Last drinks for the NSW Labor Party?

by · October 23, 2010

It is now received wisdom that the NSW branch of the ALP is responsible for everything that is wrong with Labor politics in Australia. Even smug Victorian state ministers have felt comfortable parroting this line publicly. In particular, the argument goes, the NSW Right are a bunch of unaccountable thugs who singlehandedly destroyed what should have been a cakewalk federal election win and who are the last vestige of that familiar dinosaur, “union power”. They will also be responsible for the state party’s near-certain electoral routing next March because they humiliated Morris Iemma when he attempted to deliver power privatisation.

There is a left-wing variant of the argument, often heard in Greens circles, that the ALP has moved so far Right it is no different from the Liberal Party. This is often tied up with either a naïve hope that the Greens can leapfrog the ALP to become the main party of the centre-Left, or despondent mutterings that a likely Liberal landslide will reflect the deep conservatism of the working-class western suburbs of Sydney where the Greens have struggled, or both.

Yet the NSW Labor Party and its base are much more contradictory phenomena than such accounts allow. On the Right, the frenzy to see the end of the factional, union-dominated ALP machine is really mainly about breaking the ALP’s last links to working class interests. For some Greens it reflects an underestimation of the continuing strength and complexity of Labor’s ties to its base. Examining the contradictions in some more detail must be part of understanding the roots of Labor’s crisis in the state (and nationally).

A good starting point is last week’s debate between over workplace safety laws. When Kristina Keneally announced she would not go along with Julia Gillard’s harmonisation of the laws it was called a sign that “the prime minister is putting the nation first, [but] the premier is putting the unions first”. Yet as federal Greens MP Adam Bandt pointed out, uniform laws “should not come at the expense of existing protections”. Keneally, a practicing Catholic also recently delivered an impassioned defence (pdf) of new same-sex adoption laws, despite Cardinal George Pell’s opposition, and backed the ordination of women. These positions say something about Keneally personally, but they say more about how Labor’s degeneration still leaves room for appeal to its core constituencies, both in the working class and what remains of progressive movements.

A secular hollowing out

One of the great strengths of Rodney Cavalier’s new book, Power Crisis, is that he relates the NSW party’s decline to its separation from these traditional sources of support. He links it to both political shifts (the abandonment of traditional social democratic / democratic socialist policies in favour of economic rationalism from the late 1970s, accelerated by the 1989 collapse of Communism) and the growing organisational autonomy from their constituency of MPs, advisers and apparatchiks (who Cavalier identifies as a new, self-interested “political class”, incorrectly invoking Marx as he goes). This was the problem, writ large, in Iemma’s drive to privatise electricity. The parliamentary wing simply chose to ignore a key plank of Labor belief and policy (state ownership of essential utilities) in the pursuit of keeping ratings agencies happy.

Unlike many modern commentators Cavalier details how historically the party put in place checks and balances to prevent its MPs from simply detaching themselves from the will of the membership. He credits the post-WWII success of the NSW party to these, including its avoidance of a debilitating DLP split. Among these mechanisms is the pledge that MPs sign to respect party conference decisions as final, one that Iemma effectively flouted when he decided to proceed with privatisation despite a crushing defeat on the conference floor. In its heyday, the NSW ALP was the most powerful section of the party in the economically most important state. It consistently achieved primary votes close to 50 percent and held onto core working class votes election after election. Its networks from local council level up won it deep allegiances. Yet today the party is a shadow of itself in those times.

Cavalier is even-handed in his portrayal of the protagonists in the battle, but scathing of the degeneration of the ALP. He points to a massive decline in NSW membership to around 15,000 — over 8000 of them on a concessional rate — reflected in 101 branches closed down between 1999-2009. But he also sees part of the problem as the malign influence of officials of affiliated unions, barely accountable to their members and representing less than 10 percent of the state’s working age population. He calls for a more thorough excision of those unions’ direct influence and a reinvigoration of the democratic power of ALP branches within the party as a way of reining in the power of the political class.

The decline he describes is evident enough, but in the course of his polemic he also argues:

Public funding of election campaigns and donations from the corporate sector have rendered unimportant the contributions of cash and energy from unions and party members. Electors are reached by direct mail and electronic mail. The letterbox delivery of the candidate’s pamphlet is decidedly old hat. Local campaigns are not run locally and are local only in the sense that any deviations from the central message are authorised to the last comma. The organisation of the modern political party does not require a presence below, not even at election times — except perhaps for the odd photo opportunity (p. 184).

At another point he suggests that full public funding of elections could complete such a separation between the parliamentary wing and its base — surely a word of warning to those on the Left who think this would somehow eliminate the problems of powerful interests distorting party policy.

I would contend that in portraying the situation in this way Cavalier both overplays the extent of the ALP’s crisis and simultaneously underestimates how fundamental is the source of the party’s problems. It is to the specifics of those issues that I will turn next.

Next: NSW Labor — Degeneration versus resilience

Filed under: ALP, Greens, NSW

Discussion4 Comments

  1. Ben Courtice says:

    The problem with the ALP for lefties outside it, in public discussion, is that many of the criticisms that both parties are just as bad actually have a lot of substance. Labor are indeed run by neo-liberals (if not neo-cons). They are perpetuating many Howard era policies. Why give them any support?But those arguments can be used equally by people who hate unions and have no interests in working people's daily struggles, and by working people who dislike the conservative union bureaucrats for good reasons. So are you going to defend the existing ALP and unions against the right-wingers (for example, some Greens) who say why not negotiate with or preference either major party? Because if you're not careful how you approach this you do look like you're defending the ALP. If you make that mistake, all those people who do hate the ALP and/or union leaderships for good reason and bad experiences, will go off following the anti-union opportunists who would happily deal with the Libs – because they see the lefties lining up to back Labor again. This kind of problem sometimes happens with the debate about preferences, for example.Of course preferences have to be nominated at least in the Senate, and I think it is better to direct them to Labor not Libs. But we need to articulate our politics that we want to get rid of the buggers not do deals with (either of) them.

  2. Dr_Tad says:

    Ben, I would argue that the way you pose the question starts from the wrong place. If we start instead from what strengthens the consciousness and self-activity of the "subaltern classes", then such questions become less tortured for the radical Left.For example, preferring the ALP in power becomes not about whether their policies are good or bad, but about recognising the (limited) class nature of an ALP vote, the limits placed on the ALP's actions by its institutional ties to the union bureaucracy, and the need to build radical resistance outside the logic of the ALP itself. What gets missed in many excellent critiques of the ALP's rottenness is the positive aspect of the grip it continues to exert on working class politics. This is why the rise of the Greens has had good and bad sides. Good because they provide a credible mass Left focus outside the ALP. Bad because of its political weaknesses (parliamentarism, inchoate position on social change, duplication of much of the ALP's problems, etc).Within the logic I propose, "deals" are possible. But whether they are good or bad has to start from logic determined by the needs of resistance from below, not some fantasy that the state will resolve social conflict in our interests.More in part 2!

  3. Boris Kelly says:

    "What gets missed in many excellent critiques of the ALP's rottenness is the positive aspect of the grip it continues to exert on working class politics." I'm not sure the grip is as tight as you suggest, Tad. Both of the major political parties are increasingly unrepresentative and ailing. Memberships are at record lows. The Coalition funding base collapsed in the 2007 election and is yet to recover. The ALP is beginning to bleed funds from sections of their union base shifting to the Greens even as less and less workers join unions. Meanwhile, Getup! membership climbs towards 400,000. Citizens now find it easier – as a result of technology – and more meaningful – as evidenced in some significant campaign wins – to galvanise around specific issues than to adhere a monolithic party position. In NSW, the ALP really is a foul ship and the Greens would do well to steer clear of it and build on the success of the federal election by consolidating their position in urban seats. The Greens need to take the long view. Deals with the NSW ALP would be a bad look. Far better to develop strategies for engaging directly with working class voters, urban and regional. This could be done in a single electoral term but only from a point of strength in the inner urban areas. It remains to be seen if the Greens can do this. I have my doubts.

  4. Dr_Tad says:

    Boris, I think part 2 of this post clarifies a bit more on what I think about the resilience of the ALP despite all the problems we identify.But on the issue of GetUp! I would add a word of caution. By taking on a stream of single issues, GetUp! influences politics but still accepts the idea that parties are where real politics ends up happening. Not just parties in general, but the existing parties of the mainstream parliamentary system.More worryingly, unlike other mass campaigns, it is run on corporatist lines with a membership that has input through donations, internal polling and focus groups rather than genuine democratic engagement. It is activism refracted through a neoliberal organisational model.Parties don't have to be "monolithic", but here at Left Flank we think that coherent political programs are a good thing to strive for. Onhly parties (understood more broadly) can offer that because, well, that's what parties are for.