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.

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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