Another world is possible, but only if we seize this moment

We are on the precipice of a moment of transformation. The orthodoxy of the last forty years feels as if it is exhausted and on the verge of collapse. What fills the vacuum is yet to be seen.

There is hope. The predictions of a calamity for British Labour did not come to pass. The public is tired of being told their future will be worse than their parents’ generation and they cannot enjoy what past generations took for granted: security, stability, an improvement in their material circumstances.

The British election had a global impact for social democratic movements. Here in Australia, many even asked who our home grown answer to Jeremy Corbyn is. That, however, is the wrong question and lesson. This isn’t about personalities or individuals – for progressives it never is. Rather the lesson of the British election for those on the Left should be to challenge what ideas we think are possible and to put forward a transformative vision for a better future.

The times call for a bold platform for a better future for the many and we must not hedge on it. We need to be unapologetic and hopeful. People are not happy with the status quo and established party systems are being overturned across the world.

The conservative side of politics has no answer to the crisis of housing affordability and the growing precariat, other than mindless appeals to xenophobia and the politics of division. They are in denial about the realities of climate change and comfortable with entrenched inequality.

Within Australia, inequality is growing. It is growing within our capital cities, with those living in rich and poor suburbs experiencing substantially different health and educational outcomes. It is growing as well as between urban and regional communities. It is a challenge that social democratic parties at all levels of government must face head on.

This moment is a time to articulate that another world is possible. Imagining a better future requires a dash of utopianism to consider bold ideas, as well as meticulous attention to the nitty gritty of policy and legislation. The Left in Australia is capable of both – but we must be smart, united and determined.

The alternative is to cede the future to a xenophobic nativism where the majority are pitted against each other, with an increasingly wealthy and disconnected elite making decisions about who is deserving and how to distribute the scraps they are prepared to share. The PASOKification that has torn apart sister parties in Western Europe is the future if Labor does not put the interests of working people front and centre.

It means a vision for better future for the generations to come, rather than the fear of a future in which our lives are worse than those of our forebears.

It means tax settings that fund the public services we need to build a good society that can stop the growth of inequality and ultimately make our society more equal.

None of this will happen naturally or automatically. It will require our ideas and our hard work. We have a better future to create and do not have a second to lose.

Originally appeared in the 2017 NSW Labor Conference edition of Challenge

Three observations about the Labour leadership election

For weeks Jeremy Corbyn had been expected to win the British Labour leadership race but the sheer scale of yesterday’s victory has shocked many.

While some thought it would go to a second round, Corbyn won in the first round with 59.5%. His closest competitor, Andy Burnham, only received 19%. It was a larger victory than Tony Blair’s in 1994 who won with 57% (although the selectorate was far larger in 1994).

It has left no doubt about Corbyn’s mandate amongst the Labour membership and the sheer number of registered supporters have quelled concerns about entryism.

Personally I am sceptical that Corbyn is the long term answer for Labour but neither were the other candidates. His victory does highlight, as Tim Lyons has noted, that the centre-left needs to deal with its inability to seek with moral clarity and a clear purpose. I can only hope that the disruption that his victory brings may force many within Labour to rethink and move on which it sorely needs to do.

There will be a plethora of thinkpieces about what Corbyn’s victory means over the next few weeks and months. It’s too early to tell what the long-term implications of his victory are but there are three quick observations I have from the leadership election based on the results.

1. The landslide victories were built on recruitment campaigns

Corbyn won 49.6% of the membership in the first round but he absolutely dominated the registered supporters section with 83.8%. The size of his victory amongst registered supporters is staggering but not a surprise.

Unlike the other leadership candidates, his campaign team actively recruited. Similarly Sadiq Khan actively recruited registered supporters and it helped to secure a landslide win over Tessa Jowell who was seen as the favourite to become the London Mayoral Candidate. She was well-regarded, had a good public profile and was associated with the successful London Olympics.

The moves by winning candidates to expand the selectorate reminds me of Canadian leadership elections. In the three major parties, members directly vote fo the leader and party memberships are actively sold to supporters during leadership contests by each campaign team. Those who can often recruit and organise the most supporters win.

The lesson for future Labour leadership elections will be the need for genuing organising and fieldwork and to bring potential supporters into the tent.

2. Union turnout was low

I have been sceptical of opt-in affiliation for unions and whether it would actually engage members of affiliated unions. While initial registration figures made me question my scepticism, the low turnout suggests that union member engagement, even amongst those who opted-in, was not high.

While turnout has not been officially revealed, based on those who registered to vote, only 48.2% of union members who opted in did. In contrast, 93.6% of registered supporters and 83.8% of members voted.

In the end, affiliated voters constituted only 16.9% of total votes (down from 27%) with 71,546. Rank and file members were 58.1% (up from 53%) and registered supporters made up 25% (up from 20%).

If there is no greater Labour Party engagement amongst affiliated union membership, it raises questions about what opt-in affiliation has really achieved beyond reducing funding from unions.

3. There will be a rethinking of support for primaries

The great irony of this result is that that the New Labour Right were the biggest advocates of primaries. They have admitted that it was an attempt to dilute left-wing member and union influence (through opt-in affiliation and primaries). Meanwhile the Left opposed the Collins Review that suggested recommended.

The problem is that their understanding of how primaries would work relied on America and the idea that a significant portion of the general population would participate. A better example to study would have been the party primaries run by the Italian Democratic Party (PD). The model was the same with a small fee and a pledge that voters needed to sign.

Academic studies have been done on participants in PD primaries, profiling them and their attributes. These studies found that participants have been more political than the average voter and more left-wing with no guarantee of party loyalty.

It is quite likely that the Labour Left will become converts to primaries whereas elements of the Labour Right will rethink their support. Already Dan Hodges has admitted that the Labour Right got it wrong.

There will be ripple effects here. It is likely to strengthen opposition to further democratisation of the Labor Party and the use of One Member One Vote being used to select leaders. Nick Dyrenfurth has already highlighted concerns about such a direct election model and is unlikely to be the only one to do so. The global trend, however, seems to be towards greater democratisation and primaries which poses a challenge for opponents.

Whatever does happen next, British Labour and social democratic politics will never be the same again after Corbyn’s victory.

Over 600,000 to vote in British Labour leadership contest

Early this morning AEST, the deadline to register to vote in the upcoming British Labour leadership election passed.  It will be the first time that a One Supporter One Vote system will be used.

With registration now closed, the Labour Party revealed the total number of people who applied to vote on social media:

In total, 610,753 registered to vote in the Labour leadership contest.

While some may be struck off the list of voters, it is a big number. It is 80% more that the number of valid votes (338,374) cast in the 2010 Labour leadership election.

Of the 610,753 potential voters, affiliated union members are 189,703 (31%), registered supporters are 121,295 (20%) and party members are 299,755 (49%). Interestingly affiliated union members will have a similar share to what they had under the old Electoral College model.

It is by no means a return to Labour being a mass party, the 1994 leadership election had 952,109 valid votes, but is a bigger than expected selectorate, particularly considering the membership fell to a low of 156,205 in 2009.

Ballots will start to be sent out from 14 August and the result will be announced on September 12. Polling has suggested the insurgent candidate Jeremy Corbyn will win, a massive upset to the party establishment.

The fallout is likely to be massive criticism of this new One Supporter One Vote system. Claims of “entryism” by the far left have already begun and there may be attempts to change the electoral system once again.

It is also unclear how sustainable this growth is. It is unclear how many registered supporters will become members, how many members will remain once the leadership election is over or whether the number of affiliated supporters will continue to grow.

Whatever the result is, it is clear that the high levels of registration will address a lot of the scepticism about opt-in union affiliation and whether registered supporters would join to be involved in party elections. Both seem likely to stay in one form or another.

UPDATE 26/8/15: LabourList reports that the number of eligible voters has been revised down to 553,954. The majority of these exclusions are because individuals do not appear on the electoral roll.

Based on these new figures, party members (292,973) will be 53% of the vote, affiliated unionists (148,182) will be 27% of the vote and registered supporters (112,799) will be 20% of the vote.

Only a small number of union members are opting into (British) Labour Party affiliation

I have previously written about the push to change how unions affiliate to the Labor Party. Currently unions affilate on behalf of their membership but there have been calls to change this so individuals must opt-in to be counted for affiliation. British Labour has adopted it and there are advocates within the ALP pushing for it to be embraced here.

The big question has always been: how many affiliated union members will opt-in? In the 2010 Labour leadership election, 238,618 union members cast a vote but over two million ballots were mailed out. Any opt-in process would mean the number of voters would fall significantly. Estimates had ranged from 25,000 to 80,000 but a recent news article suggests it might be lower.

The New Statesman has reported that in London, only 1,197 members of affiliated unions have opted in. To give some context, Labour’s largest affiliated union, Unite, has 200,000 members in London and the most recent publicly available data indicates that 21% of Labour Party members are in London.  With Labour’s membership now in excess of 220,000, affiliated union members seem likely to be less than 10% of the vote in the upcoming British Labour leadership contest.

There are still two months left for union members to opt-in for the leadership ballot with 12 August being the last day to register. It, however, seems that even 25,000 may not be reached considering Unite has only just started getting members to opt-in since the election.

If the number of union members that affiliate to British Labour for the contest is tiny, it seems likely that the enthusiasm for opt-in affiliation amongst many in the ALP will disappear. It is possible that it will evolve into a much clearer debate about whether the current labourist model should be ditched and the party should move to a One Member One Vote model. Each model has its problems and while “breaking the link” is often floated by those who decry trade union influence, the Nordic experience of cutting links shows that the result is not always predictable and may not be the best outcome.

Whoever wins in the British Labour leadership won’t really matter to the ALP but the number of union members who opt-in and participate in the election will. We should pay attention to the contest because it will shape the ongoing debate about the ALP-union link and whether the “labour party” model is truly dead.

UPDATE 16/6/15: GMB have said 10,000 members have registered as affiliated members and Unite is said to have similar numbers, however, Labour says only 2,500 have completed the process & paid a fee.

UPDATE 24/06/15: LabourList has been provided with the numbers of members and supporters. So far only 9,115 registered supporters and 3,788 affiliated supporters will be able to vote. Total Labour Party membership is 246,469.

UPDATE 12/07/15: Unite is claiming 50,000 members have opted in as affiliated supporters.

UPDATE 15/07/15: Unite has stated it is aiming to get 70,000 members to become affiliated supporters by August 12.

UPDATE 17/07/15: The Evening Standard is claiming it has seen figures suggesting 65,000 union members have registered.

UPDATE 12/08/15: The latest breakdown is 70,000 registered supporters (16%), 92,000 affiliated supporters (21%), 282,000 members (64%)

UPDATE 13/08/15: The Labour Party has revealed total figures of those who applied for a vote: Affiliated: 189,703, Registered: 121,295, Members: 299,755, Total: 610,753.

Blue Labour and the Left

Blue Labour has a bad reputation in left-wing circles. Many perceive it to be racist, conservative, patriarchal and anti-state, summed up with the view that it is about “flag, faith and family”. While there has been widespread criticism of Blue Labour by many sections of the British Labour left, concern not only exists in Britain. For example, I helped organise a Fabian Society event with Maurice Glasman, a key figure in Blue Labour, in Sydney and got the NSW Left to promote. There was some criticism that we should not be promoting such an event.

Understandably a lot of the hesitation comes from what people think of Glasman on issues of national identity and a perception that Blue Labour is about social conservatism. The framing of Blue Labour as a “radical conservative” tradition has not helped win fans on the broader Left. Many are uncomfortable with what he has said about immigration and nationalism in particular, dislike of how he framed the middle-class Fabian and working-class traditions of the political wing of the labour movement in highly gendered terms.

But to dismiss everything Glasman and Blue Labour has said is wrong and foolish. There is a lot from Blue Labour’s analysis to draw on and much of it is already in common use. For example, the idea of community organising and building a relational approach has already taken hold in parts of the Left here, most notably through the Sydney Alliance. Glasman has been heavily involved with London Citizens, the London counterpart to Sydney Alliance. Similarly, focusing on the common good is nothing new with Australian academic David McKnight talking about similar issues and using the same language nearly a decade ago.

Blue Labour’s focus on importance of relationships, place and work also has much to offer. They are all fundamental to personal identity and anchor our lives. Maurice Glasman has also championed ideas of mutuality, reciprocity, solidarity and community ownership, all drawn from important Left traditions that some argue has been lost.

Many in Left may feel uncomfortable with Glasman’s suggestion that it should ditch talk about equality. It is not because Glasman is opposed to equality but rather he argues for most people it is an abstract concept rather than being grounded in everyday life and common sense. This everyday politics and common sense has more in common with those associated with Stuart Hall and Marxism Today than the conservative Right.

Blue Labour also draws on Karl Polanyi, who arguably should be to social democrats what Hayek is to the free market Right, particularly his concerns about commodification. It is most powerful because its language about commodification is something that much of the Left has lost. It is the ‘moral critique of capitalism’ that historian Frank Bongiorno argues Labor has lost. The resistance to the dehumanising effect of the commodification of labour is a fundamental part of organised labour. That is the element of conservatism within the Left, resistance to the radical nature of free market liberalism. The Left has always sought to decommodify education, health care through guaranteeing universalism and rejecting basing value on economic benefits of decisions and actions.

In many ways aspects of Blue Labour could serve as a powerful and useful critique of the politics of the Hawke-Keating era and its top down, elitist and market driven politics. Nostalgia for those politics still runs deep despite it being the source of many of the ALP’s current problems.

While there is much from Blue Labour that is of use, there are many aspects I disagree with, most notably immigration and nationalism. Even supporters have acknowledged its shortcomings in Australia. For example, Nick Dyrenfurth has said this on immigration.

There are also questions about Blue Labour’s vision for the role of the state and communities. David Walker has rightly pointed out that while there is a focus on power, the two unanswered questions are: who pays? and what about professional skill? What happens when the community and those with expertise disagree? Windfarms and floridation are two immediate examples that come to mind. It is also unclear about who gets to define what the ‘common good’ is and how. It reinforces my belief that while Blue Labour has a strong critique but it does not offer a lot of good solutions.

I am also wary of Glasman’s idolisation of Germany. Mark Blyth has highlighted that the German economic miracle is far from one. It has relied on freezes in real wages, an increased labour force from the intergration of East Germany and the impact of the Euro making German exports more competitive. The German social market economy was designed afer the Second World War in response to the perceived threat of socialism. Its basis, ordo-liberalism, seeks a competitive enterprise economy.

Furthermore, he points out that not every country can be a Germany and run a surplus, some need to run deficits, just as for someone to save, someone else needs to spend. This idealisation of Germany risks generalising ideas, policies and institutions that cannot be generalised.

Blue Labour also seemingly has little to say about the challenges we face. It is unclear what it has to say about the impact of technology and how it is transforming the economy and society. Can technology aid its vision of strengthening relationships and a sense of place or is it disruptive? What are its implications of technology for the future of work and what does that mean for its vision? Then there’s challenges across the Western world such as climate change and an ageing population, let alone how to grapple with the waves of mass migration caused by conflict (and soon climate change).

If a Blue Labour approach was to be adopted in Australia, it is unlikely it would look the same as its counterpart in Britain. The historian Frank Bongiorno has argued that we had our own version Blue Labour through Mark Latham. I’m not sure given Latham’s tendency towards neoliberalism, albeit tinged with working-class nostalgia and contempt for anything associated with the New Left.

Whatever the future holds for Blue Labour, there are aspects of it that the Left can draw on. The Left should embrace its moral critique of capitalism which much of the social democratic Left has lost. Rejecting abstract notions and a focus on the everyday (place, relationships, work) to reconnect with people are also important. However, for all that it can offer, Blue Labour does not provide any answers to the bigger challenges we face in the 21st century and it is trapped by its own romanticism and idealisation.

British Labour leadership election is the first big test of opt-in affiliation

Following its shocking election defeat on May 7, British Labour will be holding an election for a new party leader. Unlike previous elections, there is no obvious candidate and the field is likely to be wide open. The Labour leadership election will be held concurrently with London Mayoral candidate and Deputy Leader election with results announced at a special conference on September 12.

Importantly, it will be the first Labour leadership election since the end of the Electoral College model. MPs and union members will no longer have separate votes. Instead, a closed primary will be run where members, individual members of affiliated unions who opt-in and supporters who pay a small fee will be able to vote in a One Member One Vote system. The timetable and process for the elections are available here.

The most interesting aspect of the Labour leadership election (for those outside of the United Kingdom) will be how opt-in union affiliation works in practice. It is the first big test of opt-in union affiliation, which Ed Miliband brought in last year and may shape the debate in Australia. There are already a number of high profile advocates of opt-in affiliation within the ALP.

It is difficult to estimate the number of union members who will opt into affiliation. In the 2010 leadership election, approximately 240,000 union members voted. Union members were all sent postal ballots which would have increased turnout. It has been estimated that only around 10% will be the proportion of trade unionists that will opt-in, but it may be lower. According to Labour Uncut, estimates of the potential number of trade union voters have ranged from 25,000 to 80,000. Some though are predicting that union members could cast more than half of the votes (250,000 out of an estimated 400,000 voters) in the contest, though that seems unlikely.

Concerns were raised, before the election rules were finalised by the National Executive Committee, about how many union members had opted in. Labour’s largest affiliate, Unite, has said it had only just begun signing up members. A longer race means more time for unions to engage with their members and get them to opt-in. August 12 will be the last day to join as a member, opt-in as an affiliated member or register as a supporter.

Whatever the result is, the level of participation by union members in the British Labour leadership election is likely to influence debate here about opt-in affiliation and how much of a say affiliated unions get over preselections and National Conference.

Issue-based organising in the ALP

One of the common themes in the party reform debate is the creation of a modernised party structure that reflects members. The argument goes that the current branch structure is a product of the 19th century and needs to be updated to reflect political realities.

The argument goes that politics is not necessarily geographically based and often focused on issues rather than a single cause. Many younger members are particularly turned off by branch meetings that can be very procedural and focus on local government issues. To address this, a structure that enables issue-based organising has been suggested as a way to revitalise the party structure.

There are three main proposals for formally incorporating issue-based organising in the ALP are: non-industrial affiliates, Policy Action Caucuses and issue-based branches.

Non-industrial affiliates

Unlike the British Labour, the Australian Labor Party does not have non-industrial affiliates. Part of that is due to the nature of the British Labour Party. It was formed by various affiliates including trade unions, the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society and individual membership did not exist until 1918.

In the British Labour Party, there are currently over a dozen affiliated socialist societies (non-industrial affiliates) covering issues such as health, education, Europe, vocations and representing various communities and groups within the party such as Jewish members, LGBTIQ members and progressive Christians. In addition, there are a range of non-affiliated socialist societies

The proposal to allow non-industrial affiliates to the ALP is not new and has been made by various people. For example, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen suggested groups like the Fabians and ACOSS should be allowed to affiliate in his recent book in 2013.

The big challenge with a non-industrial affiliate model is that they are independent organisations in every sense of the word: financially and operationally. Affiliation also entails membership fees and a levy that the organisation pays to the party in return for voting rights. They will need to charge membership fees or raise funds which will makes it them far more difficult to establish.

Policy Action Caucuses

At the 2011 National Conference, the Policy Action Caucus model was proposed by the Labor Right and incorporated into the party rules. The Policy Action Caucus was aimed at allowing formal recognition to party members organising around a common issue but not at the expense of branches.

To become a Policy Action Caucus, a group needed:

  • 30 financial Labor Party members (or some other number as determined by the relevant State or Territory Branch),
  • a patron from both the state and federal parliamentary caucuses, and
  • a statement of its name, objectives and rules, approved by its Administrative Committee

PACs have the right to:

  • promote policy forums in Party publications and bulletins,
  • put motions directly to Party conferences, the National Policy Forum, and State and Territory Branch policy committees, and
  • convene meetings and functions.

While PACs are given administrative support and are listed on application forms for membership, they do not get delegates and are not independent entities.

A number of states have incorporated PACs into their rules. In NSW, they have been branded as Labor Action Committees and include:

Others groups that may seek that status in NSW include:

There are also a range of other organisations that exist including:

  • Labor Friends of the Kurdish People
  • Poliversity
  • Emily’s List

My main issue with PAC model is that they do not have benefit of independence that affiliates have, nor do they have the benefits of a branch status. They are a compromise to formalised and incorporate groups that have been informally established and seem to be response to the proposal for non-industrial affiliates in the National Review. I also question whether they will be able to engage and recruit non-party members. I completely agree with Tim Watts who has previously said:

In order to make PACs work, they need to be taken out of the party hierarchy and given the ability to directly achieve outcomes without the fiat of the Party organisation. Both the organisers of PACs and their members need to be given both individual agency to organise in the advancement of their issues and a genuine incentive to do so.

He suggested a subordinate class of Membership is created that allows individuals to join not the ALP proper, but a specific PAC for a nominal fee and that PACs are given the right to move a platform amendment at ALP Conference if they can sign up at least say, 5,000 members to their cause (subordinate or full ALP members) and agree a specific motion within the group.

Personally I think affiliate model would be better suited to achieve these aims as there would be the incentive to organise and they would be able to operate outside the party hierarchy.

Issue-based branches

One other proposal that has floated around for awhile has been allowing the creation of issuesbased branches. A common argument is that many younger members of the party find their local branch meetings boring and the party loses their potential activism as a result.

In Western Australia, where there are no geographical restrictions on branch membership, direct branches can be formed around common interests. It has allowed the formation of vocational branches, a womens branch and Rainbow Labor branch.

The problem I have with issue-based branches is that it prioritises place or cause as the basis of party activism. Both are important to political success. While geography is not as strong as it once way in shaping our lives, formal politics is still organised geographically. Engaging with those who you live amongst but who you may not share common views is important and necessary. An either/or approach creates silos when both issue and geographically based organising is needed.

My own personal preference is allowing non-industrial organisations to affiliate. It allows them the independence to campaign both inside and outside the party and it means that individuals do not have to choose between geography or cause. There are drawbacks with an affiliate model, mainly operating and financing an independent organisation, however, it can be offset with the recognition of non-affiliated groups with the privileges that PACs currently get. The incentive of full rights that come with affiliation, including moving and amending ALP policy would be a good way to encourage potential supporters to join up (and hopefully become Labor members in the long-term).

UPDATE 07/08/2017: The Policy Action Caucuses in NSW have been quite opaque with no clear method of joining or participating. A recent Queensland Labor branch review issues paper gives a good indication of membership participation in Policy Action Caucuses. Branded as Labor Associations, membership numbers are:

Is opt-in union affiliation the future for the ALP?

In an address to the Light on the Hill Society yesterday, Senator John Faulkner called for a range of ALP reforms to be adopted. Along with Conferences being composed of 60% rank-and-file, 20% union and 20% Electorate Council delegates and the banning of binding, he called for affiliation to be an opt-in process by union members with all delegates to Conferences directly elected through proportional representation.

The idea of opt-in affiliation has been gaining traction recently. Greg Combet and Julia Gillard have both proposed opt-in affiliation in their recent books while Shadow Assistant Health Minister Stephen Jones MP previously wrote a piece for the Southern Highlands Branch newsletter advocating it and suggested it is inevitable.

Overseas, the British Labour Party agreed to move to an opt-in model in March with a transition period of five years. Irish Labour and the Canadian New Democratic Party also utilise an opt-in model. In the case of both those parties, the union member must also be a party member.

How does it work elsewhere?

Currently there are no unions that use an opt-in affiliation model in Australia. Some unions do not affiliate for their full numbers and at least one affiliated union has opt-out provisions. The main overseas examples of opt-in in Britain and Canada only provide some guidance for Australia as existing structures have been the product of particular historical circumstances.

British trade unions have separate funds for political activity (campaigning as well as affiliation). The existence of these separate funds are a legacy of Thatcher’s anti-union laws where unions are forced to ballot members every decade to continue funds for spending on political activities whether party political or not.

An example cited by British Labour leader Ed Miliband when he was making his case for opt-in affiliation was Unison’s opt-in affiliation model. It was created as opt-in because of the legacy of union amalgamations between affiliated and non-affiliated unions. Members tick upon joining whether they want to contribute to the affiliation fund, however, it is not always that simple in practice. Turnout in Unite’s recent ballot on its political fund was 18.6% which suggests the rate of opt-in affiliation might be around 15%.

In Canada, union affiliation occurred at a local level and unions never had the same role in the NDP as they did in the British Labour Party or Australian Labor Party. Founded in 1961 as a merger between unions and a social democratic party, the NDP gave the unions no block voting rights at party conventions or on the party executive and unions usually compromised 15-25% of Conference delegates. They are well-organised but very much a minority voice unlike British or Australian Labo(u)r.

Key issues

From a practical perspective, opt-in is doable but there a range of questions that will need be answered, most importantly, what are the rights of affiliated members? How will it be different to being a general party member? Should they get a say in who the leader or in preselections or officebearers? In Britain, affiliated members will get a say in the leadership ballot but not in preselections.

There would also be questions about directly electing union delegates under an opt-in model. For example, who will administer the elections, the electoral roll and what the rules will be around these elections. My guess is that it’s likely that delegates would be elected for multiple years and the elections would coincide with union election. The big question remains to who these delegates are ultimately accountable to. Are these delegates organisational representatives and should therefore be bound to decisions made at the union’s supreme governing body or are they elected as individuals? It is a broader question that will need to discussed.

Politically, a move to opt-in will be hard. Many unions feel that Labor only treats them as a cashcow and that this is primarily a attempt to weaken their influence. The move to opt-in in British Labour was agreed to on the provision that it would not reduce the overall union section of Conference. It suggests that any move to opt-in affiliation might only be possible if 50/50 was maintained.

Would maintaining 50/50 if opt-in affiliation is adopted be a bad thing? Not necessarily. It would rewards unions that put effort into organising their members. The fact that it is being phased in over five years does emphasise that any change will have to be gradual and there still are many issues to work through.

From the growing number advocates, it is clear that opt-in affiliation is a debate that will not be going away anytime soon and the ALP and unions will need to come to grips with it.

Queensland Labor rejects 50/50

Over the weekend, Queensland became the latest state Labor branch to embrace the direct election model for ALP leader. An Electoral College that evenly divided votes amongst rank-and-file ALP members, the State Parliamentary Labor Party and affiliated unions (33/33/33) was adopted rather than the 50/50 model.

Unlike the rules adopted by Tasmanian Labor, affiliated unions will have their Conference delegates cast their votes. Unions will be able to ballot, or otherwise consult with their rank and file members, an approach that New Zealand Labour has adopted. New Zealand Labour lets each affiliated union decide if voting will be undertaken by union delegates to Conference or amongst the eligible membership of the union.

This morning, the Queensland Secretary of the National Union of Workers announced that all union members would be balloted to determine who is supported. I imagine that most other unions are likely to follow, however, there is no guarantee that all will adopt this approach. During the 2013 New Zealand Labour leadership election, only one union, the Service and Food Workers Union, conducted a ballot of its members in determining who it supported.

Some unions may get their delegates to cast the vote but in the long-term, it may not be teneable and would be criticised heavily. A rule change requiring unions to ballot members individually and allocate the results proportionally, similar to that adopted at the 1993 British Labour Conference, is likely to be put up.

While the campaign for the direct election of leader has nearly won, Queensland Conference demonstrates that the battle over what model is still far from over.

Comparing the rules of labour parties

The successful campaign to directly elect the ALP leader has meant there is widespread knowledge about how sister parties such as the British Labour Party and the Canadian New Democratic Party elect their leader.

There, however, continues to be limited knowledge about other internal aspects of our sister parties. Given the continuing debate over affiliation, the selection of delegates and the election of officebearers within the ALP, greater knowledge of how similar parties operate would improve the party reform debate.

The following tables are an attempt to provide some comparative examination of labour parties in the English-speaking world. It covers who can affiliate, how the allocation of Conference delegates is determined and how party officebearers are elected.

The information in these tables is based on most recent publicly available information.



Party Who can affiliate? How affiliation occurs? Other relevant clauses
UK Labour
  • Trade unions affiliated to the Trade Union Congress or considered bona fide trade unions
  • Co-operative societies
  • Socialist socieities
  • Other organisations which have interests consistent with the Labour Party
  • Organisations may, subject to the decision of the National Executive Committee, which shall be final and binding, affiliate to the party. Each affiliated organisation must:
  1. accept the programme, policy and principles of the party
  2. agree to conform to the constitution and standing orders of the party
  3. submit its political rules to the NEC
  • 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.
  • The panel of the NEC responsible for assessing applications from socialist societies to affiliate to the party shall have regard to procedural guidelines determined by the NEC, which are available from the Compliance Unit
Canadian NDP (national rules)
  • Affiliation is open to trade unions, farm groups, co-operatives, women’s organisations and other groups
  • An application for affiliation must be made to the Executive and include:
  1. evidence that the organization officially supports the NDP and
  2. confirmation of the number of NDP members within the applicant organization
NZ Labour
  • An affiliate of the Party is any Trade Union or other organisation which has applied for membership, subscribes to the Constitution and Policy of the New Zealand Labour Party, and has been approved by the New Zealand Council
  • Affiliate membership shall be decided by a majority of votes cast of the affiliate and affiliation should be in accordance with the percentage of the votes cast. All members of an affiliate must be given adequate notice and an opportunity to vote on affiliation. The question of affiliation must be decided by either a ballot of the members of the affiliate proposing to affiliate or, in the absence of a ballot, by a method of formal determination that is certified as satisfactory for the purposes of proving proper procedures for formal determination of the question of affiliation
  • The names and addresses of members of affiliates shall be made available to the General Secretary of the New Zealand Labour Party for the purposes of inspection only, in connection with verifying the eligibility of affiliated members to take part in the constitutional processes of the party at electorate level. Such lists remain the property of the affiliate
Irish Labour
  • Trade unions, sections or divisions of unions that are not themselves group members, professional associations, co-operative societies and other organisations which subscribe to the Party’s Principles and Objects and accept this Constitution are eligible for group membership of the Party
  • Applications for group membership shall be made to the Executive Board. Every applicant for group membership shall make, through a duly authorised officer, a declaration that the group subscribes to the Party’s Principles and Objects and accepts this Constitution
Australian Labor Party (national rules)
  • All bona fide unions shall have the right to affiliate to the ALP
  • This right to affiliate shall not be impaired unless it can be demonstrated clearly that the relevant organisation is not a bona fide union or that the organisation has engaged in conduct that renders it unsuitable to be affiliated

N.B: Affiliation may change by the end of 2014 for British Labour, in line with the adopted recommendations of the Collins Report.

Conference delegations 

Party Rank-and-file delegation Union delegation Rules around delegations
UK Labour
  • 1 delegate for the first 749 individual members
  • 1 further delegate per additional 250 members or part thereof
  • Where the individual women’s membership in a
    constituency is 100 or more, an additional woman delegate may be appointed
  • 1 delegate per 5,000 members or part thereof
  • Where membership is less than 5,000, an additional woman delegate may be appointed if the women’s membership is 400 or more
  • Delegation should include women at least in the proportions in which they are represented in that organisation’s membership
  • at least every second delegate from a CLP shall be a woman; where only one delegate is appointed this must be a woman at least in every other year
Canadian NDP (national rules)
  • 1 delegate per 50 party members
  • 1 delegate per 50 members
  • Canadian Labour Council entitled to 4
  • Unions with at least 1 affiliate entitled to 2
  • Provincial federation of labour with at least one affiliate shall be entitled to 2
  • Each affiliated labour council with at least one local affiliated shall be entitled to 2
  • Union delegations are based on number of affiliate members who are party members
NZ Labour
  • A minimum of 4 plus one more delegate for every 50 members or part thereof
  • 1 delegate for membership not exceeding 200
  • 2 delegates for membership from 201-500
  • 3 delegates for membership from 501-1000
  • 4 delegates for membership from 1001-1500 with 1 extra delegate and vote for each additional 500 members or part thereof
  • No affiliate may exercise more than 12 votes unless it is represented by at least four delegates
  • All delegations comprising of two or more delegates shall ensure that women are part of their delegation
  • Any such organisation that does not must justify their absence and will lose one vote. If no acceptable justification is provided they will lose all but one of their voting entitlement
Irish Labour
  • 2 delegates for membership not exceeding 10 with 1 additional for every 5 additional members and an 1 additional for every 10 affiliated individual members
  • Constituency members (members in an electorate who aren’t in a branch) elect the number of delegates they’re entitled to as if they were a branch
  • Less than 50 members – 1 delegate per 5
  • Above 50 but less than 500 – plus 1 per 10
  • Above 500 but less than 1000 – plus 1 per 15
  • For additional members above 1,000 – plus 1 per 20
  • Delegates are elected by group members, in accordance with the following scale of individual members of each group member who are branch members of the Party
  • In any election of more than one member or delegate to Party Conference, not fewer than 30% of those so elected are women and not fewer than 30% are men.
Australian Labor Party (national rules)
  • 12 per state plus twice the number of electorates in that state as at the previous 31 December
  • 2 per territory plus twice the number of electorates in that territory as at the previous 31 December
  • In Tasmania, 50% are elected by members in a postal ballot and the remained by state conference
  • In NSW, one delegate will be from each Federal Electorate Council
  • No separate union delegation to National Conference, elected from State Conferences.
  • In all states, the state conference shall comprise 50% union representatives and 50% constituency Party representatives
  • Not less than 40% of a union’s delegation shall be women, and not less than 40% shall be men. Provided that if the level of male or female membership of a union is less than 40%, the minimum representation shall be set at that level
  • It shall be the right of each union to determine the criteria and procedures for selection of its delegates, subject to those delegates being financial members of that union and of the Party
  • All elections, other than public office, for three or more positions, shall comply with the affirmative action model. Not less than 40% of such positions shall be held by women, and not less than 40% by men, provided that sufficient candidates of the relevant gender nominate. If the calculation to determine the basic entitlement results in a fraction of one half or more then the basic entitlement shall be the next higher whole number, and where it results in a fraction of less than one half it shall be the next lower number.

N.B: Union delegate numbers may change by the end of 2014 for British Labour, in line with the adopted recommendations of the Collins Report.

Election of Officebearers 

Party What officers How are they elected?
UK Labour
  • Chair
  • Vice-Chair
  • General Secretary
  • Treasurer
  • The General Secretary shall be elected by conference on the recommendation of the National Executive Committee (NEC)
  • NEC shall elect its chair and vicechair at its 1st meeting each year
  • Treasurer elected by an electoral college of votes from members by OMOV and by affiliates
Canadian NDP (national rules)
  • President
  • Vice President
  • Vice President Labour
  • Treasurer
  • National Director
  • President, treasurer is elected by all delegates
  • Vice President is elected by caucus of delegates of the linguistic language group other than the President’s i.e. if President is Anglophone, Vice is Francophone
  • Vice President Labour is nominated by a caucus of labour delegates and ratified by the Convention 
  • National Director appointed by Officers and raitifed by Council
NZ Labour
  • The President of the Party
  • A Senior Vice-President of the Party
  • A Maori Senior Vice-President of the Party
  • An Affiliate Vice-President of the Party
  • A Pacific Islands Vice-President of the Party
  • A Women’s Vice-President of the Party
  • A Youth Vice-President of the Party
  • A Rainbow Representative
  • General Secretary
  • All except the General Secretary are elected by the delegates assembled at the Annual Conference
  • The General Secretary shall be confirmed by Annual Conference and hold office on terms and conditions agreed with the New Zealand Council
Irish Labour
  • The Party Chairperson
  • Party Treasurer
  • General Secretary
  • Chairperson and Treasurer is elected by the Party Conference
  • The General Secretary is appointed by the Executive Board, following an open competitive process conducted under the authority of the Party Leader and with the approval of the Board
Australian Labor Party (national rules)
  • President, Senior Vice President, Junior Vice President
  • National Secretary
  • Assistant National Secretaries
  • The National President and 2 National Vice-Presidents must be directly elected by members 12 months before each triennial Conference in a single ballot by proportional representation
  • National Secretary shall be elected by the National Conference and re-elected at every second Conference
  • Assistant National Secretaries elected by the National Executive/li>


The Australian Labor Party is the only party that does not include a clause to allow affiliation by organisations that are not trade unions in its rules. All other parties specifically allow affiliation by non-industrial organisations.

The ALP is also the only party that has a fixed proportion of union delegates on Conference floor. Elsewhere, more members increases the size of Conference and the size of union and rank-and-file delegations are not automatically linked. Almost all others have a system where delegations are tied to the number of members (union and party). Depending on the exact rules, union delegations range from between 20% to 50% of Conference floor.

The Canadian NDP and Irish Labour also differ from other parties as the number of delegates from affiliates is based on the number of individual members of the party who are affiliate members. Both, however, are third parties, not one of the major parties in their parliamentary party system.

Interestingly, Australian Labor Party is alone in having the direct election of officebearers. All other parties elect their officebearers through Conference delegates or through the National Executive (or equivalent) of their party.

What this comparative exercise shows is that the ALP’s internal structure operates very differently from other labour parties in the English-speaking world. These differences should be acknowledged and understood when debating party reform to ensure a more informed discussion occurs.