Labor’s juggling act: move to the right but keep the unions happy

After Labor’s appalling result at last year’s Federal election it was close to becoming the first one-term Federal government since Scullin’s in the 1930s Depression. An official review by party elders Steve Bracks, Bob Carr and John Faulkner to look at what went wrong was handed down in February.

As Bernard Keane wrote in Crikey, the revelation of 2010 was, “Just how hollowed out Labor is as both a political and an intellectual force.” He added, “It’s genuinely unclear, even to Labor MPs, what Labor now stands for, what it believes in its heart of hearts.”
The sections of the review examining Labor’s election campaign and the Rudd era were presented to Labor’s National Executive, but have not been made public. However according to The Australian, which saw a copy, they highlighted same-sex marriage and climate change as issues where Labor needed to shift in order to win back Greens voters.
The review also pointed to Labor’s declining vote among migrant communities, which Immigration Minister Chris Bowen’s shift recently to re-embrace multiculturalism is clearly intended to address (see p12).
But all this fails to address the underlying reason for Labor’s haemorrhaging of support—its embrace of neo-liberalism. Labor’s pro-business policies have alienated its working class base, who stand fast to core social-democratic values like funding government services and opposition to privatisation.
A section of that base has jumped ship and latched onto the Greens to provide parliamentary voice for the social-democratic values that Labor was once associated with.
Labor’s shift to the right has also alienated the unions, and the review goes out of its way to placate them. It advocates giving unions more say over the running of election campaigns through a new campaigns committee and greater National Executive control, where there is strong union representation. They are “guaranteed” a role in party pre-selections for the first time.
The union control of 50 per cent of the vote at Labor conferences received the review’s backing, and they were given the endorsement that “Australia’s union movement remains at the bedrock of the Australian Labor Party”.
The ACTU welcomed the recommendations. But of what use are they as Labor moves further and further to the right? Those union leaders who are too critical of Labor, from the left, are summarily shown the door, like the Electricians Union’s Dean Mighell.
Labor’s parliamentary leadership has offered no real policy shift on issues like the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the attack on the teacher unions through NAPLAN tests or WorkChoices lite.

Membership crisis
The other recommendations of the review deal with Labor’s slumping membership. Faulkner said the party’s membership was in “serious decline”, with around 45,000 members nationally. The “disconnect” people feel with the party is enormous. In 1910, the Labor Party had 55,000 members in NSW alone—when Australia’s population was one-third of today’s.
Labor needs an activist base to mobilise at elections but with its neo-liberal policies, it is finding it hard to hold one. “Nothing came through more clearly… than the poor state of Labor’s membership,” Senator Faulkner said.
The review aims to “hand back power to disenchanted grass-roots members” and suggests a series of organisational measures.
One is that pre-selections in non-Labor seats involve a mix of affiliated union members (20 per cent), branch members (60 per cent) and local party supporters who are not members (20 per cent).
The change partly mirrors the “primary” candidate selection process in the United States.
The review recognises that ordinary party members have no real say over party policy. Labor’s highest body, National Conference, frequently has it decisions ignored by Federal Labor governments.
Yet all the review wants is that National Conferences are “less stage-managed and include more free and frank debate about policies”.
Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard was quick to defend the lack of control of the party over the government. She said she would “continue to insist on the right of the parliamentary party to set its own policy course.”
Without any shift from its current commitment to neo-liberalism, Labor’s decline looks set to continue.
Socialists care about what is happening inside the Labor Party, because the party still holds the loyalty of most class-conscious working people.
When the unions fight inside Labor they can shift party policy. But carrying that fight outside the party will also be necessary to force any change of direction, and make sure Labor’s decline does not drag the whole political scene to the right.

Tom Orsag


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