What happens when a labour party cuts union ties?

Earlier today, the Fairfax press revealed that Paul Howes, the outgoing Australian Workers Union National Secretary, has come to the view that Labor and the unions should sever their links. While the idea of ending the link is often floated, real world examples of parties ending their union link have rarely been examined by political commentators in Australia.

It is worth remembering that all labour parties in the major English-speaking Westminster democracies continue to have a formal union link. How the link operates varies from country to country but in Britain, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland, unions remain affiliated to their labour party. The Nordic social democratic parties (Sweden, Norway, Denmark), however, provide examples of what may happen if a labour party ends its union link. Each party had formal links to their LO (blue-collar trade union federation) until recently but their current relationship differs significantly from country to country.

Of all the Nordic parties, the Swedish Social Democrats have the strongest continuing ties. While they ended their formal link with the LO in 1991, ties between the party and the unions remain quite strong, as shown by the election of a former trade union leader, Stefan Lofven, as party leader. Unions are heavily involved in election campaigning for the Social Democrats and they co-ordinate election efforts. Unions are still represented at the local level, the head of the LO is elected to the party Executive and unions provide party funding.

The Norwegian Labour Party formally ended affiliation by the LO in 1997 but continues to have ties, albeit weaker than their Swedish counterparts. While they are completely separate, cooperation between the two is formally organised through a joint committee made up by the leadership of the party and LO, which meets on a weekly basis. Like in Sweden, the head of the LO is elected to the party Executive and unions still donate to the party. While there is no local representation, there has been the encouragement of joint committees between party branches and local unions.

The relationship between unions and the Danish Social Democrats is the weakest with ties being completely broken in 2002. Unlike Sweden and Norway, ties between the party and the unions are almost non-existent, the head of their LO is not represented on the party Executive and there is no financial support from unions to the Social Democrats.

A good comparative paper from 2010 on the relationship between these Nordic social democratic parties and the trade union movement is available here.

While it is hard to predict exactly what would occur if formal links were ever cut in Australia, it is worth examining what has happened in the Nordic countries and what has shaped the current relationship between their social democratic parties and unions.

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.

Spanish Socialists (PSOE) experiment with primaries

Last month, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) became the latest social democratic party to adopt open primaries. The primaries will be for their Prime Ministerial candidate at the next Spanish election in 2015.

Under the PSOE primary rules, the primary would be open to all Spanish citizens aged over 16. There would be a month to register to take part with the register closing six days before the vote. Those who register required to pay 2 Euros to vote. Candidates for Prime Minister will require nominations from 5% of members (but no more than 10%). A period of two to three weeks will be given to collect nominations and there will be no run-off round. Primaries may also be held for Presidencies of autonomous regions with the support of regional Executives. Valencia will be the first region to conduct an open PSOE primary for the Presidential candidate. A copy of the primary rules is available here (Spanish).

The PSOE’s Catalonian sister party, the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) have also embraced primaries. It will also use an open primary for its Barcelona mayoral candidate at the end of March. The primary will run for six weeks and candidates will need to get a minimum of 1000 nominations from people on the primary electoral roll. A candidate will need to obtain 40% and win by more than 10% to avoid a run-off. More details are available here.

It will be interesting to see what effect an open primary will have. While the polls are close between the PSOE and its conservative rival, the People’s Party (PP), they are both polling well-below their voting share at the last Spanish election. Other groupings such as the left-wing United Left (IU) and social liberal Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD) have grown their vote and combined are polling over 20% in the opinion polls. While the electoral system disadvantages these smaller parties, it is likely there will be a hung parliament. Other parties like the UPyD have also adopted the use of open primaries and the threat of abstentions is high.

Whether the primaries will have an impact on the level of support for the PSOE or throw up a surprise candidate is unclear but one thing is for sure, the momentum towards adopting primaries in social democratic parties shows little sign of abatement.

UPDATE 15/06/14: Jaume Collboni won the PSC primary to become their Barcelona mayoral candidate. There were over 5,000 participants (only a fifth were party members) in the second round of voting, down from over 7,000 in the first round.

Where’s Australia’s Labourlist?

One thing I have always found odd is the lack of a political party blogging culture in Australia. Political blogging exists but bloggers tend to avoid wearing a party label or instead concentrate on a niche area like psephology or policy. Rather than through political blogs, party debates and conversation tend to occur exclusively through the traditional medium of newspaper op-eds (or on newer but similar op-ed platforms like The Drum), mediated by journalists.

In comparison, other similar countries like Great Britain has sites like LabourList and ConservativeHome. They are vibrant forums for the grassroots of the party, aligned but independent, providing party news and opinion on a regular basis and even shaping internal party debates. Anyone can contribute and everyone does from rank-and-file members, MPs, pressure groups, even yours truly. While both sites have paid staff, there are many other smaller individual and group party blogs that provide a platform for debating and discussing ideas and what is going on within and even across parties.

Arguably party discipline and a lack of supporting resources have played a role in creating a culture not so conducive to open discussion and debate in Australia, especially in New South Wales. None of this is to say that there hasn’t been any attempt encourage a culture of thinking and discussion on the Labor side of politics. There were attempts a decade ago with Evan Thornley’s ”LaborFirst” group attempting to set up a blogging network and a left-wing online newspaper Labor Tribune that briefly existed. The establishment of an online presence for Challenge Magazine (Labor Left) and Voice (Labor Right) are more recent examples but both are semi-regular at best. The Chifley Research Centre is attempting a “Left Foot Forward/ThinkProgress” model with its own blog. It is a welcome addition but it is more geared towards campaigning rather than discussion. There is an understanding of the need for these kinds of forums but the capacity is just not there yet for something like a LabourList.

Rather than just wistfully pine for something better, I thought I‘d kick things along by starting a list of what could be considered as a Labor blogosphere.

Feel free to make any suggestions (including your own blog) and I’ll keep adding to the list.


UPDATE 30/4/14: The ALP has announced it will be establishing an online news service, Labor Herald. It seems to be modelled on LabourList as it will have a full-time editor and they will be seeking content from members. The real test will be whether it publishes pieces on contentious debates and be somewhat independent like LabourList.

UPDATE: 10/9/14: It looks like the Labor Herald will not be like LabourList at all.

Open Labor

The plethora of ALP reform groups continues to grow. First there was OurALP, then there was Labor Renewal, then came Local Labor and now there’s a group calling itself “Open Labor” that is about to launch on Monday.

From what I have seen, the core individuals linked to this project seem to be Victorians with links to the Per Capita thinktank such as James Button, Josh Borstein, Nick Reece, Tom Bentley and Dennis Glover.

Compared to these other groups that are explicitly groups of party members, Open Labor seems to be positioning itself as a loose network of thinkers that exists beyond the confines of ALP, including non-members.

As part of their launch, Open Labor will have a public statement that they will be asking people to sign onto. The statement is below:


We are a group of people who seek renewal of the Australian Labor Party and a more open, optimistic and decent politics in Australia.

The 2013 election campaign showed that political debate, on the right and left, is exhausted. We need new, brave thinking about the state of our nation, and how to meet people’s needs and aspirations in a time of slowing economic growth, rising inequality, accelerating climate change and dwindling trust in our political institutions.

For more than a century the ALP has represented the hopes of millions of people for a better life. Many good people within it have fought for the big changes that have made Australia a better society.

Yet the Labor Party, for all that it has achieved, has in recent years struggled to find the ideas and ideals needed to inspire Australians. The party’s structures and rules too often serve the interests of those who hold power within them, not the wider communities they purport to represent.

The disengagement of so many Australians from politics is a major problem. Yet simply retreating from the field, abandoning politics to other interests, is not an option. Without a vigorous contest of ideas and strong voice for fairness, Australia will go backwards.

Labor remains the only party that can increase social and economic opportunity, embrace diversity and manage change for the benefit of all. But the ALP needs to confront and overcome its problems if it is rediscover its purpose, regain trust and properly serve the interests of Australians.

It must open up – to new people, ideas and methods.

It must become more democratic – in how it organises itself, how it develops policies, and how it connects with its members, supporters and the public.

We seek an open Labor Party: open to change, while building on its best values and traditions.

We want to work with people who believe that a more open and democratic ALP is vital to a better Australia, and who want to have a hand in shaping it. Some of those people are inside the Labor Party, but many are not.

The greatest source of energy, ideas and renewal will come from people whose values and principles make them sympathetic to Labor’s aims, but who find themselves alienated by the party’s culture.
We do not accept that the practice of politics must inevitably be self-serving, cynical or tedious. A modern political movement must provide its members with both the prospect of a better future and a sense of excitement and fulfilment now.  

As a group, we will not operate as part of the ALP, though many of our members are active within it. Instead, in partnership with people who join us, we will focus on building an open network of ideas, people and activities dedicated to supporting the renewal of the ALP and reconnecting Australia’s political culture with the people it is meant to serve.

Some of us will work on ideas and policy, some on party reform, some on community engagement. We do not have all the answers. Rather, we expect good ideas to emerge from a politics based on honesty and idealism, and an open conversation conducted with humility and respect.

We have no illusions about the size of the task. Inertia and entrenched self-interest are powerful forces inside the party, and disengagement and cynicism outside it.

But the excitement that has accompanied the recent election of Labor’s federal leader shows that there is a readiness — a hunger — for change.

In the widespread despair with our politics is an opportunity. We want to work with other people of goodwill to seize it.

If you support these aims, want to hear more, or would like to connect with others who share similar views please XXX

I understand that Per Capita will be launching an e-book on social democracy next year and have a feeling this initiative might tie into it. If there is a link between “Open Labor” and the plans for an e-book (and further publications), it may be similar to the Open Left project that British thinktank Demos ran a few years ago.

At this early stage, it is unclear what will be the outcome of “Open Labor”. It could disappear quickly after its launch or have little lasting impact. Still, it is worth keeping an eye on if it does promote a more pluralistic approach and challenging thinking on the centre-left.

UPDATE: Open Labor has now launched its website and there’s a few articles floating around about it. At this stage, it appears to be more of a traditional pro-reform pressure group (albeit inclusive of non-members and with higher profile participants).