Category Archives: Party Reform

Understanding Labor beyond Sydney and Melbourne

A few years ago, the NSW Socialist Left celebrated its 60th anniversary and got historian Frank Bongiorno contributing a short history of the faction. I re-read the short history a few days ago and it got me thinking about the origins of the Left faction in other states.

While there is often much talk about rumblings within the Left faction, as I have previously written, the reality is that it is a loose coalition of state-based groupings. They are shaped by local factors and histories which mean they often disagree (as shown at the recent ALP National Conference) and even have their own sub-groupings. The state-based nature of the ALP also meant that the various factions did not all form at the same time and are very much creations of certain circumstances and local party cultures, something that is not well understood or analysed.

The NSW Combined Unions and Branches Steering Committee (as the Socialist Left was originally known as) was formed in 1954-55 to fight the Groupers, however, the Victorian Socialist Left was only formed after federal intervention in 1970. Elsewhere around the country, formalised Left factions were formed at later dates. For example, in Queensland, a formalised Socialist Left only established itself in 1978-79 around then Senator George Georges. In Tasmania, party reform in 1976 resulted in dominance by the ‘Broad Left’ from the mid-1970s onwards which became a formal faction in 1983. The ACT Left Caucus was not formed until the early 1980s. In each of these cases, a Left faction was instigated by local circumstances and those local factors meant that they were often ideologically and operationally quite different.

The experience of South Australia and Western Australia is different, in part because factionalism was imported from the other states. Until the 1980s, much of the rest of the party outside the East Coast was not factionalised. Two factors changed this. Firstly, in 1981, ALP National Conference approved the introduction of proportional representation for the remaining state branches. As Clem Lloyd and Wayne Swan pointed out in their 1987 Australian Journal of Political Science article ‘National Factions and the ALP‘:

Because the state machines could no longer control the composition of National Conference and National Executive delegations, a premium was placed on factional representation which transcended state limits.

Prior to then, the Labor Right did not organise beyond the state level and the Left only had a rudimentary national structure at best. Whoever already controlled the branch had complete control and there was limited incentive because it required complete control.

Secondly, it was the formation of proper national factions, instigated ironically by the creation of the National Centre Left in Adelaide on 19 February 1984, that led to factionalisation in states like Western Australia and South Australia. The Centre Left established itself in opposition to the factionalism of Left and Right factions. Lloyd and Swan explained that:

Lacking any prospect for winning power bases in NSW and Victoria, where existing factions honeycombed the ALP structure, the National Centre Left focussed its aspirations on the outer states which were largely unfactionalised.

Reflecting on all this, it becomes clear that whenever Labor’s past is discussed, it only really focuses on either Sydney or Melbourne or the going ons in the Commonwealth Parliament. It overlooks the importance of local factors in shaping distinct party cultures that do have an impact on national decisions. Labor still is a federation of state branches with alliances across state lines. The Labor Party is more than what happens in Sydney, Melbourne and the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. There should be more knowledge and discussion about these local histories such as the origins of local factions and political clashes to understand how and why things are the way they are.

We must be smart, open and modern to win

To succeed, Labor must engage with the world as we find it, not as we might want it to be.

Australia’s economy is in transition. We cannot ignore the rise of the sharing economy or the threat posed by climate change. We need to grapple with the revenue crisis engulfing our governments. The digital age is transforming our lives but how do we protect our fundamental rights to privacy? Longstanding policies on drugs are failing and leave a great social cost.

The Left welcomes debate on these issues and more. Strong and effective policy can only emerge from a robust contest between competing solutions. Labor, and Australia, need bold, innovative, tested ideas that address our most pressing challenges.

That is why the Left is supporting a move towards a broad-based land tax.

In a world where wealthy is increasingly concentrated and capital increasingly mobile, land tax offers state governments stable revenues to fund vital services. Unlike the regressive GST, it does not shift the burden from the wealthy to low-income earners.

Australia must leverage our existing advantages to achieve social outcomes. We need an industry policy that backs our world-class research and innovation as we transition to a clean economy.

We need to generate winning policies but we must also call out failed policy when we see it. The human cost of our drug laws is unacceptable. Drug law reform is long overdue.

Labor has a proud record when it comes to the big reforms – and in managing the impact of change in line with our equitable values.

But today in NSW there are self-inflicted challenges to our credibility. The community we seek to represent needs a modern, professional party. In some important respects, we fail that test.

Urgent reforms to our internal governance must ensure the utmost integrity of NSW Labor. We must remove factional cannibalism from Party offices. We must boost women’s representation at all levels.

But smart policies and good governance are no longer enough. There is a growing mood of discontentment with politics. As internal contests on both sides of the Atlantic have shown, there is a yearning for a more transparent, responsive and democratic politics. Labor must accept and embrace this mood or suffer a fate similar to many of our European sister parties.

The philosopher Robert Unger once wrote: ‘Whatever forces most credibly associate itself in the future with creation of the new, with energy, with vitality, will in the end command the day’.

For Labor to win the day, we must be a smart, open, modern party poised to respond confidently to the challenges of the future.

Originally appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of Challenge

Why a book from the 1980s should be read by everyone in the ALP Left

Published nearly three decades ago, Patrick Seyd’s account of the rise and fall of the British Labour Left is a classic of British Labour history. It details how the Labour Left transformed from being a weak minority in the 1960s to being the group that dominated the party in the 1970s, winning a majority and changing how the party permanently.

Seyd identifies a breakdown in the post-war consensus, shifts in the rank-and-file and factional organisation as key factors that helped Labour shift leftwards. Taking advantage of these favourable conditions, the Left was strategic in its decisions, built a broad base of support and organisational infrastructure and skilfully responded to situations and the ineptitude and arrogance of Labour Right opponents. For example, supporting UDSAW’s proposal for a three-section Electoral College to prevent MPs having 50% of the vote.

Yet despite the many victories, the new Left majority fragmented and fell apart over the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. The Left split into two groupings and an alliance of the soft-left and Right resulted in what became New Labour in the 1990s.

Though the book is nearly 30 years old and is about the British Labour Left, Seyd’s assessment feels familiar. Internally, conditions are more favourable to the ALP Left than they have been for many years: the right-wing of social democracy is bereft of an agenda, the Left has championed party reform and its base of support has grown to the point of near parity with the Right at ALP National Conference.

The book offers lessons on how the ALP Left can navigate and push for change in party forums by capitalising on disllusionment, organisational skills, using disputes to add force to its arguments and using to its advantage their opponent’s apparence of arrogance, disdain and ineptitude. According to Seyd:

“Victory was achieved because of a broad base of Party support, Left organisational skills and right-wing arrogance and ineptitutde.”

While there are lessons to be learnt from how the British Labour Left succeeding in winning the party, it is Seyd’s analysis of the limitations of their strategy and their failings that everyone on the ALP Left should heed. In his assessment, he identifies some key issues and challenges that the ALP Left also faces today.

Seyd points to the lack of strategic thinking by the Brtish Labour Left and its narrow focus on the party leadership. He highlights how the Labour Left focused on party reform (specifically the leadership) at the expense of broadening its appeal and developing a coherent programme that had contemporary relevance.

“To be successful the Labour Left needed to concentrate its resources on securing a coherent Party programme which dealt with both ends and means and a Party leadership committed and united behind that programme, and on establishing a solid and continuing base of electoral support. I have argued that the Labour Left concentrated too much on the question of Party leadership at the expense of the two other objectives.”

Seyd goes on to argue:

“The Left needed a coherent programme yet it displayed ideological uncertainty, programmatic weaknesses, and strategic myopia. The ‘revolutionary reformists’ lacked ideological clarity concerning the nature of democratic socialism which left them vulnerable to attacks from both the revolutionary Left and the radical Right. The nature and extent of collective ownership and provision, and the characteristics of socialist internationalism, needed to be defined and stated with conviction. The Labour Left still relied too much on Clause Four of the Party constitution with its commitment to common ownership and popular administration but did not make clear why and how this objective was relevant in the last quarter of the twentieth century.”

Arguably the ALP Left has fallen into the same trap. Direct election and party reform, while important, has been a big focus on the Left whereas a clear vision of what it wants and a coherent programme is lacking, something I have previously written about. The articulation of a clear vision and coherent policy programme rather than a grab-bag of issues is needed. The lack of it gives credence to the criticism that there is little difference between the Right and Left today.

Seyd also highlights another overlooked discussion within the ALP Left, that of praxis. Seyd notes how Left heros often turn out to be traitors once in power as they make decisions that the Left does not support. He argues that the “traitor” or “sellout” mentality was due to the Left’s unwillingness to examine the nature of political leadership and decision-making in detail. Seyd noted that:

 “…consistency in decision-making first requires a strategy for converting principles into practice…the Left devoted little time of thought to this question of strategy”

While Left leaders of the Parliamentary Labor Party have become more common, with almost all states and territories having a member of the Left as party leader, in most cases it has not led to a discernably more left-wing Labor Party in practise. Often they have overseen privatisation or other decisions that are unpopular with members of the Left. The hostility towards Julia Gillard and Luke Foley from parts of the Left for the stances they have taken come to mind.

The Left does talk about being in a party of government, not protest, but despite this praxis is something that is rarely examined. In part, it may be due to the Left’s success in increasing representation and holding leadership positions. Geoff Robinson has pointed out that with the Victorian Left assuming leadership of the party in the 1990s under Joan Kirner, “the Left’s organisation rise was accompanied by an intellectual retreat.” Reversing that intellectual retreat and going beyond principles to thinking about strategy and praxis will be necessary for the ALP Left.

Of all Seyd’s points, the most important (and biting) is his criticism that the Labour Left was focused inwards on winning resolutions and party Conference votes rather than the outward campaigning that is necessary for a radical agenda to be accepted. He states that:

“…the contemporary Labour Left was too much concerned with resolutions and too little concerned with revolution. To secure revolutionary change, as the Conservatives have since 1979 in areas of elite and popular opinion, requires a massive outward-looking campaign addressing the public in a manner and on subjects which concern them and not a small group of resolutionary ideologues.”

The Labour Left assumed that winning the party and adopting a left-wing manifesto was the main game, ignoring the public. It also failed to respond to the changing world and was increasingly seen as a throwback to the past rather than the future. As the philosopher Roberto Unger has noted “whatever forces most credibly associate itself in the future with creation of the new, with energy, with vitality, will in the end command the day.”

“The Labour Left concentrated on the Party militants and ignored the voters, assuming that an electoral majority could be mobilised by distinct ideological leadership. Today parts of the Labour Left continue to believe that this is possible, pointing enviously to Mrs Thatcher’s distinctive politics. Second, the Labour Left made little attempt to reinterpret and develop new ideas in a consistently socialist manner in response to events in the 1980s.”

He adds that:

“Most of the socialist passion still remains concentrated on internal Party affairs when what is needed is a credible socialist current within the Party arguing and developing its position with the object of re-establishing a socialist majority amongst voters.”

From Seyd’s book, three key lessons can be drawn for the contemporary ALP Left and the broader left-wing of social democracy.

  1. The focus on party reform and structure, while important, cannot occur at the expense of a clear ideological vision and programme.
  2. The importance of praxis and grappling with the challenges of being power need to be understood
  3. An outward focus is necessary. The Left must be willing to reinterpret in response to the changing world and it must engage the public on matters that they care about.

While it may be an obscure book in Australia, The Rise and Fall of the Labour Left is a book that should be on the summer reading lists of all ALP Left activists.

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.

Giving members of affiliated unions a vote in the ALP is not a new idea

Over the past few years there has been a growing push to change how the ALP-union link operates. The union bloc vote has been the target of many who seek to change the link. Their criticism is that it centralises power, particularly over pre-selections, in a handful of union secretaries rather than giving individual members of affiliated unions a say.

Rather than let union appointed delegates cast votes in pre-selections, a common proposal has been to give individual members of affiliated unions (who are not necessarily party members) a vote as part of an electoral college. It is an idea that has gained significant traction across the party with union leaders, former MPs and even pressure groups like Local Labor supporting the idea. What is mentioned far less, however, is that this is not a new idea.

Individual members of affiliated unions (who were not party members) who were on the electoral roll used to be able to vote in local ALP preselections along side rank-and-file members. The practice existed in Queensland until 1980, in NSW until 1954 and in Victoria until the Split in 1955. These “closed primaries” were widely advertised, this newspaper article about a Victorian ALP preselection from 1954 clearly stating that all ALP members and financial members of affiliated unions could vote and stating when and where the ballot was taking place.

One of the reasons that the practice was ended was because it was used to rort pre-selections. A piece published by the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History gave one such example:

Bob Holt, a former Minister for Lands in Victoria, claimed that when he was the local member for Portland, which he held from 1945-47 and again from 1950-55, local Liberal employers urged their workers who were members of affiliated trade unions to vote for him, regardless of whether they were ALP voters or not. These employers wanted a man from Warrnambool, where Holt lived, as their parliamentarian, and not a resident of Port Fairy, another town within the electorate.

Bradley Bowen provides a description of how the “closed primary” which was manipulated by unions, such as the ETU, in Queensland:

Before pre-selections, blank “certificate books,” which entitled each barer to a vote were given to trusted officials who used them to ensure the victory of favoured candidates.

It unlikely that these practices would occur if affiliated union members were given a vote today. Firstly, few, if any, are suggesting a return to one supporter one vote “closed primary” model. The experience of community preselections in NSW shows that the fear of organised entryism is overstated. The level of public scrutiny and likely backlash would also means that if any organised manipulation were to occur and be exposed, the results would be quickly overturned by the state Administrative Committee or National Executive.

But what this does highlight is that many of the debates about the party’s structure that are not new and neither are the reform proposals. It suggests that we should revisit the history of our party to have a greater awareness of past proposals and practices. Unless we do so, we are likely to be reinventing the wheel and overlook lessons the party has learnt in the past.

Labor must grasp this opportunity to inspire

Labor’s 2015 National Conference is the most important in a generation. Our party is at a critical juncture. The 47th National Conference must set the path both on policy and on internal reform.

After many false starts, real Party reform is now within reach, Now is the time to guarantee rank-and-file members a direct vote for not just the leader but also for delegates to National Conference and Senate candidates. Just as essential is the continuation of our equal partnership with the union movement, the largest social movement in Australia. This opportunity to inspire must not be squandered.

One critical Conference debate will focus on the need for Labor to build a credible economic agenda. As Tom Skladzien argues, that does not mean slashing spending driven by a ‘surplus fetish’ or the imposition of arbitrary tax-to-GDP ratios. Instead we must ask: how can government best pay for the services Australians need and expect?

A progressive fiscal policy for Labor must address the revenue question. This is an absolute prerequisite to realising the society and public services we want to deliver. Jo Schofield rightly points out: if we accept an ever-shrinking tax base, progressives will end up squabbling over the ever-decreasing pool of revenue.

So how can Labor fund the program as that Australians need? Richard Dennis’s outlines four progressive revenue-raising measures.

Labor cannot lock itself into a low-revenue future and nor allow itself to be cast as a pale imitation of the Coalition. As Nadine Flood points out, the ALP must advocate a positive case for the role of over meant as an essential enabler of future jobs and prosperity.

Conference will feature several other key policy debates that will shape Labor’s approach in government. Asylum seekers, marriage equality, a fairer tax system that tackles corporate tax avoidance, housing affordability and tackling climate change are all high on the Left’s agenda.

Conference will also debate Labor’s core objective. It is a debate that seems to have been mainly conducted in the conservative press. While the case for change has not yet been made, we should always have the confidence to debate Labor’s purpose. In that spirit, we are publishing two competing views on the socialist objective.

The British election proved that even incompetent and hated governments can triump on the back of cynical fear campaigns. Being the least worst option will not lift Labor to government. Neal Lawson offers two lessons from the UK election.

Labor must grasp the vital opportunity offered by th 2015 National Conference. Facing a federal election, we must demonstrate our evolution as a modern, democratic movement with a positive policy vision for the future.

Originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Challenge