We are better than this

With inequality at a 70 year high and living standards stagnating, millions of Australians cannot afford another Coalition Government and nor can our planet. We urgently need a new direction.

We need to change the rules because they are are broken and rigged against working Australians.

We need an economic system that delivers for all Australians and reduces inequality, not one that just concentrates more wealth in the hands of the lucky few.

We need to reinvest in the essential public services that Australians rely on and halt the privatisation of our social security system that so many rely on.

We need to deliver a just transition to tackle the climate crisis while ensuring workers are not thrown on the scrap heap.

We need a Government that does not use the State to go after its opponents and take from those without power while showering as much public largesse as they can to their mates with little scrutiny.

What we have now at both a state and federal level are Governments run for the interests of the super rich, big banks and corporate Australia. They are Governments by organised capital, for organised capital.

The Coalition Government in New South Wales, shorn of some of the socially conservative extremism of its federal counterpart, shows what the Turnbull Government fundamentally is at its heart.

It is a Government that is addicted to privatising everything it can. A Government happy for the rivers of gold from a once in a generation real estate bubble to be wasted on vanity projects rather than schools and hospitals. A Government that has destroyed TAFE and disability services.

But Labor cannot take any election whether state or federal for granted.

It would be an arrogant betrayal of those who rely on Labor Governments. We should not, however, shy away from the fact that dissatisfaction with the Coalition has not translated into excitement for Labor. People are angry because the future does not look better. There is a yearning for positive ideas and policy proposals that address the everyday challenges they face.

Those on the progressive side of politics need to expand what is possible and show that only political involvement can deliver. That means fighting not for what is convenient but what is right and to fight to the end even if we might lose. It requires a party that is democratic and open to debates. Transactional politics and backroom deals that fuel cynicism will only be to our detriment in the long-run. Only the Left can do this and it is our responsibility to lead by challenging the status quo and making the case for change.

The next NSW state and federal election are choices about what kind of country and what kind of state we want to live in. Labor’s message has to be that Australia is better than this, that New South Wales is better than this. And only Labor Governments can deliver this.

Originally appeared in the 2018 NSW Conference edition of Challenge

It’s time the Australian Left got serious about transformational change

One of my big gripes of late has been that there is lots of focus by progressives on capacity building, campaigning tactics and strategies but far less on what changes need to be embedded to change society. When progressives are in power, the focus is often redistribution and providing more funding to services but often what is lacking is deeper thinking about statecraft.

What prompted my thinking was this piece in the New Socialist, written about constructing a new left political economy. In this moment of economic, democratic and ecological crisis, we should not accept tinkering at the edges and a repeat of the past. We need to think about institutional frameworks. Neoliberalism did not come fully formed, its seeds were planted to weaken the existing institutional structures and transform the country. Competition policy, restricting right of entry, new public management, contestability, separating policy and service delivery and allowing free-riding in collective bargaining are all examples of these neoliberal seeds that weakened collective institutions and gradually brought about privatisation. These rules, structures, policies and mindsets were embedded into our institutions and continue regardless of who is in power at the top. They are far more insidious than the overt use of state power by conservative governments.

Many on the Left tend to focus on redistribution and provision of service, the immediate need, rather than the political economy and institutional structures that exist as foundations. The rules and regulations that exist, the way state power can be used and the culture it enforces has massive implications. We need to think about what institutional frameworks are needed to drive the outcomes we want so we do not have to rely on those explicitly on the Left of politics being in elected office, particularly at state and local government levels.

Taxing and spending alone will not be enough to achieve outcomes like eroding away the commodification of housing and other public goods, inserting in new democratic norms into both the public and private sectors, industrial policies that provide training, genuine career pathways and economic development, helping to break up the oligarchies that control our economies, ensuring individual not corporate control over our own information, reducing precarity, changing how we approach care so we acknowledge it is work and decarbonising the economy. Raising additional revenue and more social spending is essential for a fairer society but it cannot be the limits of our imagination. We need to think about the seeds of transformational change at all levels. All the workshops and conferences about messaging and campaigning techniques cannot be a substitute for this. Calls to vague sentiments about a more caring, peaceful, sustainable society are insufficient.

Some more modest ideas are floating out there such as more creative approaches to central banking, employee representation on company boards, full employment underpinned by a jobs guarantee, large scale public renewable generation, campaign finance reform,  changing our industrial relations laws to strengthen workers’ bargaining power and taxing externalities like carbon and congestion but much more is needed.

Without this deeper, harder thinking and a transformative agenda, we will be like Sisyphus. We may make some gains uphill but are condemned to watch it go backwards once conservatives get into power and slash spending.

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

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

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.

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

Labor and the Greens

The recent Victorian election has been seen as a historic breakthrough for the Greens in the Lower House, winning two seats. The Greens now hold Lower House seats in five out of nine jurisdictions and have held a Lower House seat in every jurisdiction bar the Northern Territory.

The upcoming New South Wales election will be another big test. Will they hold Balmain and win Newtown? It seems quite possible that they will continue to hold at least one Lower House seat and will increase their Upper House representation to six.

While unlikely that the Greens’ vote will come close to the Labor Party any time soon, Labor supporters must realise that they are not going away. Though their vote has not significantly increased since 2010, their vote is likely to stay around 10% and the concentration of their vote inner city areas has strengthened (on the back of heavily resourced campaigns). They also have not had the baggage associated with government at a state level in NSW or Victoria. In Victoria, any unpopular decisions by the new Labor Government may mean further seat losses at the next election.

The question is how to manage this divided centre-left bloc of voters. Labor and the Greens see one another as competitors, fighting over the same votes, particularly in the inner city. The nature of our electoral system combined with compulsory voting tends to mean that it is a zero sum game. However, not all Labor or Greens voters would prefer the other party. It is worth remembering that at least 10-15% of those who vote Green wouldn’t vote Labor which can be important in close contests (as shown in Prahran). In a sense though, they both need each other.

With Labor’s declining primary vote, they are increasingly reliant on preferences from parties like the Greens and the more outlandish ideas from the Greens also allow Labor to position itself as far more moderate and centrist. The Greens, on the other hand, rely on Labor being in Government to achieve reforms and to chip away at their vote to build their own.

Some suggest that they should work together more often as greens & social democrats do in Europe, however the experience has been that both Labor and the Greens take a hit when they are in coalition or have a formal agreement. Results in Tasmania, the ACT and the federal sphere all have shown this. Each sees more to gain electorally in going alone.

Overseas, social democrats have accommodated green parties. Both Sweden & France have red-green governments, as do many states in Germany. However in Australia, the Greens are treated more like the post-Communist parties than the green parties of Europe. For example, critics of the German Greens have described them as “neoliberals on bikes” and many segments of the radical Left perceive them to be a bunch of eco-capitalists. While there are radical left critics of the Greens, this critique is far less widespread. The lack of a “Left Party” with the Greens taking on that role of a Left oppositional party (especially in NSW) is a partial explanation.

A regular formal alliance of Labor and the Greens is unlikely in the short-term, unless necessary in parliament, but the two different experiences of Labor-Green Governments in Tasmania and the ACT illustrate the conditions needed for constructive co-operation. Shaun Crowe has highlighted that resource extraction and social issues as the two big divisions. The lack of industries such as mining and forestry as well as the socially progressive nature of Labor (across Left and Right) has meant that clashes between Labor and the Greens have been relatively minor in the ACT. It makes the ACT an exception rather than the rule.

The reality is that a competitive relationship is likely to continue, encouraged by our electoral system, with any co-operation at a parliamentary level on an issue by issue basis. While Labor should treat the Greens as an electoral competitor, it needs to rethink how it reacts to them. The antagonistic way that Labor treats the Greens won’t help Labor in the long-run. Attacks on the Greens as small l-liberals in disguise, NIMBYs or “watermelons” may dissuade a few voters from the Greens and make Labor supporters feel better but for many these critiques do not resonate and in the longer run will alienate many more. Victorian Labor MP Kelvin Thomson was right when he said:

…our attacks on to the Greens is short-sighted and counter-productive. It dismays our supporters and delights our opponents. It elevates the Greens to equal billing with us.

Rather than continue with its current strategy for dealing with the Greens, it might be good for Labor supporters to heed Thomson’s advice that:

…if we seriously, genuinely, want to…return to a time when we didn’t need to talk about the Greens at all, much less talk about them as an existential threat, then we have to be tough enough to wear a certain amount of childish name-calling from our political opponents, and humble enough to give the voters what they want.

Why does the Progressive Alliance exist when there’s the Socialist International?

A question I’ve heard a few times is, why have social democratic parties have formed the Progressive Alliance when the Socialist International exists?

The lack of knowledge about why this has occurred understandable. Rank-and-file ALP members have no engagement with the Socialist International or Progressive Alliance, only those in higher levels of the party bureaucracy do. There is also a historic connection to the Socialist International as it is seen as the global institution of social democracy, the successor to the Second International.

The simple explanation is the Socialist International has ossified and is stagnant. It has become essentially a junket, and attempts to reform it have been blocked. It had amongst its ranks, dictatorial parties in North Africa, until international pressure forced it to act. It is symbolic that the President of the Socialist International is George Papandreou, former PASOK Prime Minister of Greece, and the General Secretary, Luis Ayala, has been there for nearly three decades. The criticism of the organisation has been such that the Socialist International felt the need to publish an open letter in response.

The pivotal moment was the Socialist International Congress held in South Africa in 2012.  A pro-reform candidate, former Swedish Social Democrats leader Mona Sahlin, ran against the incumbent General Secretary.

Prior to the Socialist International Congress, a piece outlining the agenda that reformers sought to get adopted was published. The reformers were primarily from European social democratic parties but also included the youth wing of the Socialist International, the International Union of Socialist Youth, which endorsed Sahlin.

One of the main problems with the Socialist International is the lack of involvement from major global centre-left parties such as Indian National Congress, the Brazillian Workers Party and US Democratic Party. It was also a structure conceived in the mid-20th century, centred around parties. Progressive Alliance was conceived as a network that could have complemented the Socialist International and engaged groups (not just parties) outside its traditional sphere.

Despite the pro-reform push, Sahlin lost 36-46 and reform has not occurred. Pro-reform parties have not quit but have reduced their contributions to the Socialist International and/or downgraded to observer status. The pro-reform parties then joined the Progressive Alliance when it launched in Germany in 2013 at the 150th anniversary of the founding of the German Social Democratic Party.

Whether the Socialist International embraces reform is yet to be seen. The financial impact of European pro-reform parties cutting their contributions may cause some change but the Socialist International seems to be trying to offset it by admitting many more members, regardless of whether they are social democratic.

It seems doubtful that in the short-term there will be any reconciliation between the Socialist International and reformers and it is likely that pro-reform parties, such as the Australian Labor Party, will engage with the Progressive Alliance rather than the Socialist International.

Portuguese Socialist Party holds open primary for Prime Ministerial candidate

Over the weekend, the Portuguese Socialist Party became the latest European social democratic party to experiment with open primaries. It held a primary on September 28 to select the party’s candidate for Prime Minister in the upcoming 2015 general election. The primary was adopted in June to address factional dispute within the party between the candidates after disappointing result in European elections.

The two candidates were Antonio Jose Seguro, the current General Secretary of the Socialist Party and Antonio Costa, the mayor of Lisbon. With an eligible electorate of 9,753,568, turnout was 174,516 or 1.8%, a similar figure to turnout in some of NSW Labor’s recent community preselections. Costa won the primary in a landslide with 67.88% (118,454) while Seguro received 31.65% (55,239). Following this result, Seguro resigned as General Secretary and an election will be held for the General Secretary’s position by mid-December.

In order to participate, voters had to pre-register to vote by mid-September. Voters who were not party members had to be on the electoral roll and had to sign a declaration supporting the values of the Socialist Party. Unlike other primaries in Europe, there was no fee to participate. The rules for the contest are available here.

Portugal now joins France and Italy as European social democratic parties that have used open primaries to select candidates. The next big open primary will be held by Spain’s Socialist Workers Party in November for its Prime Ministerial candidate. Given the lack of electoral success that many European social democratic parties have experienced in recent years, the increased use of open primaries is likely to continue into the future.

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.