Whatever happened to Labor’s Left?

The lack of any distinct policy differences between Labor’s Left and Right candidates in the leadership contest exposes the degeneration of the Left faction writes James Supple

The contest for Labor leader between Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten has revealed again the poverty of ideas inside the party.

Although Albanese is a leading figure in the NSW Left faction, he has not a word to say on the need for policy change. In fact he has made a point of saying there is very little difference in policy terms between himself and Shorten.

This points to the source of Labor’s crisis. It has been continually pointed out that most people have no idea what Labor stands for. The party has moved such a long way to the right that on many issues it is barely distinguishable from the Liberals.

It has become popular to blame the factions for Labor’s woes. Kevin Rudd called them a “cancer within the Australian Labor Party”.

But the problem inside Labor is not the existence of factions in itself, but the fact that they have become little more than a mechanism for dividing the spoils of office and vehicles for career promotion.

Many Labor figures have commented on how little political meaning its factional divisions now have. “The ALP suffers from the absence of a Left”, according to prominent party critic Rodney Cavalier, a one-time NSW Labor government minister. “Ideology has passed from the factional firmament”, he says.

Any hope of re-connecting Labor with the working class base of the party requires a break from the addiction to neo-liberalism that was entrenched during the years of the Hawke-Keating Labor government. There needs to be a fight inside Labor against the right-wing approach that is running the party into the ground.

Historically, Labor’s Left saw this as fundamental to its purpose.

The Socialist Left faction was formed in Victoria in response to a federal intervention that saw the Victorian Executive sacked and the entire branch dissolved in 1970. Its first Chairman was the sacked State Secretary, Bill Hartley.

Gough Whitlam and the Federal party leadership viewed the Victorian branch as too left-wing and therefore an obstacle to election victory.

The Socialist Left was formed as a rank-and-file members’ organisation to fight for control of the branch. In the context of the anti-Vietnam War movement and rising workers’ struggles it adopted a democratic, participatory outlook with monthly mass meetings to decide policy.

The Left’s principles

The Left was committed to socialism, which it essentially understood to mean state ownership, or in Hartley’s words, “an extensive program of nationalisation” so that government would be equipped to tackle social problems like “pollution, housing, transport and urban planning”.

This committed the Left to a radical challenge to the priorities of capitalism. But it believed socialism could be introduced through parliament and saw Labor governments as a step towards this.
Even the most radical figures on the Labor Left in Victoria, like Hartley, believed revolutionary change had to happen through taking control of parliament.

At the same time it carried on a tradition of involvement in social movements and the class struggle outside the party. Part of the reason for Whitlam’s hostility to the old Victorian branch was its distrust of Labor’s parliamentary representatives.

The unions that effectively controlled the branch from 1955 had been prepared to force a state Labor government from office after it refused to take the unions’ side in industrial disputes. They preferred a party that supported industrial struggles outside of parliament to one focused on winning government.
One of the weekly newsletters the Socialist Left put out during the struggle over intervention stated that:

“The problems confronting the Victorian Labor Party are ideological. It is a struggle between the forces devoted to orienting the party towards parliamentary control, and those who believe Parliamentary action is but one role in our overall political activity.”

Key figures in the Victorian ALP played a leading role in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Federal MP Jim Cairns deliberately got himself arrested for handing out leaflets in defiance of a council by-law, and participated in the illegal burning of draft cards as well as occupations of government buildings and mass marches.

The same was true of leading figures on the left in other states. George Georges, a Queensland Labor senator between 1968 and 1987, went to jail for refusing to pay fines for “taking part in an illegal procession”, defying Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s ban on street marches. He also defied the Labor leadership on countless occasions.

The NSW left was more moderate than its Victorian cousin, due both to the greater weight of union officials within it and also to its close relationship to the Communist Party. The later had been moving to the right since the Second World War, and was concerned to accommodate to the right-wing of the labour movement in a search for allies there.

But it also had more radical elements within it, who formed a harder Socialist Left grouping in 1971. This included Trotskyists committed to working inside the ALP, like Bob Gould as well as radical MP George Peterson, but also figures such as MP Stewart West and other future MPs Frank Walker, Rodney Cavalier and Jeff Shaw. The group was able to hold meetings 100-strong and won between 75 and 100 votes out of 930 for motions it put up at the 1971 State Labor conference, but fell apart within a year.
Among other matters of principle for the Left was opposition not just to individual wars but to the US alliance, as well uranium mining.

Uranium policy produced one of the most long-running and hard fought battles waged by the Left inside the party.

Figures on the Right, like Whitlam and Keating, saw support for uranium mines as a crucial sop to big business. The Left won a motion at the National Conference to repudiate any uranium export contracts entered into by the Fraser Liberal government and for a moratorium on mining.

This was later overturned when Bob Hogg, from the Victorian Left, broke ranks to oppose it in the lead up to the 1983 election. He argued that the Left’s motion would damage the credibility of the parliamentary leader, Bill Hayden, who stridently opposed it, and therefore damage the party’s election chances.

The war inside the party over uranium continued after the Hawke government took power and allowed the opening of a new uranium mine at Roxby Downs. But Hogg’s willingness to put electoral expediency above principles was an approach that would lead to the Left’s disintegration during Labor’s period in government.

Neo-liberals ascendant

It was the Hawke-Keating Labor government’s adoption of a program of neo-liberal economic restructuring and the Accord in the 1980s that led to the weakening and degeneration of the Left inside Labor.

As industrial militancy declined in the early 1980s, the Left began placing its hopes in a Labor government as an alternative way forward. The bulk of the Left including the Communist Party enthusiastically supported Labor’s Accord with the unions, deluding themselves that it gave unions a greater say in governing the country and was therefore a step towards socialism.

The Left was key to winning the acceptance of the Accord inside the union movement.

But instead the period of Labor in government saw the party shift markedly to the right, forcing through wage cuts and restraining spending on public services in order to cut corporate taxes and boost business profits. Labor’s leaders also embarked on a program of wholesale privatisations, despite earlier condemning such plans as “Thatcherite”.

The fact that it was their party, the Labor Party, enforcing these measures put enormous pressure on the Labor Left.

The Left’s achilles heel was its commitment to unity with the Right of the party in order to maintain “unity” and help ensure electoral success. This meant agreeing to tone down criticism and going along with the policies imposed by the parliamentary leadership and the right of the party.

This bound them to Labor governments that were running Australian capitalism in the interests of big business.

In the situation following the global economic crisis of the 1970s this meant getting capitalism back to health through cutting workers’ wages and slashing taxes on big business to restore corporate profitability.

As a result sections of the Left were key to policing the Accord and dampening down industrial action in order to keep Labor in power. Most of the Left refused to defend the pilots’ union or the Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) when the Hawke government moved to smash them. These unions’ refusal to accept the wage cuts under the Accord threatened the Labor government’s strategy for managing capitalism.

Those in the Left that did continue to speak out publicly against the government’s right-wing direction were ruthlessly attacked. Bill Hartley, once a key leader in Victoria’s Socialist Left, was expelled from the party in 1986, primarily for his public support for the BLF.

Pragmatism and principles

The parliamentary careers of the leaders of the Left faction also depended on helping implement the government’s agenda—and most of them were happy to put this ahead of principles.
Bob Hawke’s first cabinet had just one minister from the Left, Stewart West. But their numbers grew as a result of acceptance of its policy direction.

The Victorian Left’s Brian Howe, “moved from sharp criticism of Keating and Walsh’s deficit fetish in 1986 to being coopted himself into the expenditure cutting processes of cabinet the following year”, as labour historian Andrew Scott put it in his book on Labor’s “modernisation” Running on Empty.

This led to the emergence of a “soft left” inside the faction in Victoria, with a new generation of leaders of the Left who were, “more pragmatic and eager to be part of Labor in government”, Scott says. Significantly, the soft left was supported by the AMWU, whose Communist Party leadership played a key role in arguing for and implementing Labor’s Accord with the unions.

By the late 1980s, socialist John Minns could comment that, “The Labor left no longer calls for, and never campaigns on, a program of large scale state ownership”. Instead it was struggling just to hold the line against a major push by the Hawke government to privatise existing state assets.
The 1987 Victorian Labor conference passed a motion condemning any sell-off of Qantas, Australia Post, Telecom or the Commonwealth Bank.

But despite the enormous opposition amongst the Labor membership to privatisation, Hawke was able to defeat the Left and reverse Labor’s opposition to privatisation at a Special Conference in 1990.
While the Left opposed privatisation at the conference, there was little effort to campaign amongst the members or outside the party, since the Left was itself divided on the issue.

Key faction leaders including Brian Howe, Nick Bolkus and George Campbell were on record indicating some form of privatisation would be acceptable. The Left’s Joan Kirner, by then Victorian Premier, was implicated in a deal with Keating to sell off part of the Commonwealth Bank.

Increasingly isolated, the hard left in Victoria eventually left the Socialist Left faction, linking up with unions in the “Pledge” grouping who pledged to continue opposing privatisation.

The dominant soft left came to accept more and more of the Hawke-Keating neo-liberal agenda.

The collapse of Stalinism in the early 1990s damaged the credibility of state ownership and accelerated the political decline of the Labor Left. Because they had looked to Russia as a model of socialism, much of the Left’s faith in any systematic alternative to capitalism disappeared. All this left was a debate about how to manage capitalism that the Labor government was already engaged in.

In the early 1990s Lindsay Tanner, a key figure in the Victorian Left, was still distancing himself from those in the Left who saw themselves as “modernisers”, who he defined as having, “relaxed or even abandoned their commitment to certain articles of Labor faith such as public ownership, non-intervention in other people’s wars, and day-to-day maintenance of workers’ living standards”. They included Julia Gillard and the Socialist Forum grouping.

But by 1999 he was supporting privatisation and arguing to accept labour market “flexibility” with his book Open Australia. Tanner ended up as Minister for Finance and Deregulation in Rudd’s government.

The Left inside Labor today has still occasionally fought for policy changes, notably over same-sex marriage and refugees at the 2010 national conference, although again some left ministers broke ranks.
But as it retreated from a fight over policy, the Left began to turn to “party reform” and demands for greater members’ control of the party as a substitute. These calls were raised as early as 1986, and grew stronger in the early 1990s.

This could be sold as a way of challenging right-wing policies, since the party membership has generally been well to the left of the parliamentary party.

But because it is not linked to any clear policy program, right-wing figures in the party like Kevin Rudd and Chris Bowen have been perfectly capable of taking up the cause of “party reform”.

Their aim is to entrench the party’s right-wing pro-business direction. Reducing the influence of the unions in the party is designed to help achieve this.

But as the history of the Left factions in the ALP shows, union support has always been critical in the fight to push the party to the left.

This has been true even in more recent years. The unions were a crucial part of the push against power privatisation in the Labor Party in NSW in 2008.

The 2007 National Labor conference saw a coalition of five left-wing unions put forward a manifesto titled “Back on track” opposing free trade deals, tax breaks for the rich, and public-private partnerships (a form of privatisation).

We should support any fight to shift the party to the left. Many party members see some hope that electing Albanese would help achieve this. But Albanese has been central in both the Gillard and Rudd governments to ignoring members’ views and shifting Labor to the right.

Without a fight to actually challenge the right wing policies of Labor, the party’s degeneration will continue. The Labor Left’s belief in using parliament to change the system has reduced them to a pale shadow of their former selves, squabbling over who is going to run the system.

The fight for socialism requires a different kind of party, one based on building struggles against the system, not competing for votes to manage it.


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