Bob Gould, 2004

A preliminary observation on the NSW local government elections

Source: Ozleft, Green Left Weekly discussion list, March 29, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The results of the 2004 NSW local government elections contain sharply contradictory elements. The first thing must be noted is the rapid rise of the Greens as a distinct political force on the left of society. Running through the results outside Sydney, and in outer suburban Sydney, a very noticeable phenomenon was one or two successful Greens candidates popping up, even in very conservative country areas, alongside the rural Laborites, who also dot country areas, either as Country Labor, or as labour independents.

In these environments, outside the Sydney metropolitan area, the logic of the situation will tend to dictate a united front between the Greens and the Laborites, because their common enemies are the conservative Nationals, Liberals and One Nation supporters.

When you get to the big, working-class areas of blue-collar and migrant concentration in the mid-western suburbs and mid-southern suburbs of Sydney, the Laborites either gained dramatically or more or less held their own (although a worrying thing from a socialist point of view is the apparent election of two One Nation candidates in one ward of Bankstown).

In these blue-collar, migrant areas, the Greens did moderately well, and are emerging as a significant force, generally although not always, to the left of the Laborites. In the Randwick council area, Labor held on pretty well and the Greens emerged as a significant force. In the Waverley council area, where left Labor and Greens councillors collaborate, the Labor-Green bloc did extremely well despite ferocious local right-wing red-baiting.

It looks like Labor will have about four, and the Greens will have about four in a council of 12, and will share the running of the council, which is a healthy situation from a socialist point of view.

Leichhardt and Marrickville

In Leichhardt and Marrickville, the local left Labor machine influenced by Anthony Albanese and Marrickville mayor Barry Cotter made a shortsighted and rather desperate electoral move that indicates that either they haven’t been studying carefully the changing demographic mix in the inner city, or that they can’t count very well, or both.

They shot themselves in the foot, or perhaps in this case the head, by changing the ward boundaries in both municipalities, and changing the number elected in each ward, from four to three. If they had left the old ward boundaries, they would in fact have done far better in this election.

The change to the ward boundaries was driven by shortsighted vindictiveness towards the local Greens, many of whom are former members of the Labor Party and in fact former members of the Albanese faction of the Labor left.

With wards of four, Labor, which is a substantial electoral force in most blue-collar areas, and even in areas that are more gentrified, would have elected two councillors, or at least one (with a quota of 20 per cent). With a quota of 20 per cent, even in blue-collar areas, you are likely to get two Laborites, one Green and one Liberal.

In more gentrified areas, you’re more likely to get one Labor, two Greens, and one Liberal, or in extremely affluent areas, one Labor, one Green and two Libs. If you go for the sensible wards of four, which takes account of the changing social composition of the inner city, the result dictates to sensible socialists either in the ALP or the Greens a realistic left united front, as successfully practiced in Waverley.

The big-heads of the dominant Labor left machine in Leichhardt and Marrickville chose to go down the opposite path of total, unrestrained political warfare against the Greens, and they’ve paid the price. They adopted four wards of three councillors in both municipalities, and predictably, the Greens outpolled them in every ward of Leichhardt Council and did very well in Marrickville.

The Greens had a reasonable political argument about the undemocratic nature of wards of three, and that clearly meshed with the changing social composition of the area. Interestingly, the Greens actually got two out of the three in the most affluent hotspot of the Leichhardt municipality, the Balmain peninsula (the rabid right-winger, Paddy McGuiness was obviously bored by his period on council, and didn’t stand again, and in the event was replaced by a Green, which must gall him no end).

In the Leichhardt municipality, the Labor team made an electoral pact with the Liberals, which is quite unprincipled from a socialist point of view. In my view, on both sides of the electoral fence in Leichhardt and Marrickville — the left Labor side and the Greens side — a sense of proportion ought to prevail.

Labor should ditch its bloc with the Liberals, and the left Labor people should seek a modus vivendi with the Greens in both areas. I know a lot of the personalities in both Labor and Green camps in both municipalities, and there are very good people and good socialists and left-wingers in both.

They exist alongside a few factional crazies in both camps. A good start to rebuilding sensible relations between Labor and the Greens in both municipalities would be for the Labor representatives in both municipalities to acknowl edge their mistake and take the initiative to restore wards of four in both council areas.

The City of Sydney

The result in the City of Sydney is more or less predictable given the social composition of the area these days, once the conservative populist, Clover Moore, announced her candidature. This was a classic case of the Sussex Street Labor machine not noticing the cement truck bearing down on them.

Clover Moore has established herself in the top end, gentrified areas of Paddington, Elizabeth Bay, Surry Hills, etc, as a representative of a kind of conservative populism incorporating a certain concern for the residents, but also a political pitch to extremely affluent residents.

Moore is a Bonapartist political figure, and gets very good media because many of the people who work in the media live in her area. When the smoke cleared on the night of the election, there was a pronounced swing against Labor, of the sort that has happened every time Labor has challenged Clover Moore in her own, very affluent heartland in the inner eastern suburbs.

In areas such as Kings Cross and Elizabeth Bay, which would be mainly Liberal in federal elections, Moore outpolled both Labor and the Liberals by about five to one.

Even in the face of Clover Moore’s cement truck, in the generally ultra-affluent City of Sydney area, the electoral results, particularly the ALP’s 23 per cent , remain a dramatic class map of the area.

Despite the swing to Moore, the booths that Labor won were Redfern Town Hall, Redfern Central, St Josephs Redfern (by a massive 641 to Moore’s 284), and Gardiner’s Road. These are all booths in the area of the massive council flats in Redfern. I’ve heard anecdotally, that Labor won Waterloo and St Peters, but the results weren’t up on the night. In Ultimo and Pyrmont, Labor won Ultimo (430 to 270) but at the other end of the peninsula, where all the new expensive units are, Pyrmont was won by Moore (792 to 442).

In Glebe the class division was palpable. Labor won Glebe Town Hall, and anecdotally, Glebe Public School, which are booths in the middle of the Department of Housing Glebe Estate. Moore won the ultra-affluent Glebe Point booth located at St Scholastica’s College (421 to 178).

The division between Clover Moore voters and Labor voters in the City of Sydney reflects a very large element of class and social status. The Clover Moore campaign made a pitch, very intelligently, to what was clearly perceived as the upward social mobility of their constituency.

The 10 per cent Green vote was spread much more evenly across the city. The Greens didn’t do as well, however, in either of the two extremes: the strongly Liberal areas, or the strongly Labor areas. The Green hotspots were Newtown Church, and Erskinville Public School, which are areas of bottom-end gentrification. The Greens got a very respectable result of about 10 per cent , considering the velocity of the Clover Moore cement truck.

A feature of the voting was that the Moore team’s vote dropped fairly sharply in the vote for councillors, and they are unlikely to get more than three on the council. The Laborites will get either two or three, and the Liberals will get one. The Greens have a chance of getting two.

The Socialist Alliance

The Socialist Alliance ran in Auburn, Bankstown, Newcastle, Wollongong, Marrickville, Leichhardt, Randwick and the City of Sydney.

I haven’t so far been able to locate the results other than for the City of Sydney, but I imagine they’ll be consistent with the results from Sydney, where the Socialist Alliance mayoral candidate, Susan Price, got about 346 votes (0.7 per cent), and the same candidate standing for the council got about 100 votes (0.2 per cent ).

The Alliance result was the kind of undisciplined, almost off-the-radar vote that any independent gets in this situation, which is indicated by the extraordinary gap between the mayoral vote and the councillor vote. I saw the Labor scrutineers' worksheet for Newtown Public School, and despite the fact that the Socialist Alliance indicated a preference for the Greens, then Clover Moore, over Labor, 17 of the 31 Socialist Alliance votes stopped after the Greens, and of the residual 14, eight went to Moore, and six to Labor.

Any notion that the Socialist Alliance vote in the City of Sydney indicates some sort of conscious preference for socialism is delusional.

Lessons of the 2004 municipal elections

Everything in current politics comes back to the question of the necessary united front to remove the reactionary Howard government.

The municipal elections took place against the backdrop of the extraordinary hysteria being whipped up by the Liberals and the bourgeois press against Mark Latham’s announcement of his intention to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq (working for Labor on the booth at Newtown Church, a Clover Moore-Green hotspot, took me back a bit to the rather hectic against-the-stream atmosphere of say, the 1966 Vietnam election, which Labor lost).

One elegant, benighted male Tory of about my own age, with his equally elegant wife, hissed at me “we don’t reward traitors”, presumably referring to Latham and Iraq. The reader may imagine my vernacular response.

The federal elections require tight unity between Labor, the Greens and those socialists who have any brains at all, directed at removing the Liberal government. This unity won’t be all that easy to achieve, given a certain amount of natural sectarianism in both the Labor and Green camps resulting from the undeniable fact that Labor and the Greens are in electoral competition.

Nevertheless, both groups must exchange preferences to achieve a successful electoral outcome for the left side of society. From this point of view, the conservative populism represented by the Clover Moore cement truck in the City of Sydney has a good side, and a potentially a very bad side.

The emergence of conservative populists breaking the Tory ranks, such as Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and slightly more leftist independents like Peter Andren and even to some extent Clover Moore, is a good thing insofar as it weakens the Tory electoral grip.

For instance, it would be a good thing if Clover Moore could be persuaded to run against Malcolm Turnbull in Wentworth, which is part of her electorate. She is very unlikely to do that, but having extended her conservative populist base into the seat of Sydney I can see another cement truck emerging on the horizon, in the form of a Moore-backed candidate against both Labor’s Tanya Plibersek and the Greens in the seat of Sydney.

The problem with conservative populists like Moore is that their politics are carefully crafted to the way they perceive their affluent social base. It’s a brutal fact that Moore and the other two independents kept the Liberal Greiner government in power in NSW when they could have voted them out, and we can’t underestimate the hysterical right-wing campaign that will be waged in this federal election by the Liberals and the bourgeois press. We are getting a taste of that at the moment.

From this point of view, the capitulation of the DSP and ISO leaderships to the conservative populism of Clover Moore is a most dangerous political decision, and the most reactionary one possible in the current political situation.

Peter Boyle’s delusional treatment of Clover Moore as reflecting some sort of unambiguous shift to the left flies in the face of current political realities, and flies in the face of the clear class divisions that are so dramatically apparent in the pattern of votes in the City of Sydney elections. Any socialists who have any notion of class in their veins should have preferenced Labor over Clover Moore in the City of Sydney elections.

Peter Boyle has for the past couple of years been babbling in an increasingly incoherent way, trying to make Lenin’s early and only partly developed theory of “aristocracies of labour” applicable as some kind of philosopher’s stone in current Australian working class politics.

Nevertheless, he treats Clover Moore’s conservative populist avalanche in the City of Sydney, supported both by the Liberals and the bourgeois press, as some kind of unambiguous swing to the left. It hardly needs to be pointed out that the social momentum of Clover’s conservative populism is hardly located anywhere in any sort of “labour aristocracy”, so much as in the social stratosphere quite a bit above any section of the working class.

So much for Boyle’s incoherent use of Marxist theory in any application to current working class politics.

An ugly little Toowoomba Moscow Trial

I bitterly resent the low-key but deliberate, semi-Stalinist throwaway remark by DSP leadership supporter Alan Bradley, who happens to be in the Greens. Why I consider it worthwhile to respond to this inane remark is that he’s only taking a cue from people who should know better, such as GLParramatta, who said something similar in a post in December, and several other DSP leadership supporters who have said similar things.

The proposition is that if you argue for a tactical orientation differing from that advanced by the DSP leadership, you are sabotaging the socialist struggle. That means that every socialist outside the smallish minority of socialists who adopt the DSP leadership’s current tactical orientation are saboteurs.

Over a very long and active political life I’ve been accused of political sabotage by Stalinists, ALP right-wingers and members of the official ALP left from time to time. It ought not to be necessary to draw attention to the way this sort of discussion resembles that of the Stalinists in the Moscow Trials in the 1930s.

It is offensive and stupid for Bradley and other DSP leadership supporters to go on in this way, but it is consistent with, and to some extent flows from, their semi-Stalinist, Third-Period political orientation.

I’m not appealing to the patient moderator of this list to do anything about it. If Bradley and other DSP leadership supporters choose to use arguments right out of the historical arsenal of Stalinism, I can’t stop them doing that. In a way it’s politically educational for others.

But if Bradley and others can accuse me of sabotage, with the hint of Stalinist witchburning that is implied, it is not unreasonable of me to point out the historical overtones in a such a political approach.

Discussion, Discussion, Discussion, Discussion

See also:

Local government boundaries in Sydney

Socialist Alliance lurches dramatically to the right