Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Memo to ALP 2 - State

Every man and his dog has "come to the aid of the party" with their prescription for curing the troubles that ail the NSW Branch of the ALP.

Ultimately there are two issues in play. The first is the Right's definition of the objective, and hence how you approach the game and what you do with it. The second is that the Left doesn't know what it stands for.

The Right's position was best described in Eddie Obeid's recent attempt (in the SMH) at denial of the role of factions. His piece concluded;

The party will rebuild itself. There will be many new faces. We can rebuild but we need to listen to the community and advocate the policies they put forward.

That is the path to power is to reflect to the community the community's wishes. It is not to pursue a philosophical line, but to merely do - in Graham Richardson's words - "whatever it takes" to win power.

Writing in the SMH David Humphries nailed it as;

Rather than serve the ALP, Obeid was determined for it to serve him. Essentially a policy-free zone, his skills were limited to the assiduous pursuit of those vulnerable and hapless souls whose ambitions in politics far outweigh their talents, and to enforcing the consequences of disloyalty (that is, anything short of craven obedience) towards him and his clique. He who must be Obeid, went the line.

Humphries went on to recount a Michael Egan story that typifies this version of the right;

Another guest speaker was Mark Arbib, then the ALP assistant general secretary but later a Labor kingmaker and assassin, and a minister in the Gillard federal government after helping to elevate, then destroy, Kevin Rudd.

His speech to all those bright-eyed bushy-tailed kids was that they should follow the example of Joe and Reba and devote their time to endlessly recruiting numbers. ...

It struck me ... that Arbib had not once mentioned any policy achievement of any Labor government, or anything about the philosophical and policy differences between the Left and the Right.

A consequence of this tribal approach is then the nepotism that is so easily displayed. If you don't stand for anything other than the numbers, then you have to look after your mates.

The Left of the party is not much better. NSW avoided the split of the 1950s, but this really meant that the party remained in the control of the anti-communist Industrial Groups. To ensure an ongoing focus on the socialist objective a group formed inside the NSW ALP called the Steering Committee whose objective was support of the socialisation objective of the party.

In response to the Steering Committee the Right, under the name Centre Unity, organised to battle to keep this left suppressed. But technically at least the left formalised the factionalism first.

At some point (I'd need to check my Fruedenberg history) the right and left reached an "accommodation" that saw the spoils of the party distributed in a kind of proportional manner. Hence the Premier came from the Right, the Deputy from the Left. The General Secretary from the Right but an Assistant Secretary from each of the Left and Right. Similarly tickets for Senate and Legislative Council had their mix. A Senate ticket typically went Right, Left, Right, Right.

Having been accommodated the left largely then "went along" - they would ritually whinge and moan about annual conference, but would also do deals to ensure there was no great stoush. One memorable event though was over the stupidity of the way the power sharing rules meant that the Left's John Faulkner was not number 1 on a Senate ticket. It was also why with the departure of Carr the logical choice of John Watkins was not pursued.

Critics from outside the party interpret this "philosophy free zone" in different ways. Rick Kuhn has made another contribution urging Labor not to push unions away and to stay close to its working class base.

He writes of the proposed reforms of the party from the National Review;

These measures and the other recommendations won't lead to an expansion of the party's declining membership, largely a consequence of Labor's pro-business, racist and homophobic policies in government and opposition.

Over decades the ALP's connections with the working class have become more and more tenuous. A quarter of Labor's local branches in NSW have dissolved over the past 16 years and many that have survived are close to comatose. The ALP's working-class vote has not only contracted, it has also diluted. ...

The recommendations in the National Review will reduce the most important remaining connection between Labor and the working class: the role of affiliated unions in the party.

As I've noted before an issue for Labor is the decline in the numbers of that "traditional" working-class base. This is more so if, like Kuhn, you reject the idea of the validity of white-collar workers (including academics) as part of the working class. [See note below] In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels indeed drew the circle very wide;

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.

And it has always been an error to conclude that workers are not themselves "racist and homophobic". Let alone the massive conflict the ALP finds with environmental policies that can be seen as attacks on the jobs of the working class.

As I've said before the ALP needs to stand for something. It needs to stand for the (relatively) powerless in society. In doing so it needs to reflect to the "aspirationals" the reality that they may be successful but they are still not powerful, they might own shares but they are not capitalists.

It needs to go beyond the woosy words that Julia Gillard uses of being a party for a "Fair Go". Work Choices was battled against because it attacked the right of labor to organise while not attacking the right of capital to organise.

It needs to more explicitly state that it stands for empowering those who are powerless, that the socialisation objective is not anti-business but it is opposed to the narrow orthodox view that companies exist to create shareholder value.

It needs to stand for the rights of all groups that are otherwise powerless - that is what unites workers, gays, ethnic minorities, indigenous people and the environment itself.

There is no point in reforming the mechanisms of the party if you don't give people a reason to belong.

Note 1: Since writing the post I have been informed that Rick Kuhn's view is that white-collar workers are certainly part of the working-class. I mistook the paragraph below from an earlier article as suggesting that the party lost its worker focus with the influx of white collar workers.

After the split the blue collar membership of the Labor Party fell. In the late 1960s and 1970s this was offset by an influx of white collar workers and members of the professional middle class.

We certainly share the view, however, that the party has been more concerned with "Tammany" than policy.

Note 2: Jack Lang is an often reviled figure in ALP history because he tore the party apart in NSW in the 1930s. Bede Nairn's biography of Jack Lang The 'Big Fella' recounts the tales of the battles for the ALP leading up to the thirties. These were battles between communism, and industrial focus and outright "Tammany" (defined online as "a political organization within the Democratic Party in New York City (late 1800's and early 1900's) seeking political control by corruption and bossism. Lang had his faults, but despite the depiction of him otherwise he was no communist - he was also a vigorous opponent of Tammany. But eighty years later Eddie Obeid has shown you can't keep Tammany down without vigilance.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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