Building the Left

by Matt Byrne

I have been thinking for some time now about the challenges facing those of us who are trying to make the Australian Labor Party a realistic, left wing alternative to the conservatism that has dominated Australia for the best part of 30 years. After spending some time engaging in renewal of the ALP itself, I have come to the view that it is the movement as well as the ALP that needs to renew if we are to be successful again.

Since the end of the Cold War, the left has struggled to maintain a consistent set of ideas and policy program. The big social democratic parties have declined and moved rightwards and the movement itself has shrunk and fragmented.

If you look at the conservative side of politics you can see the opposite has been true. Conservatives have a confident set of ideas and policies. They are growing their movement and their parties can now bank on a larger share of the electorate than their left wing rivals.

For the left to be able to challenge the conservatives, we will need to renew not just our party but our philosophy and our movement.

Reform needs to occur in three areas:

  1. The ALP needs to reform to make it easier to join, be more democratic and be active in society.
  2. We need to build our intellectual power by re-learning and teaching social democracy.
  3. The trade union movement needs to reform to make the movement more unified and effective.

ALP Reform

In many respects this is the easiest of the three challenges that can be achieved.

At the time of writing, the ALP has approximately 50,000 members nation-wide. This is an increase from past years where, for example, membership was at about 37,000 members in 2010. Reviews by various branches of the ALP show that whilst membership is on the up, it is ageing and there are a declining number of women members.

The ALP has a complex set of rules and structures that are not uniform across the country. Each state has different ways of determining things like eligibility for ballots and electing positions. This labyrinth like structure is a severe impediment to growing the ALP and encouraging participation by its membership.

Many within the ALP have focussed on direct election of positions and experimenting with primaries as reforms that will bring people back into the party. These ideas should be considered in the mix of reforms that get implemented, but I believe that reform must go further and needs to be more radical. The ALP is based on a nineteenth century model and this is no longer viable in the twenty-first.

First of all the ALP needs to become a truly national political party. The administration of the ALP’s membership and the rules that govern pre-selections, electing conference delegates and how members organise should be uniform across the country. There is no reason why the experience for someone who joins the ALP in Darwin should be different to that of someone who joins in Glebe.

Second, there needs to be fewer barriers for members to have a say, to organise their own activities and to represent the ALP in the community. As Ed Miliband has said, “it’s movements that change things”; the ALP cannot be part of a movement that changes society if its members are not engaged in decision making in the party, and are not engaged in the community.

In addition to structural reform of our largest party, the left needs to rally around a set of ideas that can guide us in determining how we want to change society. If we are to be able to present good policies and make good arguments for our side of politics we need to embrace a coherent, left wing ideology and advance it throughout the party and the movement.

Embracing social democracy

Having an ideology is seen by many commentators as being a problem for political parties. I believe, however that one only has to look at the success of the right over the past 30 years, measured both by electoral success and having their program successfully implemented, to see that ideology is no bad thing at all.

Therefore, if we are to rebuild a successful left in Australia, we are going to have to unite behind a left wing ideology that can provide us with a frame that brings our values together, provides a critique of the status quo and links us with our political heritage. In my opinion the only ideology that fits all the criteria is social democracy.

Social democracy is the belief that socialism can be achieved through democratic, gradualist means. Social democracy is concerned with the welfare of all people and believes in the extension of democracy in order to achieve equality, justice and freedom. Social democracy is opposed to power and wealth being concentrated in the hands of the few and the privatisation of the necessities for a well functioning state.

Embracing social democracy has the potential to open up a rich vein of new thinking and confidence in our movement. By putting the welfare of all people at the heart of our movement, social democracy helps us to carve out a political space that differentiates us from the conservatives. We can reconnect with the successful narratives of the past that defined Labor and the union movement as being the builders of the nation, the defenders of ordinary Australians and the activists against injustice.

Recent research by the Chifley Research Centre has shown that a substantial number of Australians across the political spectrum hold positive opinions of social democratic ideas and policies. It is only our lack of courage that is holding us back from embracing a positive set of ideas that will help us change the country.

Tooled with a reformed party and a new purpose the next challenge for Labor and the left is the modernisation of the trade union movement. After thirty years of decline, I believe significant reforms are needed if the union movement is to continue to be the largest and most effective people’s movement in Australia.

Modern Trade Unions

Since the 1980s, when trade union membership was approximately 3 million people, trade union membership in Australia has been declining. According to the ABS, trade union membership in August 2012 was approximately 1.8 million people or about 18% of the workforce.

The decline in union membership can be linked to several causes: Firstly, the deregulation of the Australian economy by Hawke and Keating during the 1980s and early 1990s. Second, sustained anti-union policies being implemented throughout the 1990s and early 2000s by the Howard government and, thirdly, the restructuring of the labour market i.e. the shift from secure, skilled full time work found in industries such as manufacturing, to insecure, volatile and predominantly unskilled work found in industries such as the services and the increased use of contracting in the mining and construction industries.

Unions throughout this period tried to adapt to these changes on several fronts: By engaging with governments and business e.g. the Incomes and Prices Accord; changing their relationship with their members e.g. adopting the US style organising model; and by trying to build better links with their international cousins. Whilst some of these tactics have had some positive outcomes, they have not been able to lead to an increase in the membership of the movement, nor have they been able to – with the exception of the Your Rights at Work Campaign – empower their members and the community.

So what is to be done? There are many things that could be reformed in the union movement; however, I believe the single most effective way to empower workers and to give unions a new lease of life is to move bargaining away from the workplace towards the industry level. I will admit now that this is a controversial idea, and it would require a significant amount of work to build support.

How can this be achieved? The most radical thing that I think would need to happen in order to maximise our chances of achieving this shift is for a consolidation of demarcation of union coverage so that only one union covers one industry. The problem we have at the moment is that we have industries, dominated by huge employers who operate at a national or international basis, negotiating workplace to workplace with many different unions whose demarcations are determined at the state level. This leaves workers negotiating with at least one hand tied behind their backs. We need to put workers on a level footing with their employers and that means that they should be united when they go to the bargaining table.

One positive effect of moving bargaining to the industry level is that you could get the most out of the organising model by conducting large, national, public conversations with the Australian people about the benefits of being in a union. Through their campaigns unions such as United Voice  and the Transport Workers Union have shown what could be possible under an industry wide negotiation led by one union.

This is by no means a silver bullet and there are not many reforms that can be done to the union movement that will achieve change without legislative support from a Labor government. However if the movement fails to make what changes it can, we will be left with a smaller and smaller pool of people from which to build a progressive Australia.

Hopefully I have presented a few useful ideas to the debate about left renewal in Australia. Too often this conversation has failed to properly deal with reform of the ALP and the union movement, but without either of these organisations the left has no chance of reforming Australia. This is not a complete set of ideas for the left, the union movement and the ALP, but I believe that they are necessary if the left in Australia is going to change this country.