Socialist politics after the elections in Victoria

If an election is a state-wide vibe check, then being part of an election campaign sometimes lets you feel a little sliver of the vibe in advance. Obviously, one shouldn’t go too far with this kind of thing. But caution to the wind—here’s what it was like handing out Victorian Socialists how to vote leaflets in Carlton on Saturday 26 November.

The one or two Liberal volunteers looked as though they were suffering from a campaign decision to cut costs on sunscreen. The Labor volunteers were older, and not very interested in small talk. ‘Vote for Labor?’ they asked, and most voters took a leaflet politely. Younger voters often snubbed them.

The Greens volunteers were mostly younger and livelier, in a neat ‘I do comms for a progressive NGO’ way. As in the May federal election, I noticed that Greens voters have by far the strongest party loyalty, often to the point of ignoring other parties. This time, however, most Greens voters accepted the VS leaflet with a smile and recognition.

As for VS volunteers, we were over-staffed and whenever the voting queue shuffled outside, VS volunteers would wander down the line, trying to start conversations. For tactics like this, a couple of Labor strategists took to Twitter to accuse VS of ‘bullying’ and using ‘violent’ campaign tactics. One even compared VS campaigners to Nazi party brown shirts.

But I don’t think it’s the idea of socialists talking to voters that bothered them—it’s that the socialists were winning votes away from Labor, and not just in the inner city, either.

Against the Labor establishment

Beyond the vibes, then, the numbers. The Liberals’ defeat was completely unsurprising but Labor’s vote dropped. The predicted Greenslide did not eventuate and, at the same time, VS won its biggest vote yet. So far, the explanations have missed a few points.

There are two overarching and interrelated factors behind Labor’s declining vote. Firstly, there is little to no residual loyalty to Labor. Once, Labor and union branches provided spaces that could mediate between the party and the population. Today, this just isn’t the case. Victorian Labor branches are famously hollow and branch-stacked. At the same time, thanks to the Fair Work Act, unions spend everything on arbitration, and little on rank-and-file organising. Union branch meetings are usually unheard of, at least outside of sectors where rank-and-file organising drives have pushed for member involvement. Simply put, the two historic institutions—local branches and unions—that built Labor loyalty no longer play that role.

This is reflected in Labor candidates. When they aren’t Labor dynasty mediocrities like Kat Theophanous, they’re parachuted-in alumni of Labor think tanks, MPs’ offices and the public service. They all look eerily similar.

Take Nathan Lambert, who came within a stone’s throw of losing Preston to left-wing independent Gaetano Greco. Lambert graduated from Melbourne University before he donned immaculate RM Williams boots, chinos and a north face puffer and went to work for the Chifley Research Centre. Lambert won preselection thanks to the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association. In a brave stand against identity politics, Andrews has already appointed Lambert parliamentary secretary for multicultural affairs, a decision that has been greeted with disgust by the Save the Preston Market campaign group. Greco, on the other hand, sports a superb beret, blazer and silk cravat combo and made Preston a marginal seat, all with the full support of the Preston Market campaign group.

But there’s a second, bigger-picture factor behind Labor’s declining vote. People under forty are living through an era of decline. Ugly, uncomfortable, poorly built and unaffordable apartment buildings go up, replacing public housing. Secure, well-paid jobs are impossible to find and when you do get full time work, HECS repayments eat your income. The property market is out of reach for most while landlords are giving their pre-French revolution counterparts a run for their money. Fees are crippling for public schools, childcare, mental health, medical and dental care when they should be free. It costs close to $10 to take the train from Parkville to Brunswick. Everything is getting worse and we’re all more depressed than ever. On the bright side, the level crossings’ days are numbered.

It’s been a litany of stresses, losses, griefs and outrages, and it has decayed Labor’s credibility. As Benjamin Clark has pointed out, there’s a strong generational dynamic to Labor’s declining support base. Older voters remember when Hawke saved Medicare and when Keating introduced superannuation (which is a driver of inequality anyway). But there’s no comparable Labor reform from the last 30 years—go ahead, name one. It’s nice being able to cite the residential tenancies act in an email to a property manager explaining why it’s actually fine that you have hung pictures. But what about when you’re forced to move thanks to a rent hike, and they withhold your bond even though you paid for an end of lease clean?

The point is that Labor is presiding over an era of decline. This holds for local, state and federal governments. This is why Labor’s base will continue to crumble.

 A shift to the left

So, there’s a shift to the left taking place. For example, the majority supports price caps, rent caps and reversing privatisation. Daniel Andrews’ rhetoric played to this. His announcements about reviving the SEC were calculated to mislead voters into thinking that Labor will reverse energy privatisation when it patently won’t.

The Greens should have benefited from this shift—yet they didn’t. They won Richmond, although it required Liberal and Victorian Socialists preferences. They lost in Northcote, Preston, Pasco Vale and Footscray, and even suffered swings against them. To explain this, it’s helpful to compare the Victorian Greens with the Victorian Socialists—and, for that matter, the Queensland Greens.

From August to November, around 400 VS volunteers spent on average six hours a week knocking on 188,568 doors across Melbourne’s north and west. On election day, over a thousand volunteers handed out for Victorian Socialists. The Brisbane Greens organised a similar effort, especially in Griffith. More importantly, the Brisbane Greens had recently mobilised their volunteer organisation to help with flood relief work, in some cases arriving a week before the SEC. Before that, they defended local public spaces against development and dedicated their MPs resources to mutual aid networks, planting community gardens, and cooking free breakfasts for residents.

Although VS doesn’t have MPs, it has organised similarly. In Footscray, within a year of being elected, VS councillor Jorge Jorquera coordinated with community groups to ensure that Vietnamese would be taught in local schools. Jorquera also stood up in council for social housing, against racialised policing, and for locals harmed by environmental disasters. When the wall built to protect the Flemington Race Course redirected overflowing water from the Maribyrnong towards residents’ houses, VS members helped with the clean-up. This helps explain why 10 per cent of people in Footscray voted socialists.

Indeed, the same pattern has also played out with non-VS socialists in council. In Pasco Vale, Sue Bolton, Merri-bek councillor and Socialist Alliance member won 4.2 per cent, bringing the combined socialist vote there up to 9.7 per cent. Stephen Jolly of Yarra Council has won similar votes in previous state elections. The lesson is if you want to win, then serve the people.

By contrast, the Victorian Greens don’t have a strong recent tradition of activism and are in fact closer to being part of the establishment. The Greens-controlled Darebin Council presented developers’ plans to demolish the Preston Market to the planning minister as though they had residents support. They have refused to endorse the campaign group’s call to bring the land into public ownership. In Yarra, local council Greens have opposed Stephen Jolly’s proposals to build public housing or to demand affordable and social housing as a proportion of all new developments. Most recently, they have attempted to shift from fortnightly to monthly council meetings and restricted opportunities for locals to attend and speak. They’re less Tree Tories and more HR department Greens, the kind who read out an acknowledgement of country before announcing budget cuts.

Candidates also matter. Especially in Brisbane and Griffith, the Greens ran candidates who come from similar backgrounds and have similar life experience to the voters they hoped to reach. In addition to its upper house candidates, VS ran candidates in all of the twenty lower house electorates across Melbourne’s Northern and Western Metropolitan regions. They are young, working class and diverse. This helped cut through to voters in outer-suburban electorates like Greenvale, St Albans, Kororoit and Laverton where the party won over 6 percent, overtaking the Greens to be Labor’s main opposition from the left. It also helped that VS candidates promised to only accept the pay of a sixth-year nurse. Victorian Greens candidates did not match this promise.

Of course, many Victorian Greens members are activists, unionists and, sometimes, socialists. Yet, the party is not those things. Yes, Lidia Thorpe is a Senator for Victoria. But when she was subjected to a smear campaign, out of leading Greens representatives, only Brisbane’s Jonathan Sri really stood behind her. If the Greens want to break through in Victoria, instead of preselecting architects and lawyers who subscribe to the Saturday Paper, they need to select more candidates likes Lidia Thorpe and Jonathan Sri. This is also a prerequisite for recruiting and motivating the kind of volunteer army that their Queensland counterparts have assembled. And this, in turn, is a prerequisite for a future Victorian Greenslide.


Results and prospects for socialist politics

As I made my way to the Victorian Socialists election night party, a mate who works for the Greens texted me ‘you’re going to have a good night.’ When I arrived, I understood why. Our vote—an average of 6.5 percent and 5.3 percent in the North and West respectively—exceeded our own more optimistic expectations. Indeed, VS has started to prove a strategic possibility that Queensland Greens strategists have so far only articulated as a goal. Over four years, the Victorian Socialists have built a volunteer machine powered largely by young, working class, inner-city renters—and we have used this machine to build support and win votes in outer-suburban working class electorates.

As I write, the VEC is still counting preferences in the Western Metropolitan Region, where VS candidate Liz Walsh is still in the contention. While we won’t know the outcome for a while, we can still reflect on VS’s result, both to understand how it was won, and to point to some challenges that the party will encounter in the future.

The first factor to mention is Socialist Alternative. This may seem like internal party politics or sectarian intrigue. However, the fact is, without Socialist Alternative, VS would likely not exist. And given that VS has now become a minor force in mainstream politics, Socialist Alternative are worthy of consideration. In this VS campaign, as in others, their members punched far above their numerical weight, and they deserve public credit for it. If it sounds rose tinted, I say this as someone who has no illusions where Socialist Alternative is concerned.

However, there’s an ambiguity to this strength. Socialist Alternative’s disproportionate contribution is the result of the discipline and commitment that helped their organisation grow over the last few decades while every other socialist group has shrunk or collapsed. This, however, has given their group an isolated and brittle intellectual and political culture. Take the self-congratulatory write-up of the VS election result in Socialist Alternative’s in house newspaper, Red Flag. In closing, the author credits Socialist Alternative’s self-avowedly correct understanding of revolutionary Marxist theory, history and politics. While no doubt they have an insight into Australian politics, this is more the result of practical experience than their very specific brand of mid-century heterodox British Trotskyism. After all, theirs is a theoretical perspective that hasn’t substantially changed in decades. Of course, change in itself is neither good nor bad. But the problem with this kind of intellectual conservatism is that it presumes that every question is already answered. It’s a superficially radical discourse that has little connection to contemporary realities and mainly serves to justify practice after the fact, rather than thinking about it critically.

The material basis for sectarian ideology is the sect, a small organisational form that generates an insular political culture. At the same time, practice of Socialist Alternative members within Victorian Socialists goes well beyond sectarianism. Indeed, they may accomplish something that no Australian socialist sect has accomplished for years: founding a party and transitioning to mass politics. I think of it like this: a sect is to a party as a village is to a city. A sect can win the village of the Melbourne University student union. Only a party can win the city of Melbourne.

Beyond this, it remains to be seen whether the Victorian Socialists model can be exported to other states, where socialist organisations are smaller and more divided. It also remains to be seen how Victorian Socialists can build the numbers and influence to win Federal Senate seats or Victorian lower-house seats, let alone the weight that would be needed to command a fraction of parliament on par with the Greens or Labor.

This aside, regardless of whether VS wins an upper house seat in this election, the party is well placed to win upper house seats in the next state election. It’s also ideally placed to win council elections. These projects, alongside community and union activism, will build the party and develop its resources and experience. At the same time, as Guy Rundle notes, the fragmentation of Labor’s base will open up a significant space for left-wing independents and Greens candidates in the lower house. A chicken in every pot and a Gaetano Greco in every electorate.

Granted, VS may not be in a strong position to win lower-house contests for the time being. But VS is in a position to propel either Greens candidates or independents to victory with their preferences. This, obviously enough, is why the Greens and VS need to work together.

But more interestingly, the situation creates an opportunity for left-wing unions to stand non-Labor candidates with a real chance of winning. Why would unions do this? Well, the Liberals aren’t a danger and Labor obviously takes unions for granted, just like it takes outer-suburban electorates for granted. If unions want to extract something from Labor, they will have to make Labor worried. VS preferences will help as will VS upper house MPs. And say what you like about Victorian Socialists, but they’ve never crossed a picket line. Best of all—for the unions—if they manage this cleverly, they could probably do it without a full, public break from Labor. Have a bet both ways.

But speculative strategy aside, the most satisfying thing about the Victorian Socialists result is that it proves there’s a mass audience for an explicitly socialist project. It’s not just that socialism is electorally viable. It’s more than that. Now, VS has made it possible to articulate a socialist answer to the systemic problems that are degrading our lives. And, if we place our bets wisely, we can back it up with numbers, both in and out of parliament.

Daniel Lopez

Daniel Lopez is a casual lecturer in philosophy and a Commissioning Editor for Jacobin.

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