Bob Gould, 2004

Mark Latham’s meeting in Leichhardt

Source: Ozleft, Green Left Weekly discussion list, November 24, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The heterogeneous, contradictory mass workers’ party known as the ALP is alive and kicking, as demonstrated by the 700-strong meeting with Mark Latham at Leichhardt Town Hall

Green Left discussion list

The voluble Michael Berrell, who worked for the Socialist Equality Party on election day — the party that called for an informal vote between Labor and the Liberals — keeps asserting, without sound evidence, that Laborism is kaput, both electorally and politically.

His maths are pretty selective. When you look at Malcolm Mackerras’s pendulum, the 2004 election 47.5 per cent two-party preferred vote for Labor wasn’t as low as its 1996, 1975 or 1966 votes.

Berrell’s argument, which he takes over wholesale from bourgeois pundits, ignores the fact that the two-party preferred vote is what matters in Australian electoral politics. From that point of view, the Greens vote can be seen as the extreme left of the Labor vote.

Rumours of the death of Laborism and the ALP are a bit like the rumours of the death of Mark Twain — grossly exaggerated.

In the past four or five days a couple of events have demonstrated this point: the Labor Party Victorian conference last weekend fired a number of shots across the bows of the Victorian Labor government and the federal parliamentary caucus on the need to preserve the existing, defensible, ALP federal industrial relations policy; and then there was the mass meeting at Leichhardt Town Hall.

The Financial Review reported that there were 700 at the meeting, and that was pretty close. There were 380 chairs, and people were crammed into every spare bit of space, including the aisles, on the stage and in the side and back entrances.

Pip Hinman, of the DSP — which routinely calls 75 people 100 at the Sydney Gaelic Club, when it’s a DSP show — understates the figure in her report on the Green Left Weekly list.

The meeting took the form used by Latham during the federal elections. He stood at the front and picked the speakers.

A few of the speakers wound up their interventions by asking questions at the end, but the striking thing was that nearly all took the opportunity to make a short statement.

The composition of the meeting was very diverse. There were about 300 youth, but a lot of older people as well. There were a lot of ALP members and a lot of Greens members as well, and large numbers of ALP and Greens supporters.

Out of the 25 or so speakers from the floor, there were a couple of ALP right-wing interventions, and one crazed fascist who made a raving anti-immigration, anti-Muslim speech. He was howled down by the crowd and put in his place by Latham, who said angrily that the bloke needed mental help.

All the rest of the speakers, about 20, were broadly on the left, and they took up rather sharply, between them, most of the major political issues: migration, racism, working class poverty, defence of trade union rights and the federal ALP industrial relations policy, opposition to preferencing right-wing religious parties, the right to gay marriage, defence of the environment, the forests policy, etc.

A big theme of the speakers from the floor was how important it was that Latham was prepared to front an audience in this way. One 85 year-old woman spoke in defence of trade unions and the industrial relations system, appealed eloquently to Latham to stick to the progressive industrial relations policy, and got substantial applause for a suggestion that such meetings should be held regularly — a theme that was taken up by other speakers, including myself.

I plonked myself in the middle of the hall and tried to get the call, and Latham — with whom I have clashed quite frequently in the past — was a bit reluctant to give it to me, obviously because he wasn’t sure what I was going to say. At one point he said that “Bobby Gould” got a good run at this kind of meeting anyway. Then, after the speech of the fascist, who was sitting behind me, Latham said he’d have been better off giving the call to Bob Gould. I yelled out, “Why don’t you?” and he caved in and said I could be the last speaker, and I held him to that by waving my arm around a bit.

When I finally got to speak, I said the following: firstly for my sins I’ve been a member of the ALP for 50 years. This meeting, its size and its vigour, clearly demonstrated that the ALP was alive and kicking in Grayndler and the inner-city. I was interrupted by applause.

I said that, like Anthony Albanese — who had organised the meeting as the Labor member for Grayndler — I had opposed Latham’s bid for the leadership, but that like Albanese, his behaviour as leader had converted me. I said the recent election campaign had been the most left-wing for 20 years or so, and his leadership had been the most leftist for 20 years or so, which was kind of unusual because of his origins in the NSW Labor right. I was interrupted by another burst of loud clapping.

I then said that on the key political issues, except refugees: ie opposition to the Iraq war, bringing the troops home, the progressive industrial relations policy, the progressive education policy, and defence of the old-growth forests — the four issues on which the elections eventually focused — Latham had been belligerently principled. I made a little joke that he had largely passed my political test. Latham mopped his brow in mock relief.

I said, on that basis, like many leftists, I would critically support his ALP leadership for the foreseeable future, unless he moved dramatically away from those progressive positions, because all the alternatives to him were well to his right.

I then said there were negative features of his election campaign, the worst of which was the failure to take a more civilised stand on asylum seekers, but I noted on that question that Latham had shifted a little to the left compared with Kim Beasley in the previous election. From that point of view it was a mistake to have appointed my old mate Laurie Ferguson as shadow immigration minister, given his well-known reactionary views about asylum seekers. I was again interrupted by applause.

By that time Latham was trying to wind me up, so I started to do so, firstly hoeing into the right-wing Labor machine for preferencing the right-wing religious parties rather than the Greens. I pointed out that the Victorian Family First started out with a meagre 1.6 per cent of the vote and managed to build up to a quota of 14 per cent, with the aid of 6 per cent from Labor preferences, which was an obscenity.

Still winding up, I said to Latham that he should look at this meeting and absorb its views, as it was a big spectrum of Labor and Greens members and supporters, who liked this parliament of the people, were respectful of his leadership and were grateful for his coming to front them in this sensible way, but their support, and my support wasn’t unconditional and we all expected the ALP to stick to a broadly leftist position, like the one he had mainly adopted during the election campaign.

I ended on a slightly downbeat note, but got the biggest applause for the evening, except for the applause for Latham himself. In my view, that was because I accurately summed up the views of the audience and captured their mood. I’m not always the most popular figure at public meetings, but on this occasion my summing up was very popular.

The DSP’s ugly little united front from below

Pip Hinman’s account of the meeting on the Green Left list is typically mean-spirited and contains important omissions. The whole tone of her account, which one assumes will also appear in Green Left Weekly, exemplifies everything that is counter-productive in the DSP’s attitude to Laborism and Laborites.

Her tone is vituperative, not just towards Latham and myself, but also towards the 700 or so people who were boisterously enthusiastic for Labor but who also asserted quite sharply to Latham that they wanted a more leftist course for the ALP. She insults them by saying they were oh so polite in their criticisms and assertions. Hinman is clearly contemptuous of their generally leftist political standpoint.

They may have been polite in their presentations, but politically they took up a big part of what any socialist would take up in the labour movement, and they had enough brains — unlike the DSP — to present their views courteously to Latham. I also tried, despite a bit of banter, to present my views in a similarly courteous way.

Hinman, in a nasty way, asserts that the meeting was a kind of “meeting of the clan”. Some clan, a pretty large clan, in fact, and one that any sensible socialist would try to relate to.

The DSP, which has difficulty getting 100 people to a citywide meeting in Sydney, characterises a heterogeneous mostly leftist crowd of 700 as a “clan”, and attacks them because they don’t immediately snap to attention and present their generally leftist views in a way acceptable to the DSP. That is the height of what French Trotskyist leader Daniel Bensaid once described as “moralising sectarianism”.

A later response of Hinman on the Green Left list is absolutely typical. She asserts from a position of “Marxist” superiority, that the meeting wasn’t a gathering of socialists. It seems that to get the christening oil on your forehead you have to get the approval of the DSP. I’ve got news for Hinman. The overwhelming majority of people at that meeting were socialists, and many were more useful and effective socialists than the DSP sectarians.

A universe in which those 700 people are not socialists is indeed a kind of DSP-constructed parallel universe, not the one in which we’re stuck.

The reality of political, industrial and social life in Australia at the moment, which Marxists fail to recognise at their peril, is that the creaking mass reformist Labor-trade union continuum is still the dominant force on the left, and the only serious electoral alternative to it is the similarly reformist Greens small mass party.

Marxists must have some realistic tactical orientation to both these formations of the left in Australia: Labor and the Greens.

The DSP’s settled and permanent Third Period sectarianism is an almost total obstacle to it having any influence in these two mass formations. Pissing on Laborites and Greens, exemplified by Hinman’s contemptuous account of the Leichhardt meeting, will never convince anyone much, and is no practical or principled way to crystalise a class-struggle left wing in the workers’ movement.

PS. Pip Hinman retreats to the formulation of all adherents of sects that aren’t doing too well, asserting that Green Left Weekly was well-received at the meeting. Her puffed-up view of Left’s importance might be more convincing if she told us how many were sold: was it five, 10 or even 15 in a mass meeting of 700? I bought one, and standing outside talking to people after the meeting I didn’t see many people carrying a Green Left. Am I going blind?

PPS. Sometimes it’s useful to wait until your opponents tell their story, which I’ve done on this occasion. Pip Hinman’s lying account of the meeting, and the apocalyptic ALP-is-finished tone of her responses throw into bold relief the differences between us. First of all, her sectarianism towards Labor and Laborites leads her to considerable carelessness. So, “it wasn’t a meeting of socialists, Gould was the only socialist who spoke, and his views were bizarre”.

Hinman has forgotten one of her own members, who was sitting in front of me, who asked a pertinent question about Iraq. She was one of the few speakers who didn’t make a general political statement insisting that Labor should stick to a more leftist course, obviously because the DSP doesn’t want Labor to shift to a leftist course, it wants it to move to the right.

It’s quite clear that Latham is a populist and a Bonapartist. His core economic views are conservative. Nevertheless, he makes considerable concessions to the left on a number of the major political questions of the day, as he did on industrial relations during the election campaign.

The Defend Craig Johnson Committee, in a statement that the DSP quotes in Green Left Weekly without comment, says there are many more ALP trade unionist members of the committee than there are members of the Socialist Alliance.

Those ALP trade unionists were alive and kicking at last weekend’s Victorian ALP conference, insisting on a leftward course for the ALP. One awaits with interest some account of that conference in Green Left Weekly.

It’s possible that the DSP’s self-fulfilling prophecy about the ALP moving irrevocably and finally to the right may come true in the future. It certainly hasn’t happened yet. The struggle in the ALP-trade union continuum — the big mass movement — is still proceeding.

The belligerent, unrepentant, mean-spirited sectarianism of the DSP towards the members of the ALP who are pushing for a more leftist outcome is an obstacle to the creation of a class-struggle left wing in the workers movement.

The late Gerry Healy, who in his own curious way was for most of his political life a rather more impressive figure than anyone in the DSP, used to assert in his worst sectarian moment that “we” meaning his group) were the only socialists on the planet. I didn’t take kindly to that from Gerry Healy, for whom on some other questions I had some admiration. I don’t take kindly to it from the DSP either.

There’s a streak of that kind of lunatic sectarianism in most socialist sects. The DSP has made a big fuss about ditching the theory of permanent revolution and the old Trotskyism. Its underlying trajectory is basically opportunist. Hinman’s assertion that there were no socialists other than Bob Gould at the meeting — implying that to be a socialist you had fit her strictures and adhered to the DSP line — is genuinely bizarre.

Michael Berrell is being a bit cute when he says the SEP didn’t advocate an informal vote

November 24, 2004

At the SEP meeting that we both attended, I pressed Nick Beams on the preference question, and he said that by law they were required to indicate a preference, and therefore because Liberal and Labor were equal capitalist parties, the SEP intended to lodge a split ticket, allocating half of their above-the-line vote to the conservatives and half to Labor. In anybody’s language, that’s an informal vote.

What Berrell himself did, below the line, obviously with a slight fit of conscience, is irrelevant to the point that the SEP, which he supported and worked for, advocated an informal vote by this quite direct route. An informal vote doesn’t count, and in this case the preferences of the SEP didn’t count.

By this route, half the SEP vote went to the Liberals. Did the presumably left-wing voters for the SEP know that?

Pip Hinman seems to resent my description of her article as vituperative, etc. By any normal use of language, it was vituperative. I’m not overly concerned by the abuse thrown at me, or at Mark Latham for that matter. The DSP can abuse anyone, and its tone and motives often damage it more than the target of its abuse.

What angers me mainly is Hinman’s offensive tone towards the rank and file Labor and Green activists and supporters at the meeting. The whole tone of Hinman’s report reeks of contempt for these people. The reference to them as a clan, the ridiculing of their courteous tone towards Latham, etc.

Hinman can’t come to terms with the fairly sharp leftism expressed courteously by about four-fifths of the speakers. She’s quite unprepared to concede any autonomy to leftist sentiments, particularly if they come from ALP activists. She implies it’s all fraudulent. What a foolish, sectarian posture to adopt towards a big slice of the active left-wing political people in the inner-west of Sydney.

No wonder many of them are rather cautious about responding to DSP initiatives when all they get is contempt and abuse because of their Labor organisational allegiance. The striking thing about the Hinman-Boyle-Riley approach is that it concentrates entirely on the alleged role of Latham.

They refuse to give any significance to the fact that he’s being constantly challenged by forces to his right, and the Murdoch press in particular is campaigning for his removal. From the Murdoch camp’s point of view, he’s an unreliable Bonapartist who concedes too much to the left part of his Labor-Green constituency.

The really offensive and stupid part of the DSP’s approach, however, is the complete contempt for the leftist views of the Labor and Green activists and rank and file at the meeting.

Hinman treats them as poor, benighted fools who will inevitably be betrayed by Latham. The reality is, however, that Latham is forced by political circumstances to take the sentiment of the Labor rank and file into account if he’s to survive as leader. That’s the nature of his Bonapartism.

Hinman and company reduced mass politics simply to a formula about rotten Labor leaders who are continually conspiring to betray. They give no weight to the leftist sentiments of the rank and file in the workers movement. That’s about as stupid as you can get.

Paul Oboohov’s sublime computerised mathematical bullshit

Oboohov has just posted a mystifying, almost incomprehensible, piece in which he talks blithely about spreadsheets, etc, etc, and he treats politics as if it goes in a straight line, confidently predicting on the basis of his slightly lunatic spreadsheets that the Labor vote will go down more or less forever.

Oboohov is a mechanical materialist and a mathematical mystic. The nature of electoral politics is that two-party preferred votes usually fluctuate, rather than going in a straight line. Malcolm Mackerras, who is much more coherent and informative than Oboohov, performed the useful exercise in The Australian of November 20-21 of providing the two-party preferred votes back to 1949.

If you take 1993 as a starting point, the Labor two-party preferred vote was 51.4 per cent. In 1996 it dropped dramatically to 46.4 per cent. In 1998 it bounced back to 51.0. In 2001 it dropped back to 49.1 per cent. In 2004 it dropped back a little more to 47.3 per cent — still higher than 1996.

The most likely variant, if you discount Oboohov’s self-interested mechanical materialist DSP computer bullshit, is that in the next election the ALP two-party preferred vote will bounce back a bit.

That’s certainly what has happened over the past 10 years and over the past 50 years, notwithstanding Oboohov’s psuedo-science in the service of the DSP’s hopeful prophecy about the terminal decline of Labor.

Michael Berrell’s response to my posts on the Labor Party borders on the eccentric

November 25, 2004

It’s an eccentricity common on both the far left and the far right, and one to which, to be entirely honest, most of us sometimes fall victim.

Leaving aside Berrell’s convenient amnesia about SEP preferences, the eccentricity of his approach lies in his fully fledged conspiracy theory of politics, particularly Labor politics.

He advances a conspiracy theory of a curious entity he creates in his own mind called the Labor Party, an all-encompassing phenomenon that’s constantly conspiring to move its own politics to the right.

In the real world, the creaking Labor-trade union continuum is a heterogeneous mass formation of competing groups, forces and interests, containing a range of ideological positions, which are often in conflict with each other.

This is obvious, particularly at a moment such as the present, when there is conflict about which way the Labor and trade union movements should move.

It may be comfortable for Berrell and other Marxist sectarians to create this overarching conspiracy theory of Laborism, but it’s absolutely useless and counterproductive in developing ideas about how to proceed in the current crisis of the labour movement.

In Berrell’s mindset, all that’s possible is to predict gloom and doom and further shifts of the mass movement to the right until the masses wake up and support the socialist sect of one’s choice.

In the real world, of course, that won’t happen.

This conspiracy view of labour movement politics is associated with a similar left view of the bourgeois side of politics, which many Marxists often treat as if there’s some executive committee of the ruling class somewhere deciding on broad policy and immediate moves.

In reality the bourgeois side of politics is a collection of competing interests and forces, although a dominant view of strategy and immediate needs often emerges. Conflicts among the ruling class are usually conducted in greater privacy than those in the labour movement.

I am constantly amazed at the conspiracy view of the labour side of politics advanced by Berrell, the Socialist Equality Party and Pip Hinman and the DSP, when the conflicts within the broad labour and workers movement are often so public and so clearly associated with different broad political interests and views.

Reaction to my account of the meeting

November 25, 2004

Nick Fredman and Peter Boyle react very sharply to my account of Mark Latham’s meeting at Leichhardt Town Hall.

Boyle attacks me for recounting the events in the first person. It would have been difficult for me not to give an account in the first person because I attended the meeting and spoke at it. Apparently it’s all right for Pip Hinman to lie about what I said, mainly by omission, but if I correct the record of what I said, which inevitably has to be in the first person, I’m accused of some kind of megalomania.

Boyle's difficulty is that he’s a puffed-up example of the species Lenin used to describe as the “committee men”. He spends all his time in the DSP building, bossing around people in a small circle and he’s obviously rather resentful of my activities as an old agitator. As he says, to each his own.

The rather more sinister aspect of Boyle’s and Fredman’s posts is their unashamed use of the amalgam method of polemic used so notoriously by the Stalinists in the 1930s.

Because I make a detailed critique of the DSP’s political activities, they both imply that I’m in some way in league with Doug Cameron. Apparently, if someone can find some words in what they say is a Cameronite leaflet that are similar to my critique of the DSP, that’s sufficient to tar me by implication as a Cameronite. What a nasty, Stalinist kind of argumentation that is.

I demand that if Fredman and Boyle make such implications that I’m somehow in league with supporters of Cameron, they produce evidence to that effect, rather than ugly, Stalinist innuendo.