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.

Understanding the Labor Factions

A lot gets written about factions within the Labor Party in the media (and on the internet) with little understanding about the complexities and history behind them. While the factions are decried as the remnants of a Cold War divide, the reality is far more complex. All parties have factions and to claim otherwise is to be either naïve or deceitful.

The modern national ALP factions are actually an alliance of different state-based groupings, not proper national organisations.  This explains why factional discipline is often not as strong in Federal Parliament and often why state-based sub-groupings are most likely to vote together as a bloc.

A national factional system only emerged in 1983 after the formation of a national Centre-Left faction (ironically those associated with the Centre-Left were amongst the biggest critics of factions and continue to be so). The escalation of the “anti-faction” Centre-Left forced the state-based Left and Right factions responded with their own national organisations.

As the Australian Labor Party is a federal organisation, the true basis of power lies in each of the state branches. Other than the National Executive, the national office actually holds very little power. To truly understand factions, you need to look at how they operate at a state-level.

How each state grouping operates varies from place to place. For example, in many larger states such as NSW decisions are made along the lines of delegate-based voting, usually Conference delegates. The delegates tend to be delegates to the relevant state conference. In some other states, they operate on the basis of rank-and-file votes, primarily in the ACT and in Tasmania or if there is no union affiliation to a faction.

Within each state-based faction there tend to be sub-factions. This is the again the product of proportional representation. Each sub-faction may not have enough to gain positions on their own but combined their vote is enough to win positions. This leads to situations where, for example, the sub-factions rotate in having winnable factional Senate tickets spots.

How ideological factions are again varies from state to state. For example, in New South Wales, there is a tendency for the Left to be an Opposition, attracting a range of individuals who are not as clearly “left” against a governing Right machine that has controlled by the party since the Unity Conference in 1939. In part, this is due to the origins of the grouping. The Victorian Socialist Left was created under different circumstances to the Steering Committee (now Socialist Left) in New South Wales. Similarly, the Victorian Labor Unity was forged as a more ideological right-wing Opposition to the Victorian Socialist Left which can make the more centrist New South Wales Centre Unity seem “progressive” at times. Furthermore, Victoria had the emergence of a third group, the Participants (what has evolved into the Independents Group), something which did not occur in New South Wales.

The role of particular unions in each state is also a major factor as they are far more involved and influential in some states than others. The SDA is heavily involved in Victoria and South Australia which can be seen through a socially conservative streak amongst many elected MPs and even through Young Labor. The AWU is far more influential in Queensland (to the point that they have their own Right faction, creating a situation where two Right factions exist). The NUW is notably more active in Victoria where they have split from Labor Unity and operated their own ‘Network’ faction which was in alliance with the Socialist Left (but they are now on the outer due to the stability pact between the Socialist Left and Labor Unity). Traditionally, the AMWU and the LHMU (now United Voice) have been the key influential Left unions due to their size, however, in some states such as South Australia, the AMWU is not in the Left so the LHMU is the far more influential Left union.

Changes within the ALP happen due to splits, realignment or the disappearance of factions. The Left lost control of the Victorian Branch of the ALP due to a split within the Left but regained control for a brief period because the NUW split from Labor Unity. The Right regained control but then split, the so-called ShortCon fraction signing a stability pact with the Socialist Left.

The Centre-Left, which for many years held the balance of power at National Conference and on National Executive, has since disappeared leading to a Right majority at National Conference and on the National Executive in 2004. The last Independent Group MPs in Victoria lost their preselection after the ETU split from the Left and joined with Labor Unity in 2004. In other states such as South Australia, the Left and the Right joined up to replace Centre-Left MPs in the early 2000s.

From this limited examination, it is clear that understanding factions is not straight forward. It is an entangled web of history, control of institutions and personal relationships, tempered by holding power. Because of the different structures, personalities and culture, it is difficult to have a comprehensive understanding of each state-based faction without being a member. Thus any comments about the dynamics of factions by outsiders should be taken with a grain of salt.