Moving away from unions won’t fix Labor’s woes

Labor’s drubbing at the WA Senate election has opened renewed demands for “party reform”.

However, despite rhetoric about “democratising” the party, the main aim is further diluting union influence. This is the same agenda promoted by former leader Kevin Rudd and frontbencher Chris Bowen in the hope of removing unions as an obstacle to pro-market policies and ditching any organic links to the working class.

Labor leader Bill Shorten has called for scrapping the rule that party members must also be members of a trade union. This would have little impact.

But he has also proposed extending the new leadership election process to the selection of state leaders. This gives rank-and-file members half the votes and the other half to the parliamentary caucus. In the federal ballot this made no difference to the result, with the MPs still determining the choice of leader.

There have also been calls to reduce union influence over pre-selections to the Senate and state upper houses, in favour of membership ballots. The backlash against the decision to put SDA union official Joe Bullock at the top of Labor’s WA Senate ticket is fuelling this.

But it is mistaken to single out the unions as the cause of Labor’s failings. Labor MPs realise that unions are a barrier to them taking the party further down the neo-liberal road of privatisations, cuts and attacks on the poor and workers.

Notable amongst Shorten’s supporters is Morris Iemma, whose plans to privatise electricity when he was NSW premier were thwarted by union opposition at the NSW Labor Conference in 2008.

Bill Shorten’s move against the unions opens another opportunity for The Greens to try to break unions away from Labor’s embrace. But The Greens are yet to recognise the strategic importance of pursuing this.

Giving power to members?

Shorten hopes that by playing down the union link and throwing open the doors of the party he can boost Labor membership from its current 44,000 to 100,000.

But despite his talk of empowering the membership, Labor politicians are not going to allow the membership to determine the party’s direction. The MPs already breach party policy with impunity, as shown by Labor’s introduction of offshore processing in violation of Labor policy adopted at its 2011 conference.

Labor’s drift to the right has betrayed the hopes workers held in them to defend public services, union rights, refugees and welfare. Instead, on every issue, Labor MPs have been desperate to close the gap separating them from the Liberals.

Distancing the party from the unions would only confirm this right-ward drift.

Even if it resulted in the Left faction winning more pre-selections, this would make little difference, with their politics now barely distinct from the Right’s. A fight against Labor’s neo-liberalism and right-wing policies is what’s badly needed. Without that the party’s decline is bound to continue.

By Lachlan Marshall

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