Bob Gould, 2003

Socialists and labour parties

Source: Ozleft, November 16, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

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, 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 privatisation process. A past NDP government in Ontario actually began 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 proposals. It was 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, 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 about 10 per cent 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.

An example of the sect-like approach is a post by Dave Riley on the Green Left discussion list.

“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 anymore … so 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 November 12, 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 unions and the ALP in order for the unions 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 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 minds 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.

When Sue B talks in this non-materialist way she 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, about the god-wallopers, but it is also applicable to socialist sects that 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, insofar as it exists.

Serious research, tracking demographics and class 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 mainly inhabited by blue-collar workers and particularly, non-English-speaking-background 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 to avoid the tactical conclusions that flow from this objective reality. There is a qualitative difference between the Labor primary vote of 40 per cent or so, and the Green primary vote of 10 per cent on the one hand, and the Socialist Alliance vote of 0.5 per cent and less, 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.

Carmen Lawrence wins the Labor Party presidency in a rank-and-file ballot

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 per cent. This was a fairly high vote, as you can discount about 12,000-14,000 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.

Those 19,000 votes in a non-compulsory postal ballot are a pretty big 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 per cent. Michael Samaris, the NSW leftist candidate, got 563 votes. Duncan Kerr, the Tasmanian leftist got 733 votes. The total left vote was 41 per cent.

Barry Jones, the voluble centrist candidate, a previous federal president, got 5239 votes or 28 per cent. Other centre candidates got about 12 per cent, making a total centre vote of 40 per cent.

The candidate of the NSW right, deliberately chosen for his relatively leftist credentials, the indigenous Australian Warren Mundine, got 12.4 per cent. (Mundine is the first indigenous candidate ever to be elected as one of the now three rotating ALP federal 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 per cent of the vote, giving a total right wing vote of 19 per cent.

The effect of this result is that Carmen Lawrence, Barry Jones and Warren Mundine will rotate over three years, with Carmen Lawrence taking 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 support a more civilised position on asylum seekers than the one adopted by the ALP at the last federal election.

This vote shows that there is still considerable leftist life in the lumbering Labor Party monolith — 41 per cent 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 7500-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 more than 7500 leftist who hold ALP tickets. There are more than 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 cent or so 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.