Hoping against history

At the forty-seventh Australian Labor Party National Conference in Melbourne this week, delegates will be wearing lanyards stamped with eBay’s corporate logo. Sometimes the smallest details give us the greatest insights into our times.

Federal Labor is in terminal decline. Its primary vote has been steadily falling since 1983. In the thirty years between the 1983 and 2013 federal elections, Labor’s primary vote dropped 16.1 per cent. In only three elections out of a total of twelve held during that period did Labor’s share of the primary vote increase: the 1993 Fightback poll, the 1998 GST election and the 2007 WorkChoices backlash. The average primary vote swing to Labor across these three elections was 4.19 per cent.

What this means is that even if Labor can increase its primary vote at the next federal election (and this is not necessarily a given) it will likely only gain a share similar to 2010 – hardly a paragon of achievement.

A projection of the current trend gives us a date when Labor can no longer claim to be the major party in any progressive coalition-forming government, let alone attempt to govern in its own right. That date is 2032.

I write this out of a sense of deep respect and camaraderie with the (mostly) thoroughly decent people who make up Labor. With them, I want to build an Australia run on the values of cooperation, solidarity, equality, and freedom for all, rather than just the few. To them I owe my honesty and no one can begin to build a winning strategy without facing the truth, no matter how hard it is.

There are too many variables to properly forecast as to when the decline may be final or whether Labor might be able to reconstitute itself in a new form attracting majority support. One factor amongst many is internal to Labor and that is the debate around party reform. That Labor as a vehicle needs repair is beyond doubt. The dominant reform narrative, however, is problematic.

Unions are cast as unrepresentative villains blocking the democratic will of branch members. This narrative miscasts some of the actors. Outside of the parliamentarians occupying senior factional positions, the two other classes of actors with positions of control within Labor are union leaders and branch stackers. Generally, anything contentious requires the support of two out of three of these sets of actors. Any reform program that limits itself to the relative voting blocs at preselections and conference floors will merely transfer influence within and between the poles of this small network.

For party reform to succeed it must be based on a clear conception of power. Part of the problem is that many of us within Labor, its branches, and the union movement have mistaken the authority of government with power. We confuse temporarily winning government with actually achieving power. This allows the union movement to sublimate the industrial struggle with electioneering, hoping against history that the next Labor government will fix the membership’s key issues.

Hannah Arendt wrote that power is ‘the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.’ It is people acting together which builds power. Labor’s future rests on whether or not it can encourage more people to use it as a vehicle within which to act together. This is not an easy task.

It is the workers who are members of affiliated unions who are the missing multitude within the party reform debate. They are Labor. Acting together these workers can exercise real power.

One starting point would be to change the meaning of union affiliation from something that is in essence exercised by a few leaders on behalf of entire union branches to the right for a member of an affiliated union to exercise their voice within the party. This would open up Labor to one million workers and tens of thousands of additional members.

This measure would not be the end of reform. There are other ways to encourage people to act together within Labor, and there are many, many more people in our communities.
Fixing Labor may be part of but does not amount to fixing our Commonwealth.

While a strong, progressive party can achieve a lot of good, we must, however, recognise also that there are real limits to what can be won through parliamentary politics alone. By its very nature party politics will disappoint – it is a distorted reflection of the social forces at play within our community. Labor, like all other political parties, is subject to this reality, and in part it is this play of social forces over time which will influence Labor’s survival.

For those of us outside and inside Labor who want to build a Commonwealth based on cooperation, solidarity, and equality, we cannot shirk from the responsibility of organising our social base. We cannot expect any political party or actor to change the balance of social forces for us. It is an active social base which drags along the reluctant parliamentarians and provides a platform for those who do share our values to reach greatness.

Godfrey Moase

Godfrey Moase is an Executive Director, United Workers Union. He’s previously written for the Guardian, Overland, Jacobin and New Matilda.

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  1. This is a really interesting article Godfrey. I totally agree with your main premises. I’m on the newly formed operating committee of NSW Open Labor. Progressive reformist groups within the Party urgently need to talk and cooperate. We have written a blue sky paper on what a reformed Labor Party would look like which includes but goes beyond your proposal. Can we forward this to you. My Open Labor colleagues are down in Melbourne for the Conference (as observers of course). It would be great if you had time to catch up with us. My mobile is [redacted in case of trolls – Ed]. My email is potts_perkins@bigpond.com.

    1. The NUW will, as far as I know, is taking a consistently pro-reform agenda to National Conference (as we have done in the recent past)!

      1. That should be: “The NUW, as far as I know, is taking a consistently pro-reform agenda to National Conference (as we have done in the recent past)!”

  2. I like your article Godfrey. Clearly you care.

    But you would know this. A key problem with unions & labor party is that many union leaders care more about filling a nice MP Job than change. If a union leader upsets the party apple cart, they know their chances of getting an MP Job is reduced. Yes, there are exceptions. But in the most part it’s true. What this means is this – while the overwhelming majority of workers may care strongly about changing something, it may not be taken up by the party. For example, asylum seekers. While the majority of workers may want a more humanitarian approach – unions who represent those workers may be stifled by a labor party who cares more about what the majority of people living in the marginal seats of Western Sydney think.

    Until this broader attitude changes – then the downward trend will continue.

  3. Hi Geoffrey
    I’m a member of Local Labor which was the earliest forum to reform the party and empower rank and file members and also many of us promote empower rank and file unionists in exercising of union power in ALP.

    My concern with your article goes back to my degree many years ago in statistics. I think you have fatal flaws in proposing 2032. One is the growth of minor parties and how their primary votes take away from Labor but preferences tend to flow back. I have seen this so much in scrutineering in recent elections.

    A second issue I have is that the geographic nature of our country means that there are a few seats in rural areas and high income suburbs that have a high percentage of conservative voters, while there can be a majority of seats held by Labor on preferences where they are more voting influence spread. That has let the Labor be able to win with a less than 50% of vote nationally on a 2 PP basis.
    I must agree with Tray that National Office has got to stop basing their campaign on Western Sydney. An insider tells me that is what happened in the final weeks of the last campaign and that is why Labor lost.
    Local Labor is opening a National Debate on having senior Campaign figures undertaking regular branch member consultations in each state during the campaign to help direct the National Campaign.

  4. Hi Godfrey, an interesting article! Thanks. Can you please explain what you mean when you say the missing multitude? You follow it up by suggesting that “changing the meaning of union affiliation” and “giving people a voice within the party” is necessary to reform. In this are you suggesting that it will grow the union base, and therefore the voter bloc? As such is your proposed reform tantamount to an increase in the primary by means of increasing the “swing to labor”? Also you claim this would open up Labor to one million workers and tens of thousands of additional members. Is this to say that a lot of ‘affiliates’ are not ‘union members’ (because they are voiceless in the partyroom) and that this is why they are not voting Labor. And when you allude to “industrial struggle” as opposed to “electioneering” is this a reference to fixing the ideological losses suffered during the Howard era when he won voting blocs in Western Sydney by appealing to their aspirations for property ownership ( pro-negative gearing) and wealth accumulation, which led to them abandoning their working class roots? Just trying to fill in a lot of presupposed historical information here, my political history isn’t up to snuff. Cheers.

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