What is the factional breakdown at Labor Conferences?

A fortnight ago was a historic occasion for the Queensland Labor Party. For the first time ever, the Left faction had a majority of Conference delegates in their own right.

A change in balance of power at party conferences can have big implications for the party rules, who controls the party machine, preselections and delegates to National Conference (which in turn determine the National Executive).

The most notable changes in balance of power have occurred in Victoria. For many years after “the Split”, the Left had a majority at Conference. Splits and realignment amongst unions meant that the Left lost this majority in the 1990s. A realignment in the early 2000s meant that the Left ruled in coalition with the National Union of Workers (NUW) before the NUW rejoined the Right. The Right then split again in 2009 and sub-grouping aligned to Shorten and Conroy (ShortCons) formed a "stability pact" with the Left which continues to today (with the SDA back in the tent with the ShortCons).

The table below outlines who has a majority in each state branch and federal with a rough estimate of factional delegations at each Conference:

Jurisdiction Conference breakdown Who forms the majority?
National Labor Right: 52% Labor Left: 48% Labor Right majority at Conference & on Executive
NSW Centre Unity: 60% NSW Left: 40% Centre Unity majority
Victoria Socialist Left: 37% Labor Unity (ShortCons): 24% SDA: 21% NUW: 8% Independent (Ferguson) Left: 5% Union and Community Alliance: 2% Victorian Independents Group: 1% Stability Pact between Socialist Left and Labor Unity-SDA
QLD The Left: 50% Labor Forum 40% Labor Unity 10% The Left-Labor Unity alliance
WA Broad Left: 65% Labor Unity: 30% Unaligned: 5% Broad Left majority but cross-factional deals are made by sub-factions
SA Labor Unity: 45% Progressive Left Unions and Sub-branches (PLUS): 35% Others (including remnants of the Progressive Labour Alliance industrial bloc): 20% Labor Unity supported by 'Others'
TAS Broad Left: 70% Labor Unity: 20% Unaligned: 10%
ACT Left Caucus: 51% Combined Right (Centre Coalition, Labor Unity): 35% Others (ACT Independents & unaligned): 14% Left majority
NT The Left: 60% Labor Unity: 40%

The table shows that the Right has a majority in three branches (Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia) while the Left is dominant in the other smaller branches.

Things become far more interesting when you apply the state Conference proportions to delegations to ALP National Conference for a rough estimate.

Left Delegates Total Delegates
National Presidents 2 3
FPLP Leaders 2 4
AYL 1 3
FPLP 3 6
NSW* 43 109
NT 3 7
ACT 4 7
QLD 37 73
SA 13 35
Tas* 17 23
Vic 40 87
WA 27 43
Total 191 400

* Tasmania and NSW direct elect some National Conference delegates

What becomes clear is that it will be impossible to end the Labor Right’s absolute majority at Conference and on the National Executive without a shift in delegations from NSW. An absolute majority has been held by the Right following the 2004 ALP National Conference when the remnants of the Independents Alliance collapsed and seceded its balance of power role.

Unlike every other state or territory, NSW has no element of proportionality in its election to State Conference. The gerrymander has meant that the balance of power has not shifted despite national intervention in 1971 and in 2013. Recent One Member One Vote ballots held in NSW for the State and National Policy Forum have resulted in the Left electing equal numbers of candidates to Centre Unity if not beating them.

The road to a truly democratic party, one that is not dominated by the Labor Right, lies through reforming the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party and changing the balance of power at National Conference.

UPDATE 13/03/15: Since this post, the Independent (Ferguson) Left has reunified with the Victorian Socialist Left.

UPDATE 06/04/17: The movement of the MUA and CFMEU from the Broad Left to a new Progressive Labor faction with right-wing unions will result in changed numbers for Western Australia.

UPDATE 31/07/17: The industrial bloc, bits of PLUS and one of the CEPU have formed an Active Left faction.

Labor needs a culture of ideas

Keynes in his General Theory famously wrote: ‘Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.’

For Labor, his words are a reminder we need to reform our ideas, not merely our rules.

Challenge aims to foster this debate and to create a culture within Labor that puts real discussion about policy front and centre.

The need to challenge the increasingly radical agenda of the Coalition makes this all the more urgent. Their agenda is pre-planned and well-organised, inspired by zealots from the Institute for Public Affairs and donors with deep pockets expecting high rewards.

A culture of ideas can only be achieved by engaging in discussion both within and outside the Party. External expertise has always been vital to the Labor agenda. The original Medibank, introduced by the Whitlam Government, was conceived and designed by health economist John Deeble and his colleague Richard Scotton.

In that spirit, Richard Denniss from The Australia Institute tackles the big challenge of how to fund our social program while still balancing the budget. His analysis lays bare one of the key debates inside Labor in the lead up to National Conference, how can we honestly accept the current level of taxation as a proportion of GDP given Labor’s aspirations for the size and role of Government?

Our search for the best ideas must also have an international lens. Our counterparts across the globe face similar challenges. We look to them for ideas and inspiration. Mark Ferguson outlines some of the radical reforms that the British Labour Party has undertaken as it approaches the 2015 General Election.

As a party of government, Labor can never forget the critical need for ideas that capture the imagination. We need to give people hope about the Labor project and a vision of what Labor will bring to government. The lessons of 1972, 1983 and 2007 are that a positive agenda, full of ideas, is necessary for Labor to win.

In the quest for a Labor culture of ideas, Challenge applauds the great work happening elsewhere, including by the Fabians and the Chifley Research Centre. The NSW Left’s own Annual Bruce Childs Lecture provides a new forum for sustained analysis. The Left will continue to champion a Party culture where debate about ideas and policy is as crucial as discussions about party rules.


Originally posted at Challenge Magazine

Tasmanian Labor to directly elect its leader

The Tasmanian branch of the Australian Labor Party has become the first state branch to announce that it will directly elect its next parliamentary leader.

Media reports suggest that a three way contest is likely and that current Deputy Leader Bryan Green is being urged to run by the dominant Left faction. Lara Giddings has indicated she would like to stay on as leader and there are suggestions that Brian Wightman may be another contender. All are members of the Labor Left faction.

Unlike the direct election of the federal Labor leader, a three section Electoral College will be used. A third of the vote allocated to the State Parliamentary Labor Party, a third to rank-and-file members and a third to individual members of affiliated unions. Those who join the ALP before April 10 will also be allowed to vote in the ballot.

Tasmanian Labor amended its party rules in 2012 to allow the direct election of party leader. The rules passed at the Tasmanian Labor Conference were that:

17.3   Following every House of Assembly election where the Party forms Government or at other times when in Government, the SPLP shall elect its Leader and Deputy Leader, Parliamentary Office holders, its Chairperson, and Ministers. The Leader shall allocate portfolios.

Subject to an amendment of the National Principles of Organisation Part C 4, the ALP Tasmanian Branch Party Rules shall allow for the direct election of the Leader of the State Parliamentary Labor Party (SPLP) when in Opposition, by Party Members, rank and file Members of Union Affiliates and the Elected Members of the SPLP consistent with the democratic practices of other social democratic, socialist and labour parties around the world. The three constituent components in such an election will be equally weighted at 1/3 of the total ballot.

(a) Upon Rule 17.3 being adopted the ALP Tasmanian Branch shall develop further rules to allow for its implementation.

The further rules agreed to were:

 (a)  The Leader of the SPLP when in Opposition shall be elected by a ballot, with the electorate comprising three constituent components, each to be equally weighted at 1/3 of the total ballot.

(b) The three constituent components of the electorate will comprise;

(i) Every financial member of the Tasmanian branch of the ALP who meets the requirements of Rule 2.11(a),

(ii) Every financial member of an affiliated trade union provided that person has been a member for at least 6 months and,

(iii) The Members of the State Parliamentary Labor Party.

(c) Members who are entitled to vote in more than one of the three constituent components shall be entitled to vote in any or all segments of the ballot for which they are entitled to vote.

(d) A vacancy in the leadership may be declared by:

(i) The incumbent Leader or,

(ii) Following the petition of a simple majority of members of the SPLP for a ballot to the State Returning Officer; and in such case, the State Returning Officer shall open nominations for the position for a period of 48 hours and,

(iii) A vacancy occurring for any other reason.

(e) During any vacancy for the leadership the SPLP shall elect an Acting Leader who is not a candidate for the leadership.

(f) The ballot of eligible members of the Tasmanian Branch of the ALP and affiliated trade unions shall open 30 days after the close of nominations.

(g) The ballot of eligible Members and members of affiliated trade unions shall be conducted by postal ballot using a double envelope system.

(h) The ballot period shall be a minimum of 10 working days to a maximum of 20 working days as determined by the State Returning Officer.

(i) On the final day of the ballot period a special meeting of the Members of the SPLP will be held to conduct that constituent component of the ballot.

(j) The balloting will be conducted under the full compulsory preferential system of voting within each component of the ballot.

(k) A leader will be declared elected after carrying a simple majority of all weighted ballots cast after the distribution of preferences.

(l) The Party may call a special meeting of the membership, affiliated unions and SPLP to announce the Leader of the State Parliamentary Labor Party.

(m) Following the election of the Opposition Leader the SPLP shall elect its Deputy Leader, Parliamentary Office holders, its Chairperson, and Shadow Ministers. The Leader shall allocate portfolios.

The contest will provide the first opportunity to compare and contrast how a 33/33/33 operates against the 50/50 contest held for the federal leader last year. What will be most interesting is how the union component of the ballot operates. The level of turnout by union members, existence of multiple ballots and also the role of union endorsements on the final result will be heavily scrutinised by critics of the 33/33/33 model.

Regardless of who wins, how this Tasmanian Labor leadership election goes will influence arguments for and against each model for direct election of a party leader and is worth keeping an eye on.

UPDATE 2/4/14: There will not be an election for the Tasmanian Labor Party leader as Bryan Green was the only candidate and was elected unanimously.

What is the point of the Labor Left?

There has been a fair bit of controversy both outside and within the Labor Left over NSW Upper House MLC Luke Foley and his stance on marriage equality. He isn’t the only one. At the federal level, a number of Left MPs in NSW and Victoria voted against marriage equality to the dismay of rank-and-file members of the Labor Left.

Undoubtedly marriage equality is an important issue for the Labor Left and one that I, like many others, support. The Left has led the case for marriage equality within the ALP but it does not have a monopoly over the issue of marriage equality. It is important but it is not the sole defining issue. It seems that the actions of some MPs are so unsettling because support seems to be linked to the identity of being in the Labor Left. Is what defines the Labor Left so fragile that it can come down to a single issue? The bigger question it leads to is what defines the Labor Left, what is its ultimate aim?

Socialism is not one of its defining purposes anymore, at least publicly it seems. It has been a long time since any prominent members of the Left have talked about socialism. The Left shies away from it, for example, the NSW Left does not refer to itself as the Socialist Left anymore (though in Victoria the name remains). While there are socialists in the Left, the Left is not necessarily socialist in its aims or language.

Equality and social justice are often put forward as aims but are they explicitly Labor Left ideals? Equality can be supported by liberals, social justice can be supported by conservatives. Both are often articulated by the Left in terms of social issues but on many social issues and even on party reform, the divide is not necessarily Left-Right, particularly amongst younger members. Stances on refugees and marriage equality, two issues strongly associated with the Left, aren’t necessarily determined by faction as we’ve seen by the votes on marriage equality and those who have spoken out about refugees like Anna Burke.

On most policy matters, the Left often argues for more money for public services and opposes privatisation and deregulation but are any of those actually a distinctly Labor Left position? Parts of the union Right and non-aligned members share those views.

If anything the current purpose of the Labor Left seems to be generally opposing power for the sake of power, more internal party democracy and a willing to speak out, be more critical and work with social movements unlike the Right. That is not a good enough end in itself (and a problem when discipline does re-assert itself e.g. on refugees under Rudd). A focus on process and means is no substitute for a long-term defining goal. Without a goal, when in power, aimlessness will creep in. The crisis of social democratic parties has been the lack of such a goal since the late 80s. In many ways the crisis of ideas in social democratic parties is most keenly felt on the left-wing of those parties as they are not as willing to embrace neoliberal and conservative ideas.

There are no shortage of problems that the world faces. As Neal Lawson has pointed out there are crises of climate change, inequality and of democracy itself. The world is also different to that which the Labor Left formed in. Capital has gone global, consumerism has become embedded and we have a more horizontal approach to involvement in civil society. Solving these crises and adapting to the new era require knowing what you want instead and how you will get there. The Labor Left must outline this and have confidence to confront these doubts.

To really challenge the view that the factions are merely a product of the Cold War and are now meaningless, there is a need for the Left to sketch out what transformative change is wanted when Labor is in power. It cannot occur just through moving motions at Labor Conferences and branch meetings but about articulating a vision of society and building alliances with groups inside and outside the party.

The Left needs to articulate the limits of the market and the good society that it wants. It needs to break out of the language of economism and talk about what as a society we want to prioritise and why. It needs to sketch out what kind of equality and what kind of social justice in concrete terms. It needs to spell out how to encourage participation, deliberation and openness, strengthen society by addressing pressures like growing insecurity and inadequate work/life balance and challenge the commodification of our everyday lives. To put it more simply, it needs to pursue what the political economist Karl Polanyi defined as socialism:

…essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilisation to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to democratic society

That should be the defining aim, the point of the Labor Left, to prioritise democratic society over the market. To achieve this, it needs a long-term agenda as a starting point.

An agenda should be developed by the Left outlining what its priorities, its hopes and what it wants but it also must reach out to others who share similar ideas. The Labor Left on its own cannot win inside or outside Labor. Tribalism is deeply ingrained in Labor politics but as less and less people become involved, a more open and plural approach is increasingly necessary to establish a longer settlement. It means building coalitions and trust with those who share some of your goals and trying to move beyond fractionalism. Without it, the working majority needed to win will not exist. Any agenda cannot therefore be overly prescriptive but focus on some themes and put forward ideas that can build a majority with the Left leading it.

The point of the Labor Left must be that it does not just oppose but seeks power to bring about transformative change. A long-term agenda must be a starting point but the goals that are set will only be achieved through a more pluralistic, less tribal and more open approach to politics. The alternative is aimlessness and a base that continues to be eroded away by challengers on its left flank.

Left takes the lead on Australian Young Labor Reform

One area in desperate need of reform that does not receive enough attention is Young Labor. I have previously written about the need to reform Young Labor. It operates in a way that is detrimental to our movement and shapes a toxic, machine driven culture within the Labor Party. It has been treated as a sandbox for far too long and been ignored when party reform is discussed.

Positively, the National Young Labor Left is showing signs that it wants to take a national Young Labor reform agenda seriously and have recently published a discussion paper on how to reform Australian Young Labor.

Proposals include direct election of all positions through a One Member One Vote (OMOV) postal ballot, consistent eligibility across the country, autonomous elections of Women’s Officer and other positions, reforming the structure of Australian Young Labor conference and making Young Labor a more independent entity.

There are some healthy Young Labor branches. It is no surprise that healthier branches such as Tasmania have used OMOV for a considerable time. Others that have recently adopted it such as Queensland have seen higher turnout, attempts to engage non-aligned members and a more proportional outcome.

Victoria has also attempted to reform Young Labor, the move to reform it only failing because there was no absolutely majority at the last Victorian Conference due to SDA opposition.

NSW Young Labor unfortunately appears to be the major hold out. It is absurd that members are able to directly elect the ALP National President (and soon the party leader) but not the NSW Young Labor President or the rest of the NSW Young Labor Executive. They continue to be elected through a Conference modelled on ALP Conferences based on equal branch delegates and affiliated unions, something no other Young Labor branch does. It is effectively a rigged system (established after the NSW Right takeover in the early 90s) that removes possibility of the Right losing power.

It is a good sign that Victoria and Queensland, states where the Left does not have a majority, have accepted the need for Young Labor reform. New South Wales and the national body will not be able to hold out from the tide of OMOV forever. The sooner that OMOV and reform is accepted, the better for Young Labor and the ALP more broadly.

A lack of trust is the greatest barrier to Left unity

Despite harbouring some doubts, I spent last weekend at the National Left Renewal Conference, organised by the SEARCH Foundation.

The stated aim of the conference was to build greater unity amongst the broader Left and there were participants were from a broad range of groups including left-wing unions, parts of the environmental movement, the Labor Left, the Greens as well as some far left groups.

While there were some good sessions (hearing from Kosta Isychos of SYRIZA was a highlight) something bugged me throughout the Conference. No one actually addressed the biggest obstacle to any Left unity: a lack of trust.

During the final plenary, many speakers spoke about how “the Left” could agree on a programme and that we needed to create framework to unify the Left against Abbott and the Coalition. The proposal of a network to help create an alliance to co-ordinate the Left was raised. Personally I am sceptical that a network will emerge, let alone co-ordination, without addressing this fundamental issue of trust.

Trust is the starting point for unity. If you do not trust someone, it is hard to work with them, even if you agree on many things. Without trust, the Left cannot be united and there was no evidence of any trust during the Conference. There were digs at the Greens, an inference that it would be great if the ALP collapsed like PASOK, shopping lists about how terrible Labor is and how they were barely any difference from the Liberals. My impression was that many participants seemed more interested in talking at each other than having any honest and uncomfortable conversations.

A major cause of the lack of trust between Left groups is electoral. Doug Cameron pointed out the difficulties in creating unity when growth either comes at the expense of Labor or the Greens. It is a zero sum game that fuels a lot of the tensions. Anything less than greater proportional representation is unlikely to change this situation. However, even where proportional representation does exist, such as in local councils, it is no guarantee that the antagonism will disappear.

Trust does not happen overnight and will not happen in six months. There are, however, some hopeful signs for the longer term, most notably co-operation between Labor Left, Greens and broader Left activists on campuses. It is those kinds of working relationships that will be the basis of any future Left unity, not some framework that an outside organisation tries to establish.

I haven’t yet concluded whether the Conference was a wasted opportunity or at least the beginning of a conversation that many need to have about pluralism on the Left. I guess only time will tell.