Bob Gould, 2008

Crunch time for the future of Labor
The coming NSW Labor Party conference

Source: Ozleft, April 11, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

A number of issues are rapidly coming together that will define the future of the Labor Party, the trade unions and the labour movement for many years to come.

The dogged resistance of the trade unions and the Labor rank and file to electricity privatisation in NSW has thrown into bold relief a number of pressures to change the Labor Party into a non-socialist, non-trade-union party totally committed to neoliberalism.

The most sinister development so far is the kite-flying from diverse sources such as Mark Aarons and some in the Labor head office about removing union influence from the Labor Party, or depriving them of voting rights.

A proposition being floated from Labor head office, reported in the Daily Telegraph early this week, is that that unions could remain affiliated but not allowed to pay affiliation fees. The clear implication is that the unions will be deprived of their voting rights in the Labor Party. It can hardly be possible that unions would be allowed to exercise voting rights without paying affiliation fees.

This idea is being floated in a confusing way around the Labor Party by some people who should know better. The proposal to use corruption matters of which a small clique of conservative Labor politicians are accused, and of which one union is accused, to make a wholesale attack on union affiliation fees and voting rights in the Labor Party is an obvious and cynical manoeuvre to shift Labor to the right.

We of the left should oppose and expose this proposition as loudly as we can and make a bloc with all the unions, including unions that are factionally on the right, to knock this proposition on the head, quickly.

It would be the height of political stupidity, from a left point of view, to believe that removing union influence would strengthen the left on policy matters, particularly in current conditions. The Labor governments, federal and state, are exposed to constant pressure from the big end of town, and the union influence is the main substantial material force in the Labor Party capable of combatting this successfully.

Rebuilding Labor Party branches and the youth movement, and rebuilding the left in branches and in the youth movement, are very important tasks, but it’s impossible to visualise completing these tasks successfully without substantial trade union backing.

The struggle over electricity privatisation has been effective in the branches of the Labor Party, in the unions and in the community at large. It has been a dramatic educational experience for all of us, with many processes that are usually disguised and hidden becoming much clearer and being dragged into the cold light of day.

The incessant pressure from the NSW government on both left and right trade unions and the rank and file has been supplemented by pressure from ministers and parliamentary secretaries in the Rudd government, including unfortunately, some from the left.

The device of so-called cabinet solidarity, which exists nowhere in the Labor Party rules, has been invoked relentlessly to try to steamroller the privatisation through the Labor Party and the parliament. This invention resembles nothing so much as the old Stalinist mechanism by which Russia used to be run, and China is still run: so-called democratic centralism. One only has to observe the current set-up in Beijing, where major decisions are only taken at the highest state and party level in an opaque and ruthless way, to visualise the future for the Labor Party if the current bunch of parliamentary privatisers were to get their way.

The Australian masses could easily end up in the kind of situation facing the Chinese masses, where even a major and important speech by the visiting Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, only gets to the population with everything the Chinese leadership doesn’t approve removed from the public record.

The effect of such mechanisms, in Australia or China, is to make it very difficult indeed for even broadly based opposition with majority popular support to change the course of events, because at every level the coercion of the so-called solidarity is then translated at the next level down, by a perversion of the originally healthy notion of Labor caucus solidarity in the parliament, into a monolith that’s very hard to toss.

It’s pretty public that this week the Premier’s office put pressure on the parliamentary left, which took the form of indicating that the Premier only wished to have cabinet ministers elected as the left component among the 16 delegates from the Labor caucus to the state conference in early May.

The pressure and to-ing and fro-ing about this went on for a couple of days, but happily, this Premier’s office intervention was so raw that it was partly rejected by the left caucus in the parliament. Nevertheless, it’s a clear indication of what we can expect leading up to the conference.

The problem reaches down to rank and file level. At a state electorate council meeting this week, a delegate raised the question of what would happen when the rank and file position won a majority at the party conference on the privatisation question. The delegate forcibly pressed the point that a detailed record should be available of who voted which way in the caucus after the conference. Promptly, one left MLC advanced the extraordinary notion that caucus discussions and votes were confidential.

Where’s that in the Labor Party rules, or even the caucus rules?

All of these developments indicate that there’s a current exists on the left that wants to “fight the good fight” against privatisation but roll over at the appropriate moment. Similar pressures are being applied within the right, and it’s my understanding that there is constant pressure from the cabinet on Unions NSW to retreat on privatisation.

So far, to their eternal credit, the main unions on both left and right have not retreated, partly because even if they were inclined to make some deal it’s impossible to envision a deal that could encompass the interests of the unions and the rank and file, and any deal that failed to do that would enrage the rank and file.

Caucus and cabinet solidarity, and caucus confidentially, are all myths if you look at the real history of the Labor Party over the past 120 years. For a start, the media never seem to have any trouble getting the gist of what’s going on, and that started many years ago. In the Lang times, a man called Vol Molesworth raised leaking to a high art. A journalist by trade, he even used to ghost-write reactionary articles in the bourgeois press.

That tradition has continued right up to the present. The Murdoch press has no difficulty running a fairly detailed account of how the coming cabinet reshuffle is being used by the managers of the parliamentary party in the current battle, with a wink and a nod about retaining in cabinet positions only those ministers who don’t rock the boat, and promoting to the cabinet backbenchers who don’t rock the boat.

It’s quite clear that kind of stuff is going on big-time at the moment, and it’s obviously bearing down heavily on the left at the parliamentary level, which underlines the sound reasons for the union structural influence to be preserved, to serve as a kind of sheet anchor against big-end-of-town influence.

The best thing about the current battle has been the sorting of the sheep from the goats on both left and right of the Labor Party. The healthy de facto alliance between Unions NSW and the left unions and the best elements of the left in the branches, and the more committed traditional Labor people on the right in the branches, marks the only path possible for substantial real reform of the Labor Party from a left point of view, as distinct from so-called reforms aimed at shifting the party further to the neoliberal right.

If the left were to fail in its obvious duty to use every political device of agitation and propaganda, and honest pressure on politicians, to defeat electricity privatisation, it would set back the necessary differentiation within the right a very long way indeed.

The unity between conservative ministers, of both right and left, must be combated by the unity of the progressive unions and the rank and file at the base, otherwise the future of the Labor Party as any instrument of defence for the working class looks extremely bleak.

The effect of any retreat on the left, which is openly advocated by people like Ian Macdonald, Greg Combet and Martin Ferguson, and tacitly supported by others who should know better, will inevitably leave exposed like shags on a rock, all the MPs, union leaders and rank and filers, left and right, who’ve stuck their necks out on this issue.

Left political representatives build their careers on the support of the left rank and file, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but the absolutely clear other side of that compact is that the left political representatives should strenuously and ingeniously defend the left position on fundamental questions.

It’s very sad to see the speed with which several of our left representatives have somersaulted on electricity privatisation.

It must be said, and said forcibly, to those left minsters and other MPs who have so far carefully avoided expressing publicly in the labour movement any opposition to electricity privatisation, or for that matter on the push to force unions out of the Labor Party, it’s just possible that in the short term you may advance your parliamentary careers by this approach. In the short term, however, you do so at the cost of abandoning the basic principles that propelled you into Labor politics in the first place.

You also do it at the cost of losing any regard for you by most of the left rank and file as representatives of a left position in the labour movement. In the medium term, you are likely to pay a big political price for this trajectory towards becoming part of the problem in the labour movement, rather than part of the solution.

You should consider these questions very carefully between now and the state conference, and the caucus meetings after the conference. If even one of the ministry, and even better if most of the left representatives in the ministry, were to break ranks with the cabinet and forcibly oppose electricity privatisation at the conference, it would scuttle the privatisation proposals.

You would immediately become tribunes for the whole labour movement, and the danger that you obviously see for your careers in doing so would be overwhelmed by the support you would get from the rank and file and the trade unions. It would become virtually impossible for the cabinet office to touch you. In fact, the defence of basic principle and your career interests would very likely be similar to what happened to Eddie Ward. He was such a striking tribune of the people that no one ever dared to try seriously to keep him out of the cabinet.

The history of the Labor Party is replete with courageous figures, such as Frank Anstey, Eddie Ward, Arthur Calwell, George Petersen, Maurice Blackburn, Hugh Mahon, Les Haylen, Clyde Cameron, Jack Ferguson and others who stuck to their guns on fundamental questions through thick and thin while also having the normal career ambitions that are among the motivations of people in the labour movement who run for public office.

Those redoubtable Labor politicians were no respecters of so-called cabinet or caucus solidarity in struggles within the Labor Party over basic principles.

Eddie Ward, who as it happens was a mate of my father, was the living, breathing expression of the class struggle in parliament and over 30 years he held cabinet and shadow cabinet office for a considerable time.

The pygmy politicians who shelter behind caucus confidentiality should read a bit of Labor Party and labour movement history, of which they seem to be abysmally ignorant.

During the famously heated caucus meeting during which the Groupers tried to turf out H.V. Evatt as leader, Ward jumped up on a table as the vote was taken, and yelled, “I’m taking your names,” and he did so, and circulated his list with a view to mobilising the outraged rank and file against the Groupers. There was no caucus confidentiality in those days, and not too much cabinet solidarity either. The situation was similar during the big battle over conscription during World War II.

For logistic reasons that can’t easily be overcome, this left delegates’ meeting is taking place rather early. The meeting should delegate negotiations on electricity privatisation between now and state conference to representative figures on the left, with a mandate to negotiate with Unions NSW and the left unions to get the best possible outcome at conference and in the parliamentary caucus immediately afterwards.

In my view this should focus on several resolutions at conference:

1. A comprehensive and detailed resolution rejecting further privatisations, including electricity privatisation.

2. A resolution clearing up any doubt on the matter by inserting opposition to the privatisation in the party platform.

3. A machinery resolution mandating the incoming administrative committee to take whatever steps are necessary to enforce the decision on the state cabinet and caucus.

4. A number of delegates should be appointed to jump up and insist on a count at conference, in which those for, those against, and abstentions, are recorded, so we can know what our delegates did.

At the subsequent parliamentary caucus meeting, left delegates should insist on a similar procedure: a vote in caucus with the same recording of those for, those against and abstentions, and the details of who did what at caucus should be publicly circulated throughout the Labor Party.