Reforming the ALP

Author: Andrew Giles is the Labor MP for Scullin

It is timely, with State Conference to consider significant reforms next month.

How the Labor Party works is important. And not only to ALP members and supporters. It goes to the heart of the functioning of our democracy.

Far from navel-gazing, this debate is essential. And it is urgent.

This debate is not just about the mores of the Australian Labor Party. Its context is a decline in civic engagement as well as formal political involvement across the developed world.

Our pattern of declining primary vote and declining membership is far from unique. 

Today, Australian Labor confronts a relatively established competitor Party of the Left on the one hand, and a sense of electoral alienation on the other. The rise of PUP is the most recent manifestation of this.

Similar challenges confront our colleagues in Europe, evidenced in declining participation and the rise of parties of protest such as the Five Star movement and UKIP. Indeed, neo-fascist groupings like Golden Dawn.

Since the halcyon days of post-war mass memberships, the circumstances in which people live and work has changed almost beyond recognition.

But the structures of the Labor Party of 2014 are not only very similar to that of 1970s, they continue to reflect the way the world of the late 19th century worked.

From this perspective, it is perhaps easy to understand why membership is both declining and not representative of the wider population. Most obviously, women constitute only around 1/3 of Labor members.

This isn’t good enough, and it’s not sustainable. If we are to continue as the political voice of working people we must adapt and ‘be where the people are’. As inequality grows, our response becomes critical. Not just to determine the policy response, but to demonstrate the positive change that can only happen through formal politics.

Party reform isn’t an optional extra, it is at the core of modern Labor’s challenge.

To me, there are two key elements to this debate: principle and power. In this contribution I’ll attempt to explain why I believe this to be so, and then what this might mean.

Principles not prescriptions 

I won’t be speaking to particular prescriptions for Rules changes because this is putting the cart before the horse, and it also tends to shut people out of the conversation: missing the whole point.

There’s also an implicit suggestion here that there is a panacea out there. There are complex questions of structure and culture at play here. I think it’s a little arrogant to suggest that there is a single, enduring answer to the big question of: how can we open up the Labor Party?

Most rule change proposals by their very nature tend to be reactive. They ‘fix’ a problem of the present structure, lending weight to the assumption that this has a greater standing than it should have.

Now’s not a time for tinkering. It’s time to imagine how a 21st century Labor Party should look like. What principles should inform this dreaming?

Reform in principle

When I think about the challenge of Party reform, I am mindful of the old joke about the visitor asking for directions. They are told (oh so helpfully): I wouldn’t start from here.

The structures and cultures that make today’s Party don’t reflect a master plan. Rather a strange evolution. A series of compromises often rooted in events the significance of which is both forgotten and redundant.

Why do I dwell on this?

Because when it comes to achieving the reform of a complex organism like the Labor Party, the devil is in the detail. I believe the key challenge facing would-be reformers is to establish the goal – before turning to the mechanisms. To ask ‘for what end’ before ‘how’ and ‘why’. 

I think the failure to effectively pose this first-principles question explains in large part the poor record of Party reform over my lifetime.

I believe in a mass Party – Labor as the voice of ordinary people, collectively shaping the circumstances in which we live our lives.

Giving more people, more of a say.

Further to this end, I see three core principles as underpinning my approach to democratic reform:

  1. Building a truly national Labor Party
  2. Remaining a Party of labour
  3. Giving members direct access to and involvement in decision-making.

I’ll touch on these briefly.

It’s hardly controversial to suggest that Federation has evolved in ways that the ALP has not. From WW2 we’ve witnessed something like a centrifugal force in Australian politics, pulling powers and concerns to Canberra.

All the while we continue to act in state-based silos: if you join the Party to save the Great Barrier Reef, from the Bundoora branch you’re a long way from the action (and the route is not that easy to follow).

Secondly, my conception of social democracy has organised labour at its core. In this age of insecurity, as the world of work continues to change, it is vital that political Labor not only retains but seeks to broaden and deepen its relationship with the movement that speaks for 2 million working Australians.

Lastly, whatever else membership might be, it must be meaningful. Our present arrangements are both complex and opaque (hence, perhaps, the ubiquity of reference to faceless men and the sins of factions more generally).

What is to be done?

If our member in Bundoora wishes to have her voice heard at National Conference, her branch secretary isn’t much help. There’s a byzantine web between member and decision that breeds confusion, frustration and alienation.

The best way to empower members is to include them in decisions that matter to them, directly – and to ensure the relevant information is circulated.

So: the goal of reform is to build a membership-driven, open Party that operates as a genuinely Australian, labour Party.

A place where people concerned to change the world naturally take their energies. A place where big debates over Australia’s future play out.

How do we make this happen?

Reform in practice: power

It is odd that we seem so uncomfortable discussing power, when Labor’s purpose is self-evidently all about assuming state power and reshaping society.

But uncomfortable we are.

For me, a key objective – perhaps the central objective – in reforming the Party is to give more people, more of a say. This means more power: over policy. In campaigns. In selecting candidates.

Ultimately, in shaping the circumstances in which they live their lives.

Hand in hand with this is that those (including me) who are presently influential must necessarily be less so.

While it is right and proper to be concerned about branch-stacking, or other forms of entryism our Party’s proud past and traditions can’t be an argument against opening up the Party. I got this wrong in supporting many of the reforms on the early 2000s. Then, with the benefit of hindsight, the cure might’ve been as bad as the disease.

An object lesson in the dangers of looking to fixes rather than principles in enacting reform.

Hence my earlier remarks about the dangers of reactive rule-making, and my insistence on looking for organisational first principles.

Back to power.

We need to address, directly, the question of how power operates in a political party, if we are to revitalise what it means to be a Labor member.

We need to think about how structural change can drive cultural change, recognising that rules on paper do not of themselves enable effective participatory democracy.

Informal power – in particular the restrictions on the flow of information – can often be as significant in stifling involvement as any rules provision.

A reform agenda that is concerned to build a growing, open Party of debate must look to the practical steps required to enable members at large to speak truth to power.

Factions 

It’s probably important that I acknowledge the role – indeed, also the responsibilities – of factions in this debate. Often, the elephant in the Labor room. 

I stand here as a member of the Left, and as someone who has played an active role in factional politics for some time.

I support the role of factions in aggregating interests and building accountability in a broad-based Party of government.

I am, however, opposed to the growth of parties within the Party and to sectarianism.

There is a world of different between people coming together to advance shared ideological objectives through our Party on the one hand, and on the other hand, self-interested cabals denying others meaningful political space.

The things members and commentators often blame on ‘factions’, often stem directly from the failings of our present structure and culture more generally.

A failure to effectively communicate with members speaks volumes to how they are valued by the organisation. Investing in members – through training, induction and listening, is a precondition to a more democratic party. 

Indeed, how Labor works is obscure - where it is not completely opaque. This creates a vacuum.

Of course, nature abhors a vacuum.

To the extent that the operation of factions has filled this vacuum is, of itself, neither a good nor a bad thing. It’s how organisations – indeed, how people – function. 

But I am concerned we are reaching a tipping point, where involvement in factional activity is supplanting wider engagement in the Party. Where all contestability in Labor is ‘off the books’ within factional caucuses, our Party is greatly diminished.

We cannot continue to contract out meaningful involvement to factions. We must continue to look to ways in which we can broaden engagement, and we have some models to look to: I think of Rainbow Labor, and LEAN, off the top of my head.

As a proud leftwinger I want to be part of big, inclusive debates, not involved simply in managing processes.

We need to open up the opportunities to argue. A good start would be having debates such as this one within the formal structures of the Party.

Conclusion 

This is a debate about principle and about power. It should be progressed in that order.

It is also a contest between hope and cynicism. All of us interested in a better Labor Party would do well to remember this.

Progressives should reflexively choose hope – it’s how we see the world, after all.

This should also turn out to be the informed choice. The cynics would have it that how we make or remake Labor structures and culture doesn’t matter.

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

There are reasons to be optimistic. The cynics are in retreat.

Most obviously, last year we opened up to all members a say in Labor’s leadership. To me, this means crossing a threshold in terms of opening up meaningful involvement. Offering a place where the thousands who marched in March turn their energy into action.

I am also heartened by the recent contribution to the National Policy Forum by Bill Shorten. Bill recognises the need in a modernised Party to both grow the party membership and, just as importantly, give those members more of role within the party.

I am also inspired by the progress made by Ed Milliband in the United Kingdom. It is clear that Ed acknowledges the need for the UK Labour Party to respond to a changed society before this changed society will respond to Labour.

If you believe in representative democracy, much less social democracy, then surely you must support meaningful democracy within parties. Labor’s achievements aren’t the result of the work of great men – they stem from the efforts of thousands of people.

The choice we face is essentially between a cynical Party of patronage, or a dynamic Party – a movement - built through participation and open debate. I think we should be clear about this, and about an agenda to radically shift power in the Party from the few to the many.

To build a better Labor Party we must make the case for giving more people, more of say – and then entrust those people with filling in the blanks so they can all have their say.

Let us have the courage of our convictions, and the confidence in Australian women and men, to let them shape Labor’s future. 

This is the path not only to a better ALP, it’s the surest route to a fairer, more sustainable Australia.