In the aftermath of the Victorian election, leftist politics are in flux. After a campaign marred by allegations of sexual assault and misogyny, the Greens will likely lose all but one of their seats in the Legislative Council. Rather than gaining the balance of power in the lower house as projected, they lost Northcote and failed to pick up the soft Labor seats of Brunswick and Richmond. Prahran still hangs in the balance.
Although formed just a few months ago, the Victorian Socialists ran a colossal grassroots campaign in Melbourne’s north. Hundreds of volunteers knocked on some 95,000 doors in Northern Metropolitan Region for lead candidate Stephen Jolly, a high-profile councillor in the City of Yarra. Sadly, Glenn Druery’s shifty preference deals appear to have stolen the seat for Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, which claimed less than 2 per cent of the vote.
Nonetheless, the socialists outpolled every minor party except the Greens – a substantial achievement for a new organisation. Significantly, in the working-class electorate of Broadmeadows, socialist candidate Jerome Small is currently ahead of the Greens on first preferences. At a time when disillusionment is spreading in the Australian Greens, the Victorian Socialists are building a serious progressive alternative.
The ructions in the Greens have been simmering for some time, long predating the issues publicised during the campaign. Though their handling of alleged sexual misconduct is troubling, sexism and violence are hardly restricted to one party. The Greens’ political problems run much deeper.
In recent months, strongman manoeuvres on the party’s right have delivered some embarrassing political losses – notably in Batman, where attacks on progressive candidate Alex Bhathal contributed to a solid defeat. The ideological split has been felt most keenly in NSW, where the rank-and-file has been locked in a power struggle with Richard DiNatale’s caucus. In December 2016, dissatisfaction with the federal leadership’s aloof style provoked the emergence of ecosocialist ‘tendency’ Left Renewal – the party’s first explicit faction. Insisting that the Green agenda of social justice and environmental sustainability is not compatible with capitalism, Left Renewal sent shocks through a party that, over the past decade or so, has attempted to refashion itself as a mainstream operation.
Left Renewal’s socialist argument may, in fact, be the only logical option for a genuine conservationist movement. Unless we oppose, as a matter of first principles, the capitalist ideology of rationalisation and growth, the green movement cannot halt ecological collapse; we can only frustrate its progress. The situation is now urgent. According to Myles Allen, an author of the latest IPCC report, to avoid cataclysmic climate change we must ‘turn the world economy on a dime’. This will involve an upheaval of global economic structures on a scale for which ‘there is no documented historical precedent’ – and we have only 12 years to make it happen.
To the left’s dismay, Greens leaders quickly made it clear that anti-capitalist politics are not welcome in the party. DiNatale denounced Left Renewal’s socialist aspirations as ‘ridiculous’ and, along with Bob Brown, invited the insurgents to ‘consider finding themselves a new political home’. By now, the group seems to have run out of puff. A parody profile currently has more engagement than Left Renewal’s own Facebook page. Meanwhile, a lookalike Victorian faction calling itself ‘Grassroots Greens’ has been offline since last June.
This should come as no surprise. As the electoral map amply demonstrates, the Greens’ twenty-first-century makeover as compassionate, culturally literate technocrats appeals primarily to tertiary-educated professionals in the inner-city – a demographic that perceives socialism less as an existential demand than an intellectual curiosity. A radical restructuring of the system is simply not in their immediate economic interests.
To be fair, the Greens have developed some progressive economic policies of late, in line with a gradual leftward tilt in public opinion. But the new messaging has not cut through to the mainstream. On one level, the problem appears to be a simple culture clash: the Greens are seen as a party for the woke bourgeois, with a political strategy focused on symbolic and small-scale reforms rather than substantive structural change. Even if its MPs advocated down-the-line proletarian dictatorship, as their conservative detractors imagine, few Australian workers are likely to take up arms at the behest of a hobby-farming doctor in a turtleneck. As things stand, the party does not even have any official links to the unions.
Not only have the Greens been unable to capture the imagination of Australian workers, their pool of younger voters may be set to shrink. Millennial Greens supporters – typically students and graduates entering the information economy – are increasingly vulnerable to underemployment, with internships, freelancing and casualisation becoming the norm in academia and the cultural sector. As their economic privilege seeps away, this nominally middle-class youth may well drift from Green ideology towards a more radical program.
With the Greens’ vote apparently facing a hard limit, it is crucial that the left find a more flexible alternative. The Victorian Socialists may offer a blueprint. A coalition of grassroots organisations and activists, the socialists have a cohesive and far-reaching platform that intersects with the interests of a vast swathe of working Australians. But, unlike other minor parties, their aims are not confined to holding office, where they could lobby the government of the day and tinker at the edges of legislation. Instead, their strategy centres on activism: it’s about ‘using the position to mobilise people’, as Jolly told the Guardian.
The party stands for bottom-up democracy, a model radically at odds with the current representative system, in which politicians need only attend to their constituents once every three years. By contrast, the Greens have long been centralising their decision-making processes, the executive siphoning power from the grassroots. As a result, members are beginning to drop out – some of them quite publicly.
In Victoria, it is likely that disillusioned Greens will begin defecting to the socialists. Anecdotally, a number already have – myself included. For years, many progressives have been making do with the Greens’ leftist simulacrum and were thrilled to cast a ballot for a genuinely radical organisation on Saturday. As the results showed, it is going to take an extraordinary effort to build a sustainable socialist movement in Australia, but the seed has been planted. While the Greens have proven they are neither willing nor able to lead a movement for systemic change, the Victorian Socialists show a way forward for the left.
Image: Banksy in Boston / flickr