Bob Gould, 2006

Mass politics and the Victorian election

Source: Green Left Weekly discussion list, November 29, 2006
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

In the broad sweep of the interests of the working class and the left half of Australian society, the macro-politics of the Victorian election results of the Labor Party and the Greens are of more importance than the micro-politics of the small socialist groups and their reactions to the elections. The fact that Labor retained the overwhelming support of the blue-collar section of the working class, the migrant communities and a large section of the new social layers of the working class, is of considerable tactical importance to the medium-term interests of the labour movement and the working class.

Despite the absurd claims of Howard and some on the far left that the industrial relations changes weren’t a major question in this election, they certainly were, and this obviously worries Howard and the Tories. They fear that this concern with the anti-union laws will carry over into the NSW and federal elections.

The sociology of the Labor vote in every state persists clearly in this election. The blue-collar and migrant urban electorate piled up an enormous majority for Labor. Those on the left who chatter mindlessly about two supposedly capitalist parties, Labor and Liberal, have to ignore the sociology of the Labor vote to persist with this dopey shibboleth.

Almost the whole of the organised labour movement and the trade unions worked hard to return Labor despite the fact that in the weeks after the election it will probably be back to business, with major trade union struggles against the more conservative policies of the Labor government.

Recent elections in Australia have continually demonstrated the powerful persistence of the grip of Laborism on most of the left side of society. It’s impossible to break this grip by artificially proclaiming “new workers’ parties” (which only exist in the minds of the proclaimers), or by the idea put forward by some, that continual verbal exposure of Labor will break this link.

The link between Labor and the working class just can’t be broken by proclamation or verbal propaganda. The Greens have settled down to a stable 10 per cent or so of the vote, and the sociological pattern of the Greens vote overwhelmingly demonstrates that it’s drawn from what I call, for shorthand purposes, the new social layers.

It’s worth noting that probably just as large a section of the new social layers supports Labor. The Victorian Greens are clearly, at the leadership level, a bit to the right of the Greens in NSW and WA. If you drew a graph of the Greens leadership in each state, it would read: NSW and WA on the left, SA and Victoria rather more conservative and Queensland and Tasmania on the right of the Greens formation.

This kind of division is more or less a truism in Green circles. The fuss about about split tickets in the last days of the campaign ended up being a bit of a diversion. Both the Greens and the Labor machine operators were engaged in a rather arcane and unprincipled series of manoeuvres to get maximum advantage for their formation from preference deals. Such backstabbing is pretty bad from the point of view of the left side of society, and conscious left-wingers in both the Labor Party and the Greens should fight hard for a clear and unambiguous exchange of preferences in coming state and federal elections.

In the event the Greens suffered most from the manoeuvres. The elections demonstrated a few truisms about Australian voting behaviour. The Tories proved quite incapable of delivering the preferences of the reactionary Tory minority to the Greens in basically Labor areas. This reactionary minority in their own way are quite class-conscious, and are often slightly demented fundamentalist Protestant religious bigots. Wild horses couldn’t make people like that deliver their preferences to the Greens.

The Greens are in a similar situation. Greens voters are progressive, politically leftist on many things, although not all, and highly literate. The split ticket manoeuvre by the Greens leadership, where it was applied, seemed to have no effect at all on the generally progressive voting behaviour of Greens voters. Upwards of 85 per cent of Greens preferences went to Labor, and that didn’t seem to vary much according to whether there was a split ticket or a preference to Labor.

By way of contrast, the Labor-voting constituency, having a very large component with less formal education and often with limited English language skills, tends to overwhelmingly follow the Labor ticket, whatever it is. Moreover, the migrant section of the Labor electorate is often bound together by strong community ties and they often move as a community, which accentuates the tendency to vote the straight Labor ticket. Happily, from a socialist point of view, both the right-wing pentecostal party and Stephen Mayne’s attempt at conservative populism were fairly unsuccessful.

The right-wing god-walloper vote was almost entirely transferred directly from the Liberals, which tends to break up the Liberal vote. The Stephen Mayne operation fell apart at the seams. It’s funny to read the account on the Crikey website, which says People Power was partly an exercise in helping Mayne’s mate, Evan Thornley.

Crikey ruefully recounts that due to the arcane preference deals and the mathematical unpredictability of the last quota under proportional representation, People Power may have achieved the opposite of what it set out to do. It couldn’t happen to nicer people.

The likely result now seems to be that Labor will have about half the seats in the upper house, the Greens two or three, the Nationals two and the Liberals the rest. Taken as a whole, that’s a pretty good result for the left part of Australian society. Everyone on the left ought to absorb the important point that such a result was only possible because a Labor government introduced proportional representation in the upper house, thereby completing the program of the three Bracks governments to make Victorian electoral politics more democratic.

The first stage of this democratic revolution was one-vote-one-value for lower house seats, the second stage was the reintroduction of proportional representation in local government in the larger municipal areas imposed by the Kennett Liberal government. Some of the more conservative elements in the Labor Party clearly had some misgivings about proportional representations in the upper house, obviously under the pressure of bourgeois media hysteria about the possibility of the Greens having some notional balance of power.

Nevertheless, the Bracks government persisted in introducing proportional representation. Obviously, to those in the Labor leadership who made the decision to press ahead with proportional representation, long-term democratic considerations were more important.

The Laborites tend to have long memories, and for long periods in Victoria the 45 per cent or so of voters who stuck to Labor in hard times got very small representation in the upper house, to say nothing of the considerable periods when Labor governments were frustrated by Tory control of the upper house due to the undemocratic first past-the-post system and division of the upper house electorates into unequal provinces.

The Victorian results highlight the need for a maximum effort to achieve agreement, at least on preferences, between Labor and the Greens for the next two electoral contests, on which so much hinges, and putting aside arcane manoeuvres by the head offices of both formations. Both the Labor and Green electorates clearly expect their leaders to make a serious attempt to achieve unity to defeat NSW Liberal leader Debnam, and Howard federally.

The results clearly indicate that socialists who write off either Labor or the Greens in current conditions can’t see the wood for the proverbial trees. There’s a corresponding responsibility on socialists who operate in and around Labor and the Greens. Both organisations increasing need a cautiously and carefully developed new style of left.

In a day or two I’ll write something on the micro-politics of the small socialist groups and their reactions to the Victorian election results.

Comments from Leftwrites

Dave Nadel November 29, 2006 @ 12:49pm The trouble with analysing Victorian politics from Sydney via websites is that you can get the details wrong. “Tim Blair’s attempt at conservative populism were fairly unsuccessful.” As far as I can figure Bob is referring to People Power. Tim Blair may support PP — I wouldn’t know, I have neither the time nor the inclination to read his blog —but he has nothing to do with its organisation. People Power was set up (for the pevious State Elections) by Vern Hughes. As must be obvious from my previous posts I have little time for Vern Hughes and his approach to politics but he is still a long way up the food chain by comparison to Tim Blair. The other People Power figure is Crikey founder and former Kennett press officer Stephen Mayne. His politics may be almost as bad as Blair’s but he is a much more interesting writer. None of this invalidates Bob Gould’s general analysis of the Victorian elections, which would require a seperate post to respond. I just get sick of people in NSW trying to explain Victorian minutia in NSW terms.

Chav November 29, 2006 @ 1:04pm “Those on the left who chatter mindlessly about two supposedly capitalist parties, Labor and Liberal, have to ignore the sociology of the Labor vote to persist with this dopey shibboleth”!? So, the ALP is no longer a “bourgeois worker’s party”

MrLefty November 29, 2006 @ 1:04pm I think he means Steven Mayne? I am very confused.

Karen Fredericks November 29, 2006 @ 1:58pm “In the broad sweep of the interests of the working class and the left half of Australian society, the macro-politics of the election results of the Labor Party and the Greens are of more importance than the micro-politics of the small socialist groups and their reactions to the elections.” I would put it another way Bob: In the limited universe of Bob Gould and other leftists imprisoned within the bourgeois paradigm the arcane machinations of the pro-capitalist parties are of more importance than the hard graft of building a fighting alternative. I just got an email from the boss (Steve Bracks) informing me that the new Minister for mental health, children and aged care is Ms Lisa Neville MP … a fellow veteran of student politics in Queensland in the late 1980s and a pleasant enough woman. No talent though. No fire. No inspiration. No guts. Just another cog in that wheel Bob seems to find so fascinating as it goes round and round — grinding us all into submission.

Karen Fredericks November 29, 2006 @ 2:20pm And another thing, Bob, (at the risk of getting you going) if you find the “micro-politics of the small socialist groups” so irrelevant, why do you spend so much time with us? Why not head on over to some ALP blog and advise them how to suck their ever so much more important eggs?

Rose November 29, 2006 @ 6:37pm Karen, I can’t say I have ever been excited by any woman in ALP politics, or the trade union movement for that matter. And I've worked with women leaders of the latter on a daily basis for eight years. But, while it helps to have met them and follow what they do and see them in action, NSW women and male Green activists are fortunate in having two excellent inspiring, gutsy, fire in the belly women state senators in the form of the redoubtable Sylvia Hale and the equally splendiforous Lee Rhiannon, socialists leftists — Greens one and all. And the federal senator too, Kerry Nettle, is doing a sterling job, being everywhere at once at still managing to help build the base.

Norm Dixon November 29, 2006 @ 6:46pm Socialist Alliance candidates Vannessa Hearman, Margarita Windisch, Sue Bull and Rowan Stewart thank all our members and supporters for helping run a vibrant and principled socialist election campaign. Thank you very much for your time, your donations and your many statements of support. More than 100 people turned out on polling day to campaign for the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne and another 40 people campaigned in Geelong and other Western Victorian towns. We won about 2000 first preference votes in this modest campaign. The Socialist Alliance proudly took up many important issues which were ignored by other candidates. Socialist Alliance launched its election campaign outside Barwon prison to call for the Release of the Melbourne 13. In the lead up to the elections Socialist Alliance played a critical role in helping to organise public opposition to Israel’s war on Lebanon and Palestine, staffed and helped lead picket lines, called a abortion rights speak out, took major responsibility for the StopG20 protest and initiated a public transport campaign including a small but successful public transport rally. We also managed to bring together a range of militant unionists in Geelong for a workshop and held a successful Socialist Alliance conference during the election campaign. In the seat of Brunswick, Vannessa Hearman received 2 per cent of the vote and in Footscray, Margarita Windisch received 1.5 per cent. In the Upper House seat of Western Victoria Region, the Socialist Alliance team of Sue Bull and Rowan Stewart won a further 976 votes. The Socialist Alliance also welcomes increased the representation of the Greens Upper House seats, and the strong first preference vote the Greens won in the Lower House seats of Brunswick, Melbourne and Richmond, which challenged ALP incumbents. We congratulate Socialist Party candidate Stephen Jolly in Richmond who got 6.14 per cent, the best socialist vote in this election. This reflects the broader hearing Stephen has won for socialism through his effective use of his position on Yarra City Council. Congratulations also to Jorge Jorquera, the socialist independent candidate running in the working class seat of Derrimut and won nearly 1% of the vote. Our combined impact, as socialists, will be better when the left succeeds in uniting. For socialists, the campaigning does not end after an election. With these election campaign over, the Socialist Alliance is throwing its energy into preparations for the November 30 National Day of Action against Howard’ s Work Choices. Socialist Alliance invited all members to help out with this critical campaign for workers’ right to organise. Please contact us on 9639 8622 (Melbourne) or 5222 6900 (Geelong) if you can help out in the lead up to or at November 30. In solidarity, Vannessa Hearman, Margarita Windisch, Sue Bull and Rowan Stewart.

Rose November 29, 2006 @ 7:18pm How was any of this anti-capitalist? Just asking.

Bob Gould November 29, 2006 @ 10:04pm Dave Nadel points to an error of fact in my post. I meant Stephen Mayne when I said Tim Blair. Thanks for correcting me. In combination, your memory and my memory tidy up most historical questions, and I’m grateful for your drawing attention to my slip of the tongue, which I’ve now corrected for the benefit of subsequent readers. I’d be very interested in your opinion of the general line of argument of my article. Errors of detail are important, but the overall argument, I’m sure you’d agree, is of more importance.

Bob Gould November 29, 2006 @ 10:18pm Karen Fredericks makes some strange comments on my post. Karen, you’re obviously terminally confused. You seem to think you’re contributing to the Green Left list, but you’re actually on Leftwrites. As I understand the Leftwrites mandate, it’s an attempt to promote political discussion among the whole of the left, including leftists who operate in the Labor Party and the Greens, and even including inhabitants of thoroughly unreconstructed sects such as the one that you’re a member of.

From the first contribution of yours I’ve seen on Leftwrites you’ve been attacking me for daring to argue the point with the current DSP leadership on tactical questions, and you have the gall to project your behaviour on to me with the charge that I’m obsessed with the DSP. In psychology that’s called projection. You make, in as insulting a way as you can, the proposition that anyone who has an orientation towards the Labor Party has given up the struggle, etc.

Your bizarre approach to these matters is reflected in your comments on a woman who I’ve never previously heard of who has been made health minister in the Bracks government. You say she’s “a pleasant enough woman. No talent though. No fire. No inspiration. No guts. Just another cog in that wheel Bob seems to find so fascinating.” That stuff is vintage new DSP leadership-speak. No politics or analysis, just a pile of abuse.

You should be a bit careful in saddling this site with that kind of abuse, bearing in mind that it may be libellous of an individual. I know slander is par for the course on the Green Left list, as I’ve mentioned on that list several times. It could be quite dangerous to the list to call prominent figures in the labour movment scabs just because you disagree with them. I’m in the rather difficult position myself that I’ve been slandered on the Green Left list by someone called Roger Raven, who has accused me of being an agent provocateur because of my views in support of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. I don’t like being libelled in that way, particularly as I have about 7000 pages of ASIO and NSW Special Branch files on me to point to the continuity of my political activity.

Nevertheless, the convenor of the Green Left list has chosen to take no effective action to require Raven to withdraw his slander or provide evidence, and has just issued a ukase that anyone who raises the question of Raven’s slanders will be booted off the list. In the light of that sequence of events, I’m a bit sensitive to matters of unverifiable abuse, even against some Labor minister who I’ve never previously heard of. How do you demonstrate something like a lack or talent or a lack of guts, as you put it? By implication, apparently, in comparison with yourself and other adherents of the current DSP leadership.

It’s quite obvious from the tension evident in your seeing the interests of the DSP leadership everywhere, even in a post in which they’re not named, that the internal crisis in the DSP is moving towards a conclusion. I’m told by people who know you that you don’t usually adopt such an abusive tone as you have in your recent posts on Leftwrites. The reality of the DSP at the moment is as follows: the so-called Socialist Alliance is no longer in any meaningful sense an alliance. All the other groups have in one way and another disappeared from it, and the 30 per cent or so opposition in the DSP is clearly on strike from the alliance.

It’s clear from the hysterical tone of discussion on the Green Left list, which is largely a kind of periscope on the discussion inside the DSP, that the internal atmosphere in the DSP is abominable, and that, as in most unresolved splits in small groups, the largest group is the party of those who have quietly slipped away into private life. The clearest demonstration of the internal crisis in the DSP is the way in which you argue that the only acceptable form of activity is the form chosen by your own organisation, and your abuse of anyone like myself who argues for an alternative orientation.

I’ve written at considerable length on Ozleft and in other places on the strategic problems facing socialists in Australia, and the short piece about the Victorian elections is a part of that argument. You don’t address the substantive questions at all, and you just rely on abuse. You should wake up to yourself and try to participate in serious debate. Already Leftwrites has shown that it’s possible to have strategic discussion on all kinds of questions in a serious way with relative goodwill and mainly with just humorous functional chop-chop between people with divergent views. You should enter into the spirit of that, if it’s remotely possible for a loyal adherent of the Boyle clique to do so.

Dave Nadel November 29, 2006 @ 11:01pm I agree with quite a lot of the general line of your post, Bob. There is no doubt that Labor retains the general allegiance of the working class in the older areas of Melbourne. Federally there was some evidence of “aspirational” workers voting Liberal, it is hard to tell whether that transferred to the State arena because the electorates that most filled the description of aspirational working class were in the Scoresby corridor where a particularly egregious Labor broken promise on a freeway toll may be a better explanation for an anti-government swing.

I handed out for the Greens at the Niddrie end of Essendon where you get a fairly broad mix on both class and ethnic lines. Using the empirical sample of voters who only took one card (the one they intended to vote for) Bob is right about traditional workers and ethnic working class families supporting Labor. There aren’t a lot of new social layers in West Essendon but the Green supporters up there seemed to be more defined by age. People under thirty (regardless of class) and women over 55 seemed to be the two groups most eager to take my Green HTV cards.

I am not sure that I want to get into a debate about whether Labor is a capitalist party. Evan Thornley notwithstanding, it is not a party composed of capitalists. I would be inclined to say that Labor remains the party of the working class in terms of its support, but can certainly be described as capitalist in terms of its policies. Where I might disagree with Bob is his certainty that the Industrial Relations changes were central to the elections.

Certainly Bracks and Hulls tried to win support on the issue but Baillieu, with the help of the media, successfully avoided any real debate or even attention to the issue. Active trade unionists and their families who were going to vote Labor anyway are concerned about the issue. Other workers I suspect see IR as a Federal issue. To the extent that there was an issue in this election it was probably water and the difference between Labor and Liberal on the issue wasn’t a class question, but one of well researched short term solutions (ALP) versus stupid ideas off the top of someone’s head (Liberal). One last comment. Labor’s deliberate misrepresentation of the Greens position on preferences will leave a legacy of bitterness — not least because the Greens will use it to explain their failure to win Melbourne. Peter Garrett has done his credibility, in Melbourne at least, a lot of damage among the younger voters and new social layers, which is presumably where Labor will want to use him in the Federal Elections. Many Greens voters and non-aligned greenies will not forget Garrett’s misinformation about Green preferences

Rose November 30, 2006 @ 5:45am A bit off topic, but have to add apropos remarks about female leadership in the labour movement, the leadership of the NSW Nurses Union when Jenny Haines was the general secretary (the only elected trade union official with the foresight and courage to vote against the Prices and Incomes Accord at the national unions conference that adopted it) along with the leadership of the Victorian nurses counterpart, around the early to mid 1980s, provided exemplary, inspiring, gutsy, militant female leadership example to the whole country at the time, changed the way the community viewed nursing and nurses, and the way many women trade unionists viewed themselves and their own emancipatory possibilities. Have many street demos have you been to, like the ones during the nurses’ militant industrial wages and conditions campaigns, where the crowd on the footpath, six deep in places, are clapping, cheering and saluting the sassy uniformed nurse demonstrators?

Karen Fredericks November 30, 2006 @ 9:31am Sorry folks, I was careless and I set Bob off on his favourite topic — the unimportant microleft … “you just rely on abuse. You should wake up to yourself and try to participate in serious debate”. Actually I was asking a serious question … which you forgot to answer due to being carried away by your traditional (abusive) spray: why do you spend so much time talking at us mere micros (here on LW, and on the GL list) when you could be in the real game?