Bob Gould, 2004

Electoral prospects of the Socialist Alliance
The outlook for socialist groups is not rosy

Source: Ozleft, Green Left Weekly discussion list, June 4, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Green Left discussion list, June 4, 2004

I had never seen Michael Berrell before last Sunday’s rather extraordinary World Socialist Web Site meeting, but at least now I can associate a head with the name. Berrell is talking impressionistic nonsense about socialist electoral prospects, despite the pseudo-scientific way he throws around figures.

Dave Riley’s response to him is more cautious, but also impressionistic and I note that no one in the DSP leadership has responded to Berrell. They are wise not to join in with his nonsense.

Its possible, with a bit of work, to get a bead on the electoral prospects of socialist groups in current conditions. The general trend, in fact, is significantly downwards. Several books have been written about the electoral results of minority groups in Australian society over the years, and Berrel would be wise to consult them before he talks off the top of his head.

For recent electoral results of radical and socialist groups there is a clear and relatively current precedent. In the last state elections in NSW, the Socialist Alliance was registered and on the ballot paper, which is the situation that will prevail federally this time.

Its result was was 5428 votes. Absorb that: 5428, or 0.14 per cent. The Greens vote was 320,010, or 8.59 per cent, and the Labor vote was 1,620,190, or 43.53 per cent.

There’s no reason at all to expect that the Alliance vote in the coming federal election will be appreciably larger, except possibly in Tasmania, which I’ll discuss a bit later.

Berrell’s fanciful playing with figures about the 1.62 per cent vote for by the Progressive Labor Party in the previous state election is impressionistic nonsense. The PLP conducted no campaign at all outside the Newcastle area, and that vote was clearly a combination of name confusion with the Labor Party and few discontented Labor voters who wanted some version of Laborism that was more progressive.

If that was not the case, why the discrepancy between the 1.62 per cent for the PLP in one state election, and the 0.14 per cent for the Socialist Alliance in the subsequent state election?

There’s no doubt in my mind, also, that the Socialist Alliance probably conducted a considerably larger campaign than the PLP, statewide.

The electoral result for the Socialist Alliance outside Tasmania will be in the range 0.1 to 0.3 per cent. I make this firm prediction based on the current political conjuncture, in which the Greens are clearly the electoral destination of discontented Labor and progressive voters, and in which there will be a significant rallying around Labor under Latham’s leadership in what is perceived by people as a crisis election.

This perception has been sharpened by the intervention of global emperor Bush in Australian electoral politics. It will be an all-the-way-with-GW-Bush election, with the inevitable result that progressive voters will rally around Labor and the Greens.

In addition to this, with the ideological confusion that prevails in advanced capitalist countries like Australia after the collapse of Stalinism and the betrayals of right-wing Labor leaderships, the word socialist is a distinct electoral liability on a ballot paper.

I am a Marxian socialist and have no intention of changing, but political realism dictates a sane estimate of labels on electoral prospects. The Green label, the Labor label and the Progressive Labor label are all electoral assets for different constituencies, but the electoral appeal of the socialist label in Australia is minuscule by comparison for complex historical reasons (this is obviously a consideration with the DSP leadership, which doggedly and sensibly resists pressure to change the name of its newspaper from Green Left Weekly to something with socialist in the title.

All recent electoral results for small socialist groups fit this general trend, with a few significant exceptions, like the recent result in a Tasmanian by-election. I’d be interested in a detailed analysis from the people involved in that election as to the make-up of the electorate, what other candidates were running, whether the candidate was on the ballot paper as a socialist or an independent, etc.

It seems likely to me that the candidate’s relatively high local profile as a medical doctor may have been a factor. At different times in the past, for instance, the Communist Party achieved significant minority electoral votes built around local personalities, or built on sustained party activity in particular areas.

Electoral results in those circumstances flowed from substantial organisational implantation in those areas in combination with charismatic personalities as candidates, such as the Rhodes Scholar Fred Paterson in Queensland, another medical doctor and CP leader, GP O’Dea, in Melbourne.

Andrew Jamieson, a DSP leader who was active in the mining industry in North West Tasmania, was elected for a time as a socialist independent councillor in Tasmania.

Andrew Jamieson might write a little about that experience and correct me if I’ve got the story wrong. My understanding of that experience was that when Jamieson, for personal reasons, moved from Tasmania to Western Australia that electoral experience ended.

I don’t dispute that socialists running in elections independently sometimes creates the possibility of effective socialist propaganda during the election campaign. That, of course, has to be balanced against the fact that it tends to preclude socialists intervening and participating in the election campaigns of the mass organisation of the labour movement, the Labor Party, and the Greens.

To get back to Michael Berrell, and to some extent Dave Riley, they are deluding themselves if they think there is a substantial prospect of small socialist groups sustaining ongoing comprehensive electoral activity independent of Labor and the Greens, outside a few situations in which very favorable circumstances apply.

This will be demonstrated in the coming federal elections by the results that the Alliance will get in every state where it is registered and on the Senate ballot paper.