Who “owns” political parties?

What are political parties? Are they a networks of people with shared values or the parliamentary representation of extra-parliamentary movements and groups? Are they member-led and run organisation or are they quasi-public institutions? Who should “own” them?

These are the questions that are not being discussed when we talk about reforming the internal structure of political parties. Before we can reform a party, we need to be clear about what it is. It influences who should have what say and why.

The recent debate in New South Wales Labor about the direct election of candidates is a classic example of how this question of who should “own” a party has been avoided. Instead it has been framed as dichotomy of a corrupt, bureaucratic (union) elite versus genuine rank-and-file activists.

While there are undeniably issues around who has power, there are two different conceptions of a political party at play. One sees the ALP as a representative of a social base and the other is a private organisation of individuals. Both are valid but have come into conflict, particularly as the Faulkner proposal sought to remove any union say in pre-selections.

Similarly, the debate over community preselections or “primaries” within the ALP is also a contest between two very different conceptions of a party. Supporters, not just members, have “ownership” through primaries. It conceives parties as a loose and open network of individuals who support a party. It arguably challenges the classic 20th century idea of a party where there is a rigid structure and discipline, where parties represent their extra-parliamentary members who select candidates and determine a platform for them to enact. It effectively makes a political party a quasi-public entity, very different to the idea of a private organisation “owned” by members, whether individual or affiliate.

My own views on who should “own” a party have and continue to shift. Personally I am sympathetic to the idea of direct elections by members only but at the same time I am torn because I increasingly doubt that is a viable option in the long-term. Party reform may help to stem the bleed but do we really think the party could recover to what it was a decade ago, let alone reach 100,000 members? I find myself agreeing with former Labor leader Mark Latham that Australia “will never return to an era of mass membership politics”, at least as we know it. We are in an age of shrinking (major) parties and fragmenting politics and unlike some continental European parties, Australia never had a culture of truly mass political parties to begin with.

As an example, ACT Labor which has 100% rank-and-file preselections and a more democratic and inclusive culture only has 1,200 members or 0.34% of the population as members. It also has the highest numbers of member per capita of all the state branches. Applying that proportion nationally would only get you to 80,000. It makes you wonder how Labor will ever get to 100,000 members nationally.

I don’t think there are any easy answers but acknowledging that the different sides of the reform debate have different conceptions of what a party is may be a starting point. Who knows, it may result in some movement on genuine ALP reform.