Reform ALP candidate preselection
Geoff Drechsler, an ALP activist in Melbourne, argues that radical changes to the way Labor chooses candidates would allow the party to reconnect with working-class Australia.
The spectacle of ALP federal preselections in Victoria earlier this year, raised some issues about the representativeness of such processes and their ability to produce electable Labor candidates. The most alarming aspect of the preselection process was how remote it was from the day-to-day reality of most Labor supporters. It is interesting too, that among people who don't know me, my ALP membership is usually interpreted as a sign of aspirations to office and some sort of desire for self advancement rather than a reaffirmation of the democratic nature of our society.
Reform of Labor's preselection processes may actually offer the first step to reinvigorate participation in ALP structures and meaningfully reconnect with working-class Australia. Currently, Labor has little chance of carrying out a far-reaching program in office, whether it has the political will or not, or sustaining itself in power for a significant period of time, because it is not a "mass party". Shaun Carney has argued that Labor is too small to be a social democratic party in the true sense.1 It has only roughly 50,000 members in a society of 20 million. The Danish Social Democrats, by comparison, have roughly 50,000 members also but in a population of 5.5 million). As James Button pointed out in his recent article in The Age, the Labor caucus is drawn from a narrow range of occupations and backgrounds.2 These backgrounds are largely unrepresentative of Labor voters generally and the society around them which they seek to reform.
Labor needs to rethink it relationship with its core supporters. Labor does enjoy one advantage over most other social democratic parties, while we have a small party membership, the number of Labor voters in the community, relative to other voters, is actually quite high as a percentage of the population. We need though to convert these people into party members and build a network to maintain that vote. Our initial success at the start of the 20th century may have skewed our perspective. Alternatively, compulsory voting may have devalued the importance of these types of activities, as almost all other equivalent parties have to operate in a voluntary voting environment and 'get the vote out'. We need to change this and prioritise developing our membership, making it more outward looking and bringing more Labor supporters into our networks to maintain our existing level of support in the community. We need also to distinguish between transient electoral support and our core supporters who are the foundation for sustaining the party as a viable political organisation.
All this is compounded by the fact that Labor's traditional ally, the union movement is in decline after 10 years of conservative attack. Unions now represent just 20 per cent of the workforce, leaving us few options to connect with ordinary Australians through alternative non-party networks. At the same time Australian society is becoming more diverse.
We could begin this process by moving to a preselection process that includes both rank-and-file and community participation. This process could include a 40 per cent central determined component (decided through state conferences, affiliated unions and the like), 40 per cent rank-and-file party members component and a 20 per cent local community component, through a 'closed' primary. Anyone could register provided they weren't a member of another political party. (Rank-and-file members of affiliated unions would already be considered registered.) The aim of the process would be to re-engage with working-class Australia by offering workers an opportunity to participate in our preselection process, which would also hopefully overcome some of the cynicism towards politics more generally. Anyone would be allowed to nominate, too, provided they supported Labor's program and agreed to join the party if preselected. The increasing range of people participating in this process would lead to more representative Labor candidates, while retaining ultimate control within the realm of party members to pursue affirmative-action programs and the like.
Labor is only able to meaningfully engage with the community at election time and only through the mass media at that. Between elections we need to broaden the limits of the existing parameters of political debate and this can be achieved by an outward looking active network of branches.
Those of us who believe Labor's socialist foundations offer the best inspiration for Labor in government most particularly need to grasp the importance of a broad base of support to carry out a radical program. It is not simply a question of having a set of coherent leftwing policies but also the ability to implement them. Labor's left hasn't ever really appreciated the importance of this, as Labor has historically had mass support and a mass party as a result of our political popularity. This has been achieved without any organisational effort to cultivate it, nor any theorising about the necessity of having it. The vanguardism of the far left is unsuitable as an alternative model also. Socialists in the Labor Party instead need a long-term goal of "basebuilding"* as the focus for party activities by ensuring any activity is outward looking and engages the community with the aim of ensuring long term support and organizational participation.
Additionally, some of these problems of declining participation are due to Labor's record in office in the 80s when we enjoyed widespread working-class support but incorrectly assumed that this support could never be compromised. Hawke and Keating pursued neo-liberal economic programs that courted the middle ground. The outcomes of these policies often had negative consequences for our core supporters and increased a feeling of insecurity. A process of depoliticisation and alienation has then been exacerbated by the policies and approaches of the current conservative government, with the community increasingly viewing politics with cynicism.
Many ordinary Australian have given up on political solutions and now assume that "they're as bad as one another". This plays into conservative hands as people then seek individual solutions (individual wealth accumulation, consumerism etc) rather than collective solutions. It is too simple though to say that people have given up on politics. This doesn't explain the rise of organisations such as the Wilderness Society over the same period of time.
Labor needs to counteract the 'depoliticisation' of its core supporters by opening up debate and decision-making within the party to its wider supporter base. It would make the party outward looking and more connected with the community, and involve a diverse range of people in its decision-making. This system would ensure candidates from a greater variety of backgrounds. Also, the successful candidate would have been exposed to the electorate through the preselection process and thus have the basis of a good network before the election campaign begins in earnest. Historically, the ALP is at it's most successful when it's candidates are representative of contemporary society and internationally successful social democratic parties have large memberships.
The distant spectacle of internal party maneuvering is not going to win back the confidence of Labor people or get Labor back into office. Inviting them to participate in the choice of our candidates will.
1. Carney, Shaun "Is Labor a Social Democratic Party ?" Fabian Society talk, New International Bookshop, August 25, 2004
[Labor Tribune admin: I can't find a reference to this on the web. Google returns a few articles by Shaun Carney from around the same time, but the theme includes talk about Latham, with only secondary thoughts on Labor and its base. Here is the Google query, if anyone can do better, i'd appreciate a link - please send it .]
2. Button, James, “Labour can show Labor the way” The Age, May 29, 2006
*Basebuilding When party members get stable jobs that keep them in touch with the working class, and should enjoy everyday lives while gradually attempting to win their co-workers, friends and family to respect and join the party. Move from the classic "cadre" conception of a communist party to that of a "mass party", meaning that the party should not be an elite of "professional revolutionaries" but should be composed of, by, and for the whole working class.
- Button, James, “Labour can show Labor the way” The Age, May 29, 2006
- Carney, Shaun "Is Labor a Social Democratic Party?" Fabian Society talk, New International Bookshop, August 25, 2004
- Lynch, Peter "We need a new way to select all candidates" The Age, March 9, 2006
- Naylor, Catherine, "Australia's tribal culture a new marketing tool" Canberra Times, May 20, 2006