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 April 2006

                 A caucus of Carmens? Some thoughts on Labor’s  ‘insoluble’ problem

While most Labor supporters are happy to consign The Latham Diaries to the dustbin of history, many of them will, from time to time, be woken from their sleep by the memory of this passage: ‘Do I want another ten years banging my head against the wall? Or just face the intellectual truth that not all problems in life have an answer. As an institution, the ALP is insoluble‘. Of course, Latham’s pessimism was coloured by his need for vindication, but it is necessary to ask the question: is Labor’s return to national office checked by insurmountable obstacles?

The new world of routine workers

In the wake of recent preselection tussles we have been treated to a wave of outbursts and recriminations over Labor’s organisational shortcomings. The more thoughtful contributions acknowledge that the party finds itself on the wrong side of demographic changes which have transformed Australian society, some of them launched by the ALP while in office. For instance, the federal Opposition spokesman on revenue and small business, Joel Fitzgibbon, pointed out that ‘in the Hunter area of NSW ... 80 per cent of the workforce is now employed in the services sector‘. As a consequence, he argued Labor needs to start ‘pushing decision making back down to the rank and file‘. On closer examination, however, it is by no means certain that this shift would, as Fitzgibbon hopes, ‘ensure the party’s policy thinking is capable of reflecting the views and aspirations of a majority of Australians‘.

The demographic challenge is usually framed in terms of a shrinking blue-collar base and an expanding white-collar or service sector class. As we argued previously (see our October 2005
editorial), this focus misses the more significant analytical divide between the 70 per cent or so of the workforce in ‘routine’ jobs and the 30 per cent of ‘knowledge’ (or ‘professional’) workers. The former encompasses not just traditional blue-collar jobs but also many white-collar and most service occupations, as well as some ‘associate professionals’.

These proportions are stable over time and the two groups are diverging in terms of geographic location (outer-suburban and regional versus inner-suburban), social values (pragmatic/aspirational versus progressive) and income security (only on average: some routine workers earn more than some knowledge workers).

Amongst all the talk of shrinking bases and declining constituencies, routine workers (properly defined) clearly outnumber knowledge workers by a significant margin, and will continue to do so. Moreover, they are increasingly concentrated geographically. The progressive dream of evolution from a materialist to a post-materialist society is an illusion.

Dead-end activism

What does all of this mean for Labor’s creaking organisational structure? The problem is that not enough routine workers are joining Labor branches. It is true that some branches, particularly those in working-class suburbs with a tradition of union influence and activity, do reflect the aspirations of routine workers, and support sympathetic candidates for preselection. Inevitably, some of these branches have a high proportion of ethnic members, since most newcomers are routine workers. This is not the evil it is often presented to be. There is no question that the cynical manipulation of ethnic blocs to stack branches brings discredit on the party. But this should not be confused with a genuine migrant presence in branches covering suburbs with high ethnic concentrations.

Still, branches controlled by routine workers are in a minority across the country. For some time too many rank and file members have come from the knowledge worker class, particularly the offshoot that pursues its concerns into the political arena as ‘social activists‘. On the whole, these activists do not promote the values and aspirations of routine workers, and tend to alienate them from the party. This is the fundamental organisational problem facing Labor. Yet it is never discussed, for the reason that criticising the rank and file sounds like an anti-democratic betrayal of Labor principles. Hence the vacuum is filled by social progressives like Lindsay Tanner, John Button, John Faulkner, Carmen Lawrence, Peter Botsman and others who insist that the party’s salvation lies precisely in handing over power to such activists.

It is also true that most endorsed Labor candidates are drawn from another slice of the knowledge worker class - the ministerial staffers, party officers, union officials and Emily’s List ring-ins, sometimes referred to collectively as the ‘political class‘. Many of these are also out of touch with the mass of routine workers, even if for different reasons. Nonetheless, the apparatchiks are no worse than the activists.

The demographic imbalance of the rank and file is directly related to the hot topic of the moment. The accumulation of power by the 'union official-party officer complex' has progressed in tandem with the activist takeover of the branches. Astute observers know that if real power is transferred to the rank and file, the party would end up competing with the Greens for minor party status - what Martin Ferguson calls ‘the march to marginalisation‘. When branch members had an opportunity to elect the party’s president, they voted overwhelmingly for Carmen Lawrence, a lofty critic of routine worker values. A caucus of Carmens would set the Labor cause back immeasurably. This prospect feeds the power of union and party officials, who emerge as a brake on the excesses of the branches.

It may be heresy to say so, but without these officials and their allies in the federal and state caucuses, the party would lose a moderating influence that keeps it competitive in the crucial centre ground of politics, where elections are won and lost. Despite their faults, the Labor-affiliated unions remain the sole voice for routine workers in the higher councils of the party.

A diabolical dilemma

On the other hand, there is also truth in the claim that for the growing proportion of the electorate, including most routine workers, who have no interest in joining a union, Labor’s economic management credentials are compromised by the party’s organisational ties to the union movement. While routine workers (properly defined) represent at least 70 per cent of the workforce, only 23 per cent of all workers belong to a union today (and only 17 per cent in the private sector). So this is the diabolical dilemma facing Labor: transfer power to the branches and lose the centre ground, perhaps for decades; or retain the same union ties and struggle to win acceptance as an economic manager.

Is there a solution to this problem, or is Latham right after all? Unfortunately, there is no easy solution in sight, at least no solution that is readily acceptable to the powerbrokers. Such resistance is usually dismissed as a reluctance to surrender the levers of power, but there is also a more legitimate disincentive to internal reform. Focusing on internal matters simply nobbles the Opposition in its contest with the government, risking an even more damaging loss at the next election. That is why internal reform should only be tackled at the start of a parliamentary term; it is now too late in the electoral cycle to embark on the turmoil of organisational change.

For the long-term health of the party, however, key party leaders should seriously investigate a reform agenda to be released for discussion as soon as possible after the next federal election, whether Labor wins or not (realistically though, calls for party reform will evaporate in the event of a victory). The challenge, of course, is how to align party structures with the great mass of routine workers. To some extent, this overlaps with an effort to align the party organisation with current and potential ALP voters, not just ALP members. Of all the proposals canvassed since the last election, the only reform likely to achieve such a readjustment is a bold option - something like a US-style primary process. Joel Fitzgibbon and Barry Cohen have both recently floated this idea in the media. It may well be the best way to place Labor’s relationship with the union movement on a better footing while preventing a repeat of the 1960s and 1970s, when many branches were hijacked by middle-class activists.

As an item for discussion, we propose something analogous to the process followed in the US state of Iowa, the so-called ‘Iowa caucuses‘. Branch members in each electoral division would invite the public to an open forum where candidates for preselection would be discussed and debated (of course, only ALP members would be entitled to nominate as candidates). At the conclusion of discussions all present would be eligible to vote, as long as they are registered on the electoral roll and are not members of a rival political party. The process could be extended to selecting a proportion of delegates to state and national conference (again, only ALP members would be eligible to stand). The balance of delegates would continue to be nominated by affiliated unions. This system should at least produce candidates and delegates who are more in tune with the socio-economic priorities of the local population. As Cohen suggests, the process would be run by the Australian Electoral Commission, and Fitzgibbon’s idea that union members be allocated a more heavily weighted vote has merit.

When the Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton argues, in the latest Quarterly Essay, that Labour ‘has served its historical purpose and will wither and die as [a] progressive force‘, he is right. By no means, however, does that mean the party will wither and die as a popular force. It means Labor must now return to its true mission - fighting for the working men and women of Australia.

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