In the Victorian state elections of December 1908, the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) – then the largest radical party in Australia – threw down the electoral gauntlet to the Australian Labor Party by running candidates in two inner-city Melbourne seats. The VSP’s two candidates, Percy Laidler (later a famed radical) and Angus McDonell, ran on an impeccably revolutionary program, stating: ‘To overthrow Capitalism will necessitate a revolutionary act.’
Condemning the ‘old parties’, they had a particular ire for Labor and its ‘palliative piffle’. This electoral challenge, they believed, would provide a truly revolutionary alternative for the most radical sections of the working class. On polling day, Laidler and McDonell combined captured just 167 votes across the two seats. Far from chastened by this result, the party’s newspaper declared that ‘it is everything to have made a beginning. This our acorn: in the future our oak … apparent failure is frequently the precursor of success.’
Since then, such success has often been forecast, but seldom realised. At no point has Labor’s political hegemony amongst the working-class movement, and the working-class vote, been seriously threatened from the left. Individual leaders have risen, such as Percy Brookfield, the Broken Hill miners’ leader, who won a seat with Labor in 1917 only to soon leave in opposition to its perceived conservatism. Winning his seat as a socialist independent in 1920, his murder in 1921 prevented a long-term challenge to Labor.
Despite its long history and reputation as a radical alternative to Labor, the Communist Party (CPA) could only claim one parliamentary representative – Fred Paterson, who was elected to the Queensland Parliament in 1944 (he was re-elected in 1947 before a seat redistribution contributed to his electoral defeat in 1950).
Working against this history is a new conglomeration on the left: the Victorian Socialists, an alliance of three socialist groups banding together to run three candidates in this November’s state election. The Victorian Socialists have targeted the Northern Metropolitan region (in Melbourne’s northern suburbs), which sends five members to the Victorian Legislative Council (the upper house).
The new alliance is composed of Steve Jolly, Sue Bolton of the Socialist Alliance, and Colleen Bolger of Socialist Alternative. So, who are they, and what are they trying to achieve?
Jolly is the lead candidate of the Victorian Socialists, and the one of the three with the most reasonable chance of being elected. Jolly is a well-known councillor with the City of Yarra, and has built a personal profile in the area through involvement in local campaigns over the past couple of decades. This personal brand recognition has been supplemented in past campaigns for the state Legislative Assembly seat of Richmond, where he has twice polled at around 8.5% of the primary vote, in 2010 and 2014.
Second on the list is Sue Bolton of the Socialist Alliance, and a councillor in Moreland. The Socialist Alliance have had a long track record of running for office in an attempt to spread the socialist message, however they haven’t had much success beyond Bolton’s election. Colleen Bolger is the third candidate on the ticket, and is from Socialist Alternative, a group that has traditionally eschewed parliamentary runs. (They’ve written an explanation for the change in direction here.)
Will this list be able to buck the trend, and will this election see the first elected explicitly socialist candidate (leaving aside socialists in Labor and the Greens) since Paterson?
They have a shot.
The circumstances that once blocked socialist electoral advancement have drastically changed in recent years. Far-reaching cynicism about the political system has eroded the votes of major parties on both a federal and state level, allowing smaller political conglomerations to enjoy far greater success than before, particularly in upper houses where narrow margins in the right circumstances can lead to unlikely victories. Fiona Patten, for instance, won a Northern Metropolitan region spot in the 2014 with just 2.5% of the primary vote for the Sex Party (recently renamed ‘Reason’).
The labour movement has been particularly affected by the erosion of the body-politic, with both the unions and the ALP shedding members, and experiencing crises of confidence and purpose as a result. Considering its many accomplishments, it is striking how frequently the Andrews Labor government is forced to fight for political credibility. Andrews’s government is clearly the most progressive in Australia, and its opposition to the right-wing agenda has made it a necessary target for those who believe there should be no alternative to conservative hegemony. Constant hostility from the right has been further compounded by near-incessant disorder in Labor’s own ranks. The current state of factional bickering is demonstrative of why so many fear the party has lost its purpose in the flux of personal ambition.
Erosion of major party support and growing political cynicism may allow a socialist candidate with a personal profile to poll well enough to snatch a seat – but would it represent anything more than that?
Some outside the group have associated it with the international progressive anti-establishment mood that has arisen in ebbs and flows since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, and in response to the austerity politics it has spawned. For instance, witness Vice questioning if ‘Jolly can ride this anti-establishment moment all the way to becoming Victoria’s Jeremy Corbyn’.
Well, obviously not. Corbyn is the leader of a mass social-democratic party that now numbers over half-a-million members, not the lead candidate of an uneasy alliance of three relatively small socialist groups. But to be fair, this is not a comparison the Victorian Socialists are making themselves.
It is in fact a bit surprising how little emphasis the Victorian Socialists have placed on the global movements of disaffection with capitalism (though there have been moments – just watch Jolly’s video introducing the group). On the whole, the Victorian Socialists website and the supportive articles from composite groups stick to script in emphasising the newly registered party’s message. Much of this is an update of the rejection put forward by the VSP in 1908: the Conservatives/Liberals are terrible (obviously), Labor is allegedly ‘little better’, so it is time ‘the left offered a real alternative’.
Jolly, in particular, is playing to his strengths by raising demands around public housing, for which he has been a long-term campaigner. But, in stark contrast to the radical candidates of yesteryear, the Victorian Socialists do not offer a revolutionary program; rather, it is a form of responsible and reasonable socialism (‘Just basic socialist policies, it’s really not rocket science’ explains Jolly on their website). More and better public transport, nationalising key public utilities, increasing employment in high unemployment areas, and resisting the race-baiting of Dutton and co forms the core of its offering. This can certainly allow the group to develop a unique profile in the election, but it is a far cry from the radical promises that would shake the political system and reshape its fundamental assumptions. It is, perhaps, best understood as a form of municipal Corbynism.
True, Jolly has every chance of winning, but what would such a win represent? That he has successfully built an individual profile, that there is some general agreement with policies that do not contain the radical edge propounded by socialists in the past, and the existence of cynicism about the major parties. What it would not represent is a radical upsurge, or a growing movement embracing parliament as a means to transform society in the manner of Corbyn’s Labour.
While the Victorian Socialists have every chance of bucking the trend and winning a seat in Victoria’s eclectic upper house, it remains unclear what the long-term impact of this will be.
Image: crop from Communist Manifesto