Mapping the left-wing of global social democracy

Whether called factions, currents, tendencies or platforms, there are often organised and sometimes formalised left-leaning groups within or seeking to pressure social democratic parties. Within the Australian Labor Party, it’s the Labor Left but what about elsewhere in the world?

While factionalism does not exist to the same extend within British Parliamentary Labour Party, there are left-wing pressure groups such as Compass, Next Generation Labour and those much further to the left such as the Labour Representation Committee. There are others that organise slates for internal elections such as Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. In Scotland, there is the Campaign for Socialism.

In other sister labour parties, left-wing groups have emerged and disappeared. For example, inside Irish Labour, left-wing members established the Campaign for Labour Policies trying to outline an alternative to the austerity agenda being pursued by the current Fine Gael-Labour Coalition Government. In Canada, there was the New Politics Intiative that believed the New Democratic Party was moving too far to the Right and sought to integrate social movements into the party that disbanded in the mid-2000s.

Outside of the English-speaking world, left-wing groupings are far less known due to language barriers.

The German Social Democratic Party, for example, has a Parliamentary Left grouping that has existed since the 1970s and an aligned think-tank, Forum Democratic Left (DL21).

Other more factionalised social democratic parties have a more diverse range of left-wing groups that appear and disappear. Within the French Socialist Party,  there appear to be a range of other institutionalised left-wing groupings at a party and youth level. The main left faction appears to be Maintenant la gauche who have opposed Hollande’s austerity agenda. Another recent notable grouping to emerge is the Socialistes Affligés led by former MEP Liem Hoang Ngoc and university professor and Guardian columnist Philippe Marliere which includes those outside of the French PS who are seeking a possible “red-rose-green” alliance to force a left turn and avoid emulating PASOK.

Some other parties have recognised factions exist and incorporated their recognition into party rules. For example, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) has recognised the Izquierda Socialista or Socialist Left faction and even provides space on the party website. Under the Italian Democratic Party’s rules, groups can be established and can operate autonomously. They have been actively promoted as it has sought to become a broad-based party that includes all those from the centre to the left. The main left-wing grouping that currently exists is Remake Italy.

Given the known links between the moderate or “right-wing” of social democratic and labour parties (e.g. Labor Right and British Labour’s Progress) and the transfer of ideas via these relationships, the social democratic left should also seek to identity the “left-wing” of sister parties, build and strengthen these relationships.

UPDATED 16/08/17: The list would now obviously include Momentum but also soft left groups like Open Labour within British Labour.

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.