NSW Labor — Degeneration versus resilience

by · October 25, 2010

[Continued from the last post]

The erosion of the ALP’s long grip on the working class vote in NSW has been spectacular, reflecting the long-term processes that Left Flank has repeatedly drawn attention to. Yet it can still rely on a significant party organisation, and even more so the active endorsement (or at least passive acceptance) of trade union leaders, organisers and delegates to carry its base.

By focusing almost exclusively on the inner-party struggle in Power Crisis, Rodney Cavalier ends up acknowledging but downplaying the importance of how workers in unions helped deliver large ALP votes in NSW in the 2007 state and federal elections, but also how their alienation underpinned Iemma’s destruction and Labor’s electoral collapse in the years since. Iemma won in 2007 in large part because his campaign dovetailed with the powerful Your Rights At Work movement in its portrayal of the Liberal opposition as privileged, nasty, pro-Workchoices Tories. Power privatisation, on the other hand, like Rudd’s later abandonment of climate action, represented a deep betrayal of the hope vested in a party that had already been struggling to prove its relevance to traditional supporters. In both cases Labor “blew its last chance”.

The fact that Unions NSW demobilised work stoppages and demonstrations against privatisation in favour of an ALP-centred campaign around the conference and backroom deal-making is left unanalysed by Cavalier — yet this is a key reason for the eventual messy degeneration into factional intrigue that finally replaced Iemma and Costa with another crew of privatisers. Had Unions NSW leader John Robertson opted to keep the mass movement going he could have delivered a more clear-cut victory for the overwhelming public sentiment against the sale. Instead, he ended up trying to sell prisons from his Legislative Council seat as Prisons Minister. The extra-parliamentary movement (including the work of the Greens and many rank-and-file ALP members, such as in the Power To The People activist network) is given short shrift in Cavalier’s account, yet it held the key for a more profound shift in the situation because it points to a different mode of politics to that which dominates the ALP today.

Cavalier rightly argues that many ALP MPs and staffers dream of a party free of its grassroots. But the power crisis proved the continuing importance of the party’s union and membership base, despite a stream of premature obituaries. It is one thing to win elections through appeals via the media, another to maintain a stable base inside society. The professionalization of politics, as well as funding from the state and big business, have eroded those connections to supporters but they have not destroyed them. The erosion explains the destabilisation of the Labor Party. But it doesn’t explain the party’s survival.

Furthermore, when we look at the opposite side of the equation — the trade union officialdom, ordinary ALP members and the working class more generally — there remains a need for political representation, however distorted and inadequate a vehicle the ALP is for such projects. The power crisis shows the limited but important power that the ALP’s working class base continues to exert on the party’s actions — and the willingness of the union officials, who claim ownership of the party, to save the party by destroying it.

Cavalier is also too quick too write off the unions as socially unrepresentative. They remain the largest voluntary organisations in the country despite decades of retreat and contraction. They also mostly retain democratic structures well in advance of what the ALP itself offers, let alone the limited influence obtained by voting in parliamentary elections. It was the unions, rather than Kevin Rudd’s media genius, that broke the back of the Howard government. Yes the officialdom is a conservative layer that mediates between labour and capital rather than fully representing the interests of its members, but it has also started to adapt to the shifts to the Left in the polity while ALP politicians remain transfixed by neoliberal orthodoxy.

A complex situation for the Left

Unlike Cavalier, I am not interested in reinvigorating the ALP. But I am arguing that despite the hollowing out of the party in the last three decades some kind of partial reinvigoration still remains a possibility, one that the Left cannot simply wish away. In one sense, Keneally’s recent performance represents a rearguard action to hang on to core supporters in a dark hour. But a bigger political shift along those lines could occur from opposition, especially if conservatives pursue slash and burn austerity measures as in Europe, and even more so if there is a revival of resistance in the streets and workplaces. Even the moribund and reviled UK Labour Party has seen a surge in membership since the conservatives won power there. While capitalism continues to make lives miserable and ordinary people don’t feel that ending the system is possible, ideas of working within the system for reforms will remain dominant — and the ALP remains the vehicle, par excellence, for claiming to fulfil that reformist ambition.

The adaptability of NSW Labor has also been evident in its ability to squeeze the Greens vote in recent years, relative to that in other states. While some inside and outside the Greens want to blame this on the NSW Greens apparently being “too left-wing”, Geoff Robinson has used Australian Election Study data to show that it is NSW Labor’s ability to project itself as more left-wing than other state ALPs can that may better explain the Greens’ difficulties in the state. In the absence of a credible alternative, resistance from below could well be channelled — at least temporarily — towards rebadged ALP politics.

Tony Harris shows in Basket Weavers And True Believers, his fascinating history of the inner-west Sydney ALP branches of the 1970s and 80s, that even in a period of powerful extra-parliamentary social movements the ALP could attract many idealistic activists into trying to revive the party. That their radicalism was sucked into soul-destroying factional manoeuvres, branch-stacking and confused local council politics speaks to the conservatising effects of ALP strategy for social change.

As I have argued previously, it is when the Greens have been able to present a positive alternative to Labor’s rightward march that they have been able to break key sections of its support base. This has been weaker in terms of an orientation on unionised workers, despite some inspiring exceptions (e.g. Adam Bandt’s campaigns, or the NSW Greens’ orientation on teacher militancy and anti-privatisation campaigns). In large part this is because Greens ideology accepts post-class conceptions of social structure and change, with inequality and injustice seen as due to bad policy (or “values”) rather than as the product of relations of social domination. In this sense their politics closely resemble those of the ALP Left of a past era, with no substantive critique of social power or its expression through the state.

For the radical Left this is a complex situation: An ALP that still retains the allegiance of key sections of the working class, a Greens party articulating a more radical project but essentially within the same reformist strategic frame yet without a conscious class element, and a global systemic crisis that is driving ruling class attacks but also resistance — as the Greek and French struggles have shown in such an inspiring fashion. This blog has been taken to task (in a friendly way) for developing such a critique without there being a vehicle for the politics advocated here. But I’d contend there’s no shortcut to us grappling with these basic issues of class, power and state in a way that the Left, in retreat for three decades, has pulled back from doing.

In the case of the ALP, which still dominates the Australian working class politically, we need to be clear whether its degeneration is a product simply of the kinds of processes Cavalier highlights or whether there is something fundamentally problematic with positing social change as a strategy to be carried out within the logic and structures of existing relations of domination. While there has been something of a revival of Left discourse in recent years, most of it has eschewed such categories in favour of ideological explanations, or prettified versions of Labor’s neoliberal turn.

A decent Greens vote in March 2011, however important that is, will not be sufficient to break the dead weight of such ideas by itself. This is especially likely as Barry O’Farrell has developed himself as something of a David Cameron like figure, an apparently moderate conservative able to stake out the occasional progressive position to distract from the Liberals’ class project. Using the moral panic over the condition Labor will have left the state in, ably abetted by a pliant media, they are likely to see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to violently reshape NSW and finally break the power of the public sector unions, something the ALP couldn’t do. Staking out some clear positions now on what kind of politics can play a useful role in such circumstances is an unavoidable part of building a new Left. If we don’t then the ALP will be back selling its snake oil in opposition, undoubtedly in a new flavour to make it seem more palatable, but with us not sure how to deal with it.

Filed under: ALP, Greens, NSW, trade unions

Discussion5 Comments

  1. Alister says:

    Geoff Robinson provides nothing that I'd call evidence for his supposition at the relative poorness of the NSW Greens' electoral performance as compared to Victoria. In a federal election, there's no reason to hold that voters are paying attention to their various state governments' political alignment relative to each other. The NSW performance was not just poor compared to Victoria (using the Senate vote as a measure), but poor compared to every other state. When you're getting only three quarters of a quota and everyone else gets between 0.9 and 1.4 of a quota, something more serious is happening.I have my own theories as to why this is the case, but am probably not going to elaborate on them here.

  2. Dr_Tad says:

    Alister, I think you've misunderstood the point Geoff is making. It's not that NSW voters compare our state ALP with the Victorian one, but that the ALP is generally perceived as being a more left-wing party by NSW voters. My argument is that this is a function of the NSW ALP's historic strength (and adaptability). The Greens have a historic weakness in Sydney's working class heartlands, but I think this partly due to factors in the ALP.I haven't had a chance to crunch numbers from the AES for other states, and maybe that will contradict Geoff's argument. But politically it fits with what we know about the NSW ALP.

  3. Alister says:

    I understood Geoff's argument. I thought it was wrong to use that as a reason why the NSW Greens Senate vote would be lower than other states. All this could explain is a higher ALP vote in state polls. The Senate swing against the ALP was higher in NSW than everywhere bar Qld and WA.

  4. Dr_Tad says:

    ALP-Greens swingers group are a very different constituency to ALP-Liberal swingers, as Ben Spies-Butcher has demonstrated in his breakdown of the AES data from 2004 and 2007. We are talking here about the Greens' ability to break off sections of the left-wing part of the ALP's base, but the overall ALP primary vote also reflects Labor voters leaving to go to the Coalition. So the ALP primary is interesting but not really germane to this discussion, which is about whether left-leaning (or Greens-leaning) ALP voters are willing to break to the Left.

  5. Stewart J says:

    Hmmm, I thinj this debate is the wrong way round. Surely it shouldn't be about "why aren't greens in NSW doing as well as those in Victoria" – this argument could have been made about Queensland or South Australia at the last election – in which I also note that the Vic Greens also outpolled the Greens NSW, who outpolled the aforementioned SA & QLD candidates. No, I think there is considerably more going on with both the electorate and the politics of the states. We should never forget that NSW has been an ALP fiefdom for most of the last century. It has been based on a materialist pursuit of advances for workers (whether thats providing for cars or housing). And then there is the significant influx of immigrants into NSW over those years too. This isn't to say that this hasn't happened in Victoria as well, but I think it is of a different nature. Ben Spies-Butcher I know has done some work on the demographics and how this might be effecting the vote, but on a completely subjective level, Melbourne is where you might find more lefties and small l Liberals. NSW is where the hardcases come from. This breeds a view of politics in each state that reflects what is expected from politicians. Green MPs in NSW are very bit as left wing as any from across Australia – and every bit as environmental too. But my own sense of it is that there is a greater focus on material gains in NSW than Victoria. I know David Charnock (at Curtin Uni) has done analysis on this more generally, but I don't remember seeing anything breaking it down state by state – and of course the AES is a realtviely small sample to be doing that with any reasonable margin of error.Of course, I have always noticed that the Vic Greens have had an earlier penetration into ethnic communities in Melbourne, perhaps more so that in NSW. My own research into the demographic nature of Green middle-level elites (ie; officebearers) suggests that the party is still pretty white-bread, but that doesn't mean that there aren't other deeper community links there. An interesting development has been the Greens NSW developing great links into the Tamil community in NSW – this will pay dividends over time, but not perhaps in the short term.However, returning to the materialist/post-materialist divide (apologies Tad, I know you don't like that!) – if it is greater in NSW it will mean that Green penetration into the electorate will be lower. If we consider this on a class basis, it also means that Greens will win some seats based on the middle class demographics, but fail in many other where there is either a high working class vote, or where the middle class is identifying with the upper class (ie; where financial incentives are prime).Sorry for the long post, but this is a very interesting subject.Stewart