Socialists and labour parties, demystified a bit

Ozleft ozleft at
Sun Nov 16 04:34:12 MST 2003

By Bob Gould

I write this the day after attending a small meeting organised by the DSP
leadership to hear two Canadian revolutionary socialist comrades, veterans
of the movement, who are on good terms with the DSP leadership, report on
the workers movement in Canada.

Their account was of considerable interest. They described the circumstances
and composition of the far Left in Canada, fairly concretely. They described
a successful struggle against electricity privatisation in Ontario, in which
they were involved. They described the activities of some young militant
workers, with whom they are in contact, in the large car manufacturing city
of Windsor, who produce their own give away leftist newspaper, delivered to
every house in Windsor (population 200,000), financed by advertising,
particularly from one Chrysler vehicle sales franchisee.

They described  a regroupment initiative in which they are involved as
revolutionary socialists, now called "The Socialist Project" (a pretty
impressive name), which involves socialist intellectuals, the young militant
workers aforementioned, and the members of a number of socialist groups. It
emerged in the discussion that many of the participants in the socialist
regroupment project, including the two revolutionary socialist veterans
reporting on it, are current members of the New Democratic Party, the
Canadian version of the Australian Labor Party. This party has never been as
successful as the  ALP, and only gets about 18 per cent of the vote, and is
currently in a considerable state of crisis. Nevertheless many Canadian
revolutionary socialists, including the two comrades, consider it important
to maintain a presence in it.

John Percy, who was chairing the small gathering, did not subject the two
Canadian visitors to the kind of abuse that he dishes out at me and other
socialists in Australia, who hold current Labor Party tickets.

An interesting feature of the account was the way the Canadian comrades
described the contradictory attitude of the NDP to the attempted electricity
privatization process. A past NDP government in Ontario actually commenced
the process, but was beaten in a subsequent provincial election. A new more
leftist leadership was then elected in the NDP. When a popular agitation
against electricity privatisation commenced in the province, after initial
hesitation, the new NDP leadership got on side with the opposition to
electricity privatisation. According to the two Canadian comrades, the
official opposition of the NDP to the privatisation gave the
anti-privatisation agitation enormous popular credibility and was a major
factor in the ultimate defeat of the privatisation proposals. A pretty
concrete account of the kind of contradictory but sometimes dynamic
developments that we are occasionally also familiar with in Australia. I
describe this meeting with the Canadian comrades to put the argument about
socialists and the ALP in some kind of broader world context. Australia and
Canada are structurally pretty similar, and the NDP, like the Australian
Labor Party is based on the affiliation of trade unions. The obvious
difference is that the Labor Party in Australia is far more successful
electorally than the NDP in Canada, and Australia also, in addition to the
40 per cent odd who vote Labor directly, has a now well entrenched electoral
formation to the left of Labor, the Greens, that gets approximately 10% of
the vote. These are electoral realities that reflect certain social
realities, that revolutionary socialists, if they wish to, ignore at the
peril of sect like isolation.

"Where are the 'conscious' socialists in the ALP today? Name them. As Bob
Gould keeps reminding us, he is one...OK. There's Bob Gould....David Spratt
just left -- and Spratt's credentials are pretty good -- especially around
antiwar and middle eastern issues. I gather that no certified Trotskyist
group practices an active entrism sui generis in the ALP that
whole current is out of the running-- except for Bob of course. Then there
are a gaggle of ex CPA/SPA types like Peter Murphy in the ALP...they're
socialists aren't they? Sure they are...Then there are those courageous
Labor MPs like Laurence and Quirk who stood up so defiantly against the
party machine on the question of the Iraq war... But let's just say -- for
the sake of realism-- it's a very short list, say, compared to 28 years ago.
Indeed, the exers of the various socialist groups, even they, no longer
gravitate to the ALP -- like they used to--as both the Greens and the
Socialist Alliance are now their preferred home."

And on 12th November, at 3.55pm, in responding to me, Sue B said:

"The reality in the Australian union movement today, is that most of the
union militants being attracted to militant groupings within unions are
extremely disenchanted with the ALP. The militants who are still members of
the ALP are reluctant members who are unenthusiastic about the ALP.

"If Bob Gould walked into most workplaces today, he would discover that
while most workers might reluctantly vote for the ALP, they would not count
themselves as ALP supporters."

Earlier in her post, Sue B writes the following masterful paragraph, which
is an extremely metaphysical triumph of hope over experience:

"The militants who have joined Socialist Alliance recognise that they need
to break the link between the union and the ALP in order for the union to
chart an industrial course which isn't influenced by the manufacturing
bosses' agenda. They regard Socialist Alliance as having the potential of
being a mass workers party at some stage in the future, if the current unity
process keeps developing."

The problem with all this bombastic rhetoric by Riley and Sue B, is that in
fact, the overwhelming majority of militant union officials, particularly
the officials in the unions like the Victorian CFMEU, and the Victorian
Textile Union, and the current leader of the Workers First in Victoria,
choose to be members of the ALP as a matter of policy, because they clearly
believe that activity in the ALP gives them considerable political leverage
to advance the interests of militant unionism and socialism. It is
positively eccentric of Riley to talk as if Bob Gould is the only socialist
who still operates in the ALP.

It's gratuitously offensive and insulting of Sue B to attempt to interpret
the mind of the Victorian militant union leaders who are in the ALP in the
way she does, calling them "reluctant ALP members". Michelle O'Neill, for
instance, was anything but reluctant when she led the battle to preserve the
60:40 predominance of trade unions over branch representation at the recent
ALP Federal Conference. What Sue B is doing when she talks in this idealist
and non materialist way, is deceiving herself about the realities of the
situation, to convince herself and supporters of the DSP leadership, that
somehow in the immediate future, the Socialist Alliance can be transformed
into a mass revolutionary party, by a further application of the necessary
enthusiasm. This kind of approach is political voodoo, of the sort that the
American socialist writer, Upton Sinclair, described as "bootstrap lifting".
(This wonderful phrase is used by Sinclair in his anti religious polemic,
"The Profits of Religion", in relation to the God wallopers, but it is also
applicable to socialist sects who believe that they can turn into mass
parties by a simple process of self proclamation and enthusiasm, independent
of any realistic tactical appraisals of their current situation.)

Equally metaphysical is Sue B's assertion that in most workplaces, workers
might reluctantly vote for the ALP but not consider themselves ALP
supporters. Well, this piece of abstract nonsense is both true and not true.
Certainly, some blue collar workers who are subjected to a constant anti
Labor barrage from television and the Murdoch press, are obviously a bit
ambivalent about the Laborites, but the overwhelming majority of the most
class conscious blue collar workers, are pretty deliberate Labor supporters,
despite misgivings about this or that betrayal by Labor leaderships. In the
final analysis the voting process is one of the major factors that reveals
the contemporary mind of the working class, in so far as it exists.

Serious research, tracking demographics and class, in recent times in
Australia, clearly indicates that the majority of workers with any degree of
class consciousness, vote Labor. The raw composition and pattern of the
Labor vote indicates this. Labor gets substantial majorities in all the
areas predominantly inhabited by blue collar workers and particularly, NESB
migrant blue collar workers who are now a large proportion of the organised
working class in manufacturing industry, transport etc. Sue B and Riley are
using debating tricks and rhetoric to try and avoid the tactical conclusions
that flow from this current objective reality. There is a qualitative
difference between the Labor primary vote of 40 per cen or so, and the Green
primary vote of 10 per cent on the one hand, and the Socialist Alliance half
a per cent and less vote, on the other. The need for socialists to adopt a
strategic united front tactic towards the Labor Party and the Greens, flows
from the objective social realities in the population.


In the first rank and file membership ballot for ALP Federal President,
38,000 ballot papers were mailed to members. As some observers, including
me, predicted, the valid vote, after informals were deducted, was about
19,000 or approximately 50%. This was a fairly high vote, as you can
discount about 12,000 to 14,000 of the original ballot papers sent out,
because they belong to members in (predominantly ethnic) stacking operations
in particular areas. The dynamics of this situation are that people in
stacking operations are mainly roped in to vote for particular candidates
for public office, and the people organising the stacks are quite unlikely
to strain the loyalty of their stack supporters by chasing them for a vote
for an office like Federal President, which is fairly remote from local
preoccupations. 19,000 votes in a non compulsory postal ballot,  is a pretty
proportion of the 24,000 or so non-stackee members of the ALP nationally.

The result of the ballot is extremely revealing. Carmen Lawrence, the most
leftist candidate, got 6517 votes, or 34.5%. Michael Samaris, the NSW
leftist candidate, got 563 votes. Duncan Kerr, the Tasmanian leftist got 733
votes. The total left vote was 41%.

Barry Jones, the voluble centrist candidate, a previous Federal President,
got 5239 votes or 28%. Other centre candidates got about 12%, making a total
centre vote of 40%.

On the right, the candidate of the NSW right, deliberately chosen by the NSW
right for his relatively leftist credentials, the indigenous Australian
Warren Mundine, got 12.4%. (Mundine is the first indigenous candidate ever
to be elected as one of the now three rotating Federal ALP Presidents. He
belongs to the same extended family as his cousin, Anthony Mundine, the
champion boxer, who is a kind of Australian version of Muhamed Ali, has
converted to Islam, and is well known in Australia for his anti imperialist
statements.) Other right wingers got about 6.6% of the vote, giving a total
right wing vote of 19%.

The effect of this result is that Carmen Lawrence, Barry Jones and Warren
Mundine will rotate over three years, with Carmen Lawrence the first year.

All three successful presidential and vice-presidential candidates from the
three factions: the right, the left and the centre, have indicated that they
seek a more civilised position on assylum seekers than the one adopted by
the ALP at the last federal election.

What this vote shows is that there is still considerable leftist life in the
lumbering Labor Party monolith. 41% of the ALP's membership still consider
themselves leftists and vote in their overwhelming majority for the most
leftist candidate available, Carmen Lawrence, who is identified for two
major political positions she has taken in recent times, which are her
resignation from the shadow Cabinet in protest against a weak ALP policy on
asylum seekers, and her vocal public agitation against the Iraq War.

The 7,500-odd people who still hold ALP tickets and voted for Carmen
Lawrence or the two other left candidates are a very significant part of the
organised left in Australian society. It is political lunacy of a
particularly high order for the leadership of the DSP to constantly subject
these ALP members, and indeed, the ALP members who voted for the centre or
the right candidates, to abusive, moralising sectarianism because of their
ALP membership.

It would be a far saner policy to adopt a strategic united front approach.
The possibilities for such an approach have been opened up considerably by
the victory of Carmen Lawrence in the ballot for the Federal Presidency of
the ALP. The landscape of the left in Australia is now pretty clear. There
are over 7500 leftist who hold ALP tickets. There are over 7500 members of
the Greens nationally. There are about 1000 far leftists organised
meaningfully in the far left groups, and about another 1000 in the orbit of
the far left groups (like the people who have signed pieces of paper to get
the Socialist Alliance on the ballot). It would be far more realistic of the
people in and around the far left groups and the Socialist Alliance, the
1000 or so active ones of them, to adopt a united front approach with the
14,000 or so leftists around Labor and the Greens. This is just at the micro
level of the membership of organisations. This necessity for a strategic
united front with Laborites and Greens is even more powerful when you go to
the broader arena of the 40 per odd who vote Labor and the 10 per cent odd
who vote Green. A united front approach is the only rational way for
socialists to proceed in current political conditions.

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