies.
Activists should not get ahead of themselves. Making control of the party contestable is the most important long-term outcome that may come from this Conference. It means being cautious and willing to compromise as it is easy to peel off a few delegates and wipe out a pro-reform majority. Whether this can all be pulled off is yet to be seen.
UPDATE 24/6/15: Mike Smith previews National Conference and rightfully points out that the tight numbers and the leakage of votes are likely to lead to negotiation and compromise, not unaligned delegates determining the order of the day.
UPDATE 6/7/15: The Guardian quotes party sources saying the ALP National Conference delegate breakdown is 196 Left, 197 Right, 4 unaligned.