Bob Gould, 2006

The left in the Labor Party
A response to Dale Mills

Source: Ozleft, January 15, 2006
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Green Left Weekly discussion list, January 15-16, 2007

Dale Mills reckons he has never met a left-wing Labor Party member, and asks someone to name some prominent Laborites who are on the left.

I’m a bit thrown by the question, and its form. I know Dale Mills a bit, he’s a pleasant bloke, a lawyer by trade and he has been around the DSP, off and on, for 20 years or so.

Alan Bradley’s reply to Dale, while a bit summary, is adequate, but a more lengthy discussion of his question in the new mood of sensible discussion and amity may be educational.

A couple of days ago, John Tognolini quoted Mark Latham as an authority that there were only 7000 active members of the Labor Party nationally. It’s worth remembering that the DSP leadership didn’t want to have a bar of Latham while he was leading the ALP and pushing generally to the left, but now that he says the labour movement is finished they like him.

Latham’s figures are obviously eccentric. Just before Christmas Latham spoke at a rather crowded event at Gleebooks and told his tale of woe, in effect complaining that the Labor ranks hadn’t measured up to his charismatic leadership, and therefore the organisation was now bankrupt.

That was the political essence of what he said. I and several other people had a bit of a go at him. I said I didn’t mind him having a go at Labor politicians, who could look after themselves, although after he had sprayed all over his colleagues the way he had, he ought not be surprised that he didn’t have many political friends left.

I said that what I really objected to in his book was his attack on the Labor rank and file, and that like 50,000 or 60,000 people nationwide I had been out in the hot sun working for Labor on election day, and why should he pay out on us? I got vigorous applause when I sat down, from perhaps 60 per cent of the audience.

Two or three other speakers said much the same thing, including a youngish woman who said she was from the Blue Mountains and was part of the “Latham levy”, so to speak. She said that she had joined the Labor Party in response to his relatively leftist leadership and worked hard for Labor in the elections, and she resented his turning on the people who had worked for him. She also asked the pertinent question: what other instrument was there to fight the industrial relations legislation at the mass level, than the Labor Party, the trade unions and the Greens.

She got resounding applause from the rather middle-class audience, who had probably gone along in a rather sympathetic frame of mind towards Latham.

That brings me to my first raw statistical point, which I’ve made in past discussions: when dealing with the Labor Party and trade unions, you’re not just dealing with leaders, and I regard Dale’s confining his question to prominent ALP members as a bit strange. You’re dealing with the whole of the broad labour movement, which is why the united front tactic is the decisive question.

The Labor Party manages to staff every polling booth in Australia, and most pre-polling arrangements and most mobile booths, at every election. That’s between 2500 and 3500 booths nationwide, which means the Labor Party probably has between 40,000 and 60,000 both workers on federal election days. Small socialist groups could only dream about that kind of implantation in society, and even the Greens probably only manage to turn out one third of that number, and they’re the other mass organisation on the left of society.

There has been a relatively recent test of ALP membership nationally: the rank-and-file ballot for Labor Party federal president. Well over 20,000 voted, and a substantial majority supported the most left-wing candidate available, Carmen Lawrence.

If Dale Mills hasn’t ever run into a left-wing Laborite, he leads an extraordinarily sheltered life. That he can talk like that underlines the myopic insularity of a significant section of the far left. They can’t conceive of anyone else being left-wing unless they share the particular far-left individual’s shibboleths and preoccupations.

To put the issue, up to a point, in the kind of framework Dale Mills seems to require, I’ll list a few people who I regard as significant leftists here and there in a few states.

In Victoria, Michele O’Neil of the textile union, Martin Kingham of the CFMEU, Steve Dargavel of the metalworkers union, and the secretary of the maritime union, all fairly well-known members of the militant current in the trade unions, as well as the convenor of Victorian Labor for Refugees. I’d also nominate someone that many in the DSP will know, Frans Timmermann, for many years the leading figure in the Pledge group of the Socialist Left.

Jumping to the Northern Territory, there are a number of leading personalities in the indigenous community who are also leaders of the Labor left.

In Queensland, I’d nominate Hughie Williams, the secretary of the Transport Workers Union, who many in the DSP will know.

In the ACT there’s Nick Martin, the youngish member of the federal executive from the ACT.

In NSW I’d nominate Andrew Ferguson, secretary of CFMEU and my friend Jenny Haines and three or four of her supporters in the left wing of the nurses’ union, who’ve boxed on for more than 20 years in opposition to state Labor governments’ cuts to health services. There are also a few energetic rank-and-filers, such Trevor Davies, the busy little bloke who runs the South Sydney Herald, and Anatole Kagan, the old revolutionary socialist in his nineties who still moves leftist resolutions at Mosman Labor Party branch.

I’d also nominate three significant leftists on broad industrial and social questions who are part of the NSW Labor right. John Robertson, the secretary of Unions NSW who has fought hard for refugees and stiffened up the state Labor government to take the necessary legal case against Howard’s industrial laws, the federal member for one of the western suburbs seats who sticks up vigorously for Palestinian interests, Tony Burke who replaced Laurie Ferguson as shadow immigration minister and has been such a breath of fresh air in that portfolio, and Darryl Melham who vigorously opposed the latest wave of anti-terror laws and spoke at a rally on that matter just before Christmas.

As Alan Bradley has pointed out, in a regional way the list goes on and on, unless your notion of left wing only incorporates those who agree with all of your Marxist program.

Shifting the goalposts

January 16, 2006

In response to Dale Mills, without the slightest intent of personal offensiveness, I agree with Alan Bradley that Dale should get out more, or when he does get out (and I’ve seen him in his useful role of legal monitor at a number of demonstrations) he might use some of his time talking to obvious Labor lefts, such as Darryl Melham, at the demonstration against the “anti-terror” laws at the demonstration before Christmas.

In his personally aggrieved post, Dale shifts the goalposts. He now wants not just identification of people who are left-wingers in the Labor Party, but a category he calls “members of the Labor left”.

In addition to this, he asks what makes them left. Of course, implied in this is how they measure up for his, and the DSP’s, full Marxist program.

Bradley’s reply on this point was, in my view, quite adequate. He just describes the spheres of activity in which many of the people he knows in Toowoomba are active on the left.

In my piece last night, I rattled off a miscellaneous list of some Labor leftists in a few states, including some leftists who are factionally aligned with the Labor right, but whose concrete activities on particular questions place them on the left. The most striking example is the federal member for a western suburbs seat in Sydney who constantly sticks up for the interests of the Palestinians and who comes under constant fire for that.

All the people I listed are defined by taking generally principled and leftist positions in their various spheres of activity in and around the Labor Party, and there are tens of thousands more at all levels, particularly the rank and file.

This may be a bit unfair to Dale Mills, and some others in DSP circles, but if he doubts this he should get out more and talk to some of these people. There are Labor activists like this on the left in virtually every locality, union and community and popular movement in the country.

Without wanting to be too hard on Dale, the fact that he even asks the question underlines one of my general points, that a lot of people in the DSP tend to live in a kind of alternative universe created in their own heads.

The question of how Marxists who choose to work in the Labor Party should organise, like the question of how Marxists who choose to work in the Greens should organise, is different, and I’ll comment on that in due course, with the discretion that I consider necessary.

In response to Dave Riley on the Queensland Labor Party, he should look at my essay on the Red North.

Poor diddums. A response to Dale Mills and Norm Dixon

January 16, 2006

First of all to Dale. You say I said three things about you that are untrue, but you decline to nominate them. You should tell me what they are so I can correct them, if what you say is true.

The only things I can think of that I said about you are that you were a legal monitor at some demonstrations. I’ve seen you doing that, and it’s important work. I also said you had been around the DSP for 20 years or so (allowing for the fact that you had been overseas for some of that time). Is that untrue?

I can’t for the life of me think of a third thing, unless you resent me echoing Alan Bradley’s point that if you haven’t met any left Laborites you should get out a bit more, which is obviously a rhetorical political statement by both Bradley and myself, rather than any reflection on your personal temperament. If you’re sensitive and take it as a reflection on your personal temperament, I withdraw it.

I was making, and so for that matter was Alan Bradley, a political point that your initial posture of being naive person who has never met a leftist Laborite was obvious demagogy, a point that you now reinforce by saying that you were in the Militant Group in the British Labour Party.

You then change your ground from asking who are prominent left Laborites to the basically sectarian point: what makes them left if they don’t agree with you, and you summarise the whole DSP Third Period ultraleftism by demanding that anyone in the Labor Party establish their leftist political credentials according to your crackpot schema before you’ll collaborate with them.

That, of course, is the absolute core of selective DSP sectarianism. The tiny cadre group puts the political credentials of anyone in the labour movement who dares to disagree with the DSP through the wringer of their scrutiny before they’ll have anything to with them. You’re really demanding agreement with your maximum program, which politically speaking is quite mad.

The reality of Australian politics is that the small groups of revolutionary socialists of any sort are always battling to get any kind of hearing from the infinitely larger group of people on the left who support Labor and the Greens.

In that kind of situation, most revolutionary socialists recognise that the actual relationship of forces is what matters. They don’t demand, like the DSP, that the mountain come to Mohammed.

The mind boggles at the notion of all the assorted leftists around the labour movement having to establish their credentials with Dale Mills and the DSP before they’re acceptable. That kind of approach is the distilled essence of sectarianism.

Then we get to Norm Dixon. After a few days of one of his Third Period sectarian orgies, yelling scab, scab, scab at a large number of leaders of the labour movement, he suddenly realises the error of his ways, just a little bit, and demands that I and others give him a full recipe book for how socialists should operate if they choose to be in the ALP or the Greens.

Well, in due course, I’ll try to discuss that question in a serious way, despite the fact that I’m well aware that it’s not a serious question for Norm. But he has given me the opening and I’ll discuss it.

However, before it’s even possible to discuss that, it’s necessary to reinforce the points I have been making for a long time about the necessary strategic approach to Labor and the Greens.

I have nothing against the DSP-Socialist Alliance organising independently. I favour some independent socialist organisation.

What I object to is the posture he adopts towards Labor and the Greens, with constant infantile denunciation not just of the leaders but of the ranks.

He treats people who choose to operate in the Labor Party with hostile, arrogant contempt. (At least he’s not quite as delusional as John Tognolini, who thinks Steve Dargavel is a member of the Socialist Alliance, when he is actually a long-standing and active member of the Labor Party and a former Labor member of parliament.)

The DSP Boyle faction’s arrogant contempt for Labor Party members of all sorts constantly creeps in, even when Norm is trying to be civilised.

He talks about Michele O’Neil and Martin Kingham’s membership of the Labor Party as token. I’m sure they’ll thank Norm for that observation if some right-winger throws it at them at the next Victorian state conference. What supreme and extraordinary arrogance is displayed in this throwaway remark.

The Boylites can’t comprehend people being left wing but having a different strategic approach to the DSP. As far as I can see, Kingham and O’Neil are very active in the Labor Party.

Norm thinks that’s all token and they’re secretly somehow in love with the DSP. Sectarians like the Boylites mistake the relatively civilised diplomacy that Kingham and O’Neil adopt towards them, for agreement with the DSP. Having yourself on about the civilised diplomacy of others on the left to puff up your delusions about your influence is a very dangerous way to proceed.

I’ve had very considerable experience over 50 years in the labour movement. I’ve participated in successes and defeats, and I’ve done a number of useful things, and I’ve made some political mistakes.

A discussion about how socialists might operate in current circumstances in the Labor Party or the Greens seems to quite useful, and over the next month or two I’ll draw on my experiences to put forward some ideas.

My short-term journalistic aim over the next week or two, however, is to (speaking metaphorically and politically) drive a stake through the heart of the Third Period sectarianism of the new Boylite leadership of the DSP, towards Labor Party members and Greens, which Norm has expressed so colourfully over the past few days.

Discussion, Discussion