Bob Gould, 2004

Labor and Greens in Sydney
An open letter to fellow Labor Party members after the local government election

Source: Self-published leaflet, Ozleft, April 14, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

It seems appropriate for me to identify myself, for those who may not know me, although many do. I joined the Bondi Branch of the ALP about 50 years ago, in February 1954 in the middle of the big Labor split. I was a foot-soldier for the left during the split. Later on, I was one of the main organisers of the Vietnam Action Committee during the campaign against the Vietnam War. I have been a delegate to about 30 ALP state conferences from the 1950s through to the early 1980s, and I was a delegate to the smaller 1971 ALP federal conference, before Whitlam was elected. I have been a bookseller with a substantial range of material on the Labor and working class movements for more than 30 years. So I’ve seen a lot, and been an active participant in a number of political events. More recently I’ve been active in Labor for Refugees, and I always work for the ALP on the booths on election day, as I did most recently in the Sydney Council elections. I believe I’ve earned the right to speak freely, and sharply if necessary, to fellow members of the ALP.

I’m addressing this letter, in the first instance, to my fellow members of the ALP in the inner-city areas of Sydney, but the issues are of general significance for ALP members everywhere.

ALP members in Leichhardt and Marrickville should reverse their disastrous and sectarian decision to make a deal with the Liberals in Leichhardt and the small business independents in Marrickville and instead they should approach the Greens in both areas and make an arrangement with them. Why should they do this? The overriding current political consideration for everybody in the labour movement should be the removal of the reactionary Howard government. Even the proverbial “Blind Freddy” can see that the removal ofgthe Howard Government requires a civilised and careful attempt to reach an agreement for an exchange of preferences with the Greens in the federal arena.

How can it be possible to make a serious attempt at an arrangement for Green preferences in the federal arena when the ALP in the City of Sydney treats the Greens with contempt and attempts to shaft them brutally in municipal arrangements? The interests of Labor federally are seriously damaged by this kind of small-minded ALP sectarianism at the local level.

It wouldn’t be exaggerating very much to say that the action of coming to an arrangement with the Liberals and the more conservative independents in these two municipalities could seriously endanger Labor’s federal election prospects. That’s the short-term and most immediate consideration.

In addition to this, two Labor seats are directly vulnerable to the prospect of a straight-out Green electoral victory: Lindsey Tanner’s seat of Melbourne and Tanya Plibersek’s seat of Sydney. The dramatic swing to the Greens in Leichhardt and Marrickville, and the dramatic swing to the Greens and Clover Moore in the Sydney City Council election, underlines that point for the seat of Sydney.

Voters from the new social layers are not rusted on to Labor, as the votes of blue-collar workers and non-English-speaking-background migrants tend to be. These new social layer people have to be convinced to vote Labor, and treating large contingents of Green voters in Leichhardt and Marrickville with contempt by refusing to come to terms with the people they have just voted for in local council elections will only drive more people into the Green camp.

From the point of view of defending the electoral prospects of Plibersek and Tanner, holding out the Greens in the two councils can only damage the interests of Labor.

Reasons for the rise of the Greens

The dramatic rise of the Greens over the past three years to the point that they are now a major electoral force is a direct response to the ALP’s failures and sins on serious policy matters. The Greens are, in particular, the beneficiaries of the sad and unjustified retreat on refugee policy in the last federal elections and since.

The Greens are also the electoral beneficiaries of many conservative anti-trade-union activities by state Labor governments, including the Carr government.

Labor’s local electoral stupidity in Leichhardt and Marrickville

It’s pretty obvious that the electoral rise of the Greens has been fuelled by all the political questions I’ve outlined above. In the face of this, several major political managers in the ALP in Sydney’s inner-west tried to head off the development of the Greens by a very short-term electoral manoeuvre, of which the present bloc with the Liberals is a kind of continuation.

They chose to change the ward boundaries, resulting in wards of three councillors, instead of four, in the vain hope that raising the quota for the election of councillors in this way would dramatically reduce the number of Greens councillors returned. Blind Freddy could have pointed out to them (and in this case Bob Gould did) that thns manoeuvre would have the opposite effect to the one desired — atd this proved to be the case.

The effect of reducing the number of councillors per ward is to change the quota for election from 20 per cent to 25 per cent. This may not appear to be very significant, but it is in the inner city. The raw demographic reality is that Labor is struggling to get the 40 per cent necessary to elect two councillors out of four.

Labor no longer ever gets the 50 per cent required to elect two out of three councillors.

A realistic acceptance by Labor of the standard arrangements of wards of four councillors also involves a realistic acceptance of the fact that the Greens are likely to get one representative in many areas. This is a good thing, not the bad thing that some ALP members seem to regard it as. It obviously does raise the permanent necessity of a united front with the Greens in local government in many areas, but that would be an entirely healthy development for Labor.

In realpolitik terms it is better to expect the reasonable chance of two Labor plus one Green than to try the impossible task of getting two out of three Labor.

The results in the local elections in both Marrickville and Leichhardt underline this point. Instead of wards with two Labor councillors, and one or even two Greens or community independents, the absolutely predictable result has been one Labor and one Green in most wards, with one Liberal or community independent in third spot.

The inner-west ALP officials have shot the party in the foot in their desire to reduce and humiliate the Greens by this manoeuvre. The left machine people, who still more or less run the ALP in the inner-west, are pretty skilled at organising inner ALP electoral manoeuvres, but they’re very poor and shortsighted students of demography and mass politics. One hopes that they’ve learned a bit from these recent experiences and that they, even at this late stage, can be convinced to revise their strategic approach to these questions.

Longer term considerations

The attitude one might take to the emergence of the Greens to the left of Labor obviously depends on a serious assessment of the medium-term prospects for the Australian Greens, their social composition and their likely political trajectory.

To get a fix on this, some research and analysis are necessary. I have done some research on the sociology and history of the Labor vote in NSW, and the sociology of new voting trends, such as the emergence of the Greens, and several of my articles on these questions are available on Ozleft.

My assessment is that the Green phenomenon is well and truly here to stay. Everything suggests the Green vote will stabilise for a very long period in the range of 8-12 per cent overall, and a very large part of that will be concentrated for the foreseeable future in inner-city areas of bottom-end gentrification, with a high proportion of inhabitants who work in health, education, etc.

The fact that the Greens outpolled Labor in mayor Barry Cotter’s ward of Marrickville and all the wards in the Leichhardt municipality is very suggestive. Another area where the Greens do very well is the Waverly municipality, where the social mix is similar to the inner-western bottom-end gentrified areas.

The Green vote is basically a left and Labor vote, drawn overwhelmingly from the new social layers, many of whom also vote Labor. The question has to be asked: are these electoral trends likely to change in the short or medium term? All the sociological indicators are that the answer to that question is an emphatic no.

In addition to this, the Green vote is a very young vote. A very high proportion of new voters vote Green, and this also is unlikely to change in the short and medium term.

Who makes up the Greens? The Greens are our brothers and sisters, but the Liberals are our enemies

The Greens’ party organisation now has about 8000 members nationally, about 3500 of whom are in NSW. These are overwhelmingly people of the left and many are activists. Many of them are former ALP members and quite a few are former members of smaller socialist groups.

Proportional representation in all the upper houses in Australia, and in most municipalities, provides some scope for a leftist party of protest to have sufficient electoral success to to get off the ground. The Greens are now well past the critical threshold and are likely to be a durable electoral force. What’s more, the ALP is going to need Green preferences to get elected, and to govern.

Furthermore, Labor people making political arrangements with our fundamental enemies, the Liberals, against our necessary and potential allies on the left, the Greens, is a political obscenity. It reeks of bad political habits learned in students politics at their worst.

Labor people should have no permanent enemies on the left, our permanent enemies are on the right. The fundamental division in Australian society now takes this form: the capitalist class on one side is followed by the more conservative and backward sections of the population that they influence through their control of the mass media, etc. The political expression of this side is the Liberal-National coalition. The Liberals are openly the party of the ruling class, and are our enemies. On the other side are ranged the organised working class, most NESB migrants, most of the Catholic and Muslim sections of the population and the more leftist parts of the new social layers and the middle class. This side of society is electorally divided between Labor and the Greens.

A cross-class alliance in municipal politics between Labor and our fundamental enemies, the Liberals, violates all class-based political necessities for Labor in Australian politics.

The imperative need for a Labor-Green united front

There has never before in Australian history been a situation like this, where a durable electoral and political force to the left of Labor has existed in the present way. In past situations the electoral framework has not had the present features.

The big change has been the emergence of proportional representation in five state upper houses and the ACT. This has tipped the balance to make it possible for minority political formations with some activist mass base and raison d’etre to develop and have an important niche existence.

The Greens have probably just about reached the level at which they will settle for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely that we will see an onward and upward Green rise beyond this current level because the social base of the appeal of the Greens has distinct limits.

The ALP has a very durable historical and current base among blue-collar workers, NESB migrants and the section of the new social layers who are on the left society but don’t vote Green. We are likely to settle down to a situation where the ALP’s vote is 35-42 per cent the Green vote is somewhere around 8-12 per cent.

The need for a Labor-Green electoral united front against the Liberals far outweighs other immediate considerations. The fact that some individuals in the Greens are pains in the neck is an entirely secondary factor put next to these central political considerations (and needs to be balanced against the fact that our own ranks contain many pains in the neck as well!).

Students of electoral developments will have noticed that in many country areas, where there are all-in proportional representation elections in local government, one or two Greens have been elected. This scattering of Greens councillors, joining the scattering of Labor councillors (who in the country often run as independents), is an entirely healthy phenomenon. A practical united front between Labor and Greens is desirable and inevitable in these areas.

It is obviously naive to underestimate the bitterness and personal conflicts between Laborites and Greens in parts of the inner-city, but at some point a sense of proportion, and over-riding political considerations, must prevail. In both Leichhardt and Marrickville, Labor and the Greens between them are two thirds of the elected councillors and they, logically, should divide up the mayoral and deputy mayoral positions between them, while allowing community independents a role at the council committee level for obvious reasons.

The Waverley example

There is a useful and instructive example of Labor-Green practical co-operation close at hand in Sydney. In the municipality of Waverley the past mayor, Paul Pearce, now a state MP, took the initiative years ago to develop a civilised relationship with the local Greens.

This relationship has been to the great advantage of both parties. The ALP and the Greens both did extremely well in the recent council elections, and they have made arrangements to share all the important executive spots on the council.

At one point in political developments in the 19th century Marx and Engels made the observation that the British working class would have to learn German — to emulate the independent efforts of the working class in developing the German Social Democracy at that time. Labor people in local government, particularly in Sydney’s inner-west need, in a similar way, to learn to learn the language of the Waverley municipality and practice the united front with their Green colleagues.

Marrickville postscript

The result of the mayoral election for the new term in Marrickville on April 14 underlines in the most dramatic way the bankruptcy of the strategy of the managers of the Labor interest in the Marrickville municipality.

One effect of the headlong collision with the Greens that the Labor leadership in Marrickville has prosecuted so ruthlessly is that it has handed over the balance of power in the area to the three chamber-of-commerce local independents.

Both Labor and the Greens were wooing the independents. The Labor side thought it had a deal with the independents until the last minute.

That they would think this was a little over-optimistic and illusory, because when Labor had a majority in that council it tended to treat the independents with the kind of triumphalist arrogance with which they have also tended to treat the Greens. When you treat people like that, tension and animosities tend to build up. People tend to have long memories in matters relating to past humiliations.

The predictable happened. The independents accepted both Labor and Green support for Morris Hannah for mayor, but then swung over to support Sam Byrne, the candidate of the largest bloc on council, the Greens, for deputy mayor.

The Labor councillors were like stunned mullets when this happened, and thus locked out of the main posts of mayor and deputy mayor, they refused to serve on the vital council committees and, metaphorically speaking, took their ball and went home. This is the most narrow-minded sectarianism in municipal politics, because the committees are heart of the day-to-day activity of any council and for Labor not to be represented on the committees is an abdication of the interests of the Labor voters who elect them.

All this underlines the general point that it’s a far better policy for Labor in Marrickville and Leichhardt to make a direct arrangement with the other leftist, and large, force — the Greens — rather than allow themselves to be held to ransom by chamber-of-commerce independents and Liberals. Who knows what last-minute deals may pop out of the woodwork in the Leichhardt mayoral and committee elections, which are due soon?