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Are factions killing the Labor Party?


Robert Ray
20 September 2006
by: Robert Ray

Author: Robert Ray is Senator for Victoria

Are factions killing the Labor Party?

Firstly, we have to look at the evidence as to whether the Labor Party is dying and, if so, what is killing it.

Labor has been out of office federally for 10 years and is judged a failure because of that. Being out of federal office is the norm, not the exception.

Labor has held office for only 32 of the 105 years since Federation. Its longest periods in the wilderness have been initiated, or sustained, by party splits.

Given that we haven’t split as a Party, the current demise of Labor federally has a different explanation.

Currently, the Liberals have had three major advantages –

  • A perception of more credible leadership
  • An electorate that believes they are better economic managers, and
  • Much more credibility than the Labor Party on the handling of national security issues

It does not matter whether these perceptions are fair, accurate or induced by propaganda. They exist, and are currently preventing Labor from achieving office federally.

There can be no doubt that Labor’s campaign organisation over the last two decades has been superior to that of our coalition opponents. The 2004 election was the first occasion that the Coalition proved superior in this regard.

Mind you, when it comes to State campaigns, Labor retains its edge in campaign sophistication.

For the first time since Federation, every State and Territory Government is Labor; which proves that a majority of Australians in every State and Territory are prepared to vote Labor, given the right encouragement.

Let's take Lower House representation as an example:

Labor holds 278 Lower House seats Australia-wide, the Liberal Party 95 and the National Party 41.

So for the moment, and ignoring Independents, the ALP holds 67.15% of seats held by the major parties.

The National Party holds 9.9%, and the so-called invincible Liberal Party holds a mere 22.9%.

This means that the overwhelming slice of service delivery is in Labor hands.

Labor has responsibility for education, health, transport, planning and many other areas. They make thousands of appointments each year and employ a couple of thousand Party members on personal staff.

There are many Labor members who would trade all State and Territory Governments just to hold national office, but this State stranglehold is a great ballast to the Labor Party when out of national office.

When the Labor Party can poll over 55% preferred in the last Queensland, Victorian, South Australian and New South Wales elections, it indicates that Labor IS electable, and is not heading into the waste bin of history.

One measure of a party's political success is its membership level. Labor Party membership is in decline. This is disguised, to some extent, by branch-stacking in approximately 15 federal electorates across Australia.

Once thriving branches in provincial towns all across Australia are now reduced to a mere handful of members.

Branch meetings are desultory, the Party is accused of being too hierarchical, and democratic centralism is a popular modus operandi.

Yet the Labor Party is not alone in this regard. Membership of like-minded parties in the United Kingdom and New Zealand is in serious decline.

The Liberal Party of Australia has seen a massive reduction in its membership – staunched only by some dramatic branch-stacking in Ryan, Wentworth and other seats facing potential preselection challenges.

Five years ago it was estimated that 65% of the membership of the New South Wales Branch of the Liberal Party were over 65 years of age.

There are several reasons for the general decline in political party membership:

  • People aren't "joiners" these days – just ask the churches. Yes, the charismatic churches are an exception because they appeal to a very narrow section of the religious community.
  • Campaigns are so centralised these days that foot soldiers perceive themselves as being unnecessary.
  • Many members struggle to know how and where to influence policy development and candidate selection.

Membership fees contribute barely 5% of total Labor Party expenditure in any one year.

The churn rate for new members is at least 40% in a year.

Low membership has immense dangers for a political party. It is exacerbated in the case of the Labor Party because it is an organisation that sets a binding policy through its organisational wing.

If a party's membership is miniscule, it is prone to extremism and open to charges of being unrepresentative.

Parliamentarians are bound by the strictures of the Party but are also cognisant of their responsibilities to their electors. Which view should be paramount - that of 40,000 Party members, or that of 5 million electors?

Divisions within the Labor Party are often based on the dichotomy between reflectivism and vanguardism.

The Reflectivists want to represent the views that they perceive are those of their electors, whereas the Vanguardists approach politics from a position of moral right and wrong.

Politics is never about absolutes; it is where the Party positions itself between these two extremes that most contributes to its success.

A minimalist party can be dominated by Vanguardism and thus become unappealing to its supporter base.

I can say with certainty that there won’t be a return to mass membership of political parties in Australia. Dismissing this view as the reflections of a professional pessimist won’t make it otherwise. In politics, in planning for the future, analysis based on empiricism rather than faith is more productive, but not necessarily satisfying.

Modern Labor is struggling to define where it sits in the political spectrum. Basically, we are supporting a market economy with safety nets, a welfare state with a major needs element, are claimed to be better administrators than our opponents and have a more generous internationalist outlook.

It is often difficult to inspire passion from such a pragmatic approach, yet it reflects an Australian society that marginalises ideological imperatives.

This tendency has always existed in Australia.

Thirty years ago I was doing research on the First International – an international socialist organisation formed by Marx and Engels to unify the working class movement.

It quickly became the battleground between the Marxists and the Anarchists, who were to have their showdown at the Hague Conference of 1872.

While not yet a nation, Australia was nevertheless represented at this Congress by a Ballarat miner whose task was to argue for an extra shilling a day for Australian miners.

As the colossal ideological firestorm engulfed the Hague Conference, as Karl Marx and Michael Bakunin fought it out, the Australian delegate was reported to have intervened on only one occasion, and that was to say

"Monsieur le President, I do not understand what is happening".

It has ever been thus – Australians prefer to concentrate on evolutionary change rather than ideological obsession. We’d always take the extra shilling per day than an empty debate about dialectical materialism.

It is apparent that there is a worldwide trend against social democratic parties.

This has been caused, in part, by conservative parties moving closer to the centre and, again in part, by the ideological uncertainty of left-of-centre parties.

Conservatives rule in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, France, Austria and Denmark, and just last weekend have taken over in Sweden. In the United Kingdom it is the government that has become right-of-centre and Labour in name only.

Obviously, Spain and Italy have gone against this trend, but we are talking about trends – not absolutes.

Social democratic parties, in coming to terms with the complexity of modern government, have often been perceived by their own supporters as failing to live up to the simpler standards encompassed in party policy.

Many social democrats would argue for Third World debt relief, yet rail against IMF conditionality.

Yet incumbent left-of-centre governments want to encourage indebted Third World nations to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

A massive concern for the Labor Party in the late 80s and early 90s was its chronic indebtedness.

Virtually every State Branch was deeply in debt – for example, the 1988 Victorian State Campaign left debts of some $3 million, as did the 1990 and 1993 Federal Campaigns.

Large chunks of John Curtin House had to be sold off to meet the debts. Yet today the Party is almost debt-free, and subject to almost constant complaints from State Liberal Leaders that the Labor Party is crushing them with its financial clout.

When I joined the Labor Party, unions funded more than 80% of total expenditure. Now it is about 15%.

Which takes us back to the question – is the Labor Party dying? It holds 8 of 9 governments in Australia, its falling membership is in line with other Australian political parties and international equivalents. If there is an ideological drift against social democratic parties, it is a world-wide drift.

We are financially viable.

So, it stands to reason that factions are not killing the Labor Party, because the Labor Party is not being killed.

Still, factions aren't going to get off that easily. They deserve a rigorous critique.

Public exposure of the activities of factions is not only in the public interest, but also in the Party interest. Overwhelmingly, media information about factions comes from backgrounding rather than open discussion.

Let me state for the record that I have been a member of the Victorian Labor Unity Group for 32 years and have been involved in nearly every factional stoush going ever since.

And I have to take responsibility for the results of factional activity in which I have been involved.

I can't just abstract myself out and become a dilettante commentator for the Fabians one day, and do some factional hatchet-work the next.

It is amazing to me that, given the immense influence wielded by factions – and the crucial political moulding that occurs via the preselection process – not a single definitive work of written analysis of factions exists. Not even a second-rate analysis, for that matter.

Virtually every politician in parliament today has won a pre-selection, as well as an election.

Yet where is the academic work that explains the processes, the dynamics, of pre-selections? Such a black hole could never exist in the United States or the United Kingdom. Maybe Australian society has its priorities right – dozens of books on Bradman, and none on the dark arts of pre-selection.

In a metaphorical rather than a literal sense, factions are like viruses – they constantly mutate.

The real trick is to have them work for the Labor Party, rather than in contradiction to it.

There are 4 major trends in factionalism in the modern Labor Party:

Firstly, there is the balkanisation of the major factions. It is rare to visit a State Branch and find either the Left or Right faction to be a unifying force. Rift lines exist – sometimes because of union differences, sometimes because of personality differences, and sometimes because of murky and long-forgotten events in the past that bear no relevance at all to contemporary divisions.

The second trend is hegemony by factions. This is best expressed by the desire to dominate every facet of political activity, thus leaving no opportunity for talented Labor Party members who have no factional allegiance.

For every example we can cite of people getting through the system – such as Peter Garrett – there will be many more examples of those who didn't, and who talents are now lost to us.

Factions MUST go outside their normal membership to recruit candidates. The views held by non faction candidates about factions constantly amaze me.

They seem to think they have to enter some Faustian pact in which free-will will be forever forfeited.

At a Federal level – at least in the Right – the key obligation is to participate in meetings that elect the frontbench and to be bound by those decisions. Leave passes are often granted on policy issues, and not just in the Right.

The third trend is the death of the Centre Left. After the next election, I believe they will be represented in the Federal Parliament only out of Tasmania and the ACT – probably a maximum of 3.

Centre Left adherents would naturally blame the bully-boys of the Right and Left for this result.

I would more likely subscribe to the theory that opportunism and intellectual arrogance are being punished.

The final trend is what I call the Stasi element – a whole production line of soul-less apparatchiks has emerged; highly proficient and professional, but with no Labor soul; control freaks with tunnel-vision; ruthless leakers in their self-interest; individuals who would rather the Party lose an election than that they lose their place in the pecking order.

Federal renewal will always come from the FPLP – it will not come from the Party organisation, or even the unions – it will come from the leadership and the inspiration of the Federal Caucus.

That will only take place when we have a Caucus brimming with talent.

The much criticised Victorian pre-selections will inject Bill Shorten, Richard Marles, Mark Dreyfus and David Feeney into the post-election Caucus.

They have talent to burn – yet it was also a factional power grab. It could have been worse – it could have been a power grab by hacks and local war lords.

Clearly, factions must not ossify – and if you think this is a back-hander to the Victorian Left, you're right.

From a weakened position, all the Left could do was defend its own and where opportunities arose, reward union loyalists and factional war lords.

Talent was never, ever a consideration.

Too often these days, winning the internal battle gives enough satisfaction to the faction leaders.

Fortunately, this is not universal. Many want to win government but believe that it is up to others to make the sacrifice in order to do so.

Too often, critics of factionalism have clay feet.

Take for example the many long-winded critiques of factionalism delivered by Chris Schacht – no-one practised factionalism harder than he did. But once he lost influence in his own faction, he condemned all factions.

He was willing – as have been many others – to sacrifice the careers of others, but to seek the protection of the National Executive to save his own.

Any valid analysis of factionalism contained in his critiques has tended to be devalued by the perception of rank hypocrisy.

Barry Jones , Barry Cohen and many others only fell out of love with their factions when the factions stopped loving them.

The great unknown is what if there were no factions? Would the Labor Party enter a better era? Would everyone approach every decision with objectivity, and would personality factors play no role in politics? Would we achieve a social democrat Disneyland?

I think not. I don't see the Labor Party metamorphosing into the Fabian Society! But we did get a glimpse of the faction-free future.

See, I recall Mark Latham's ascension to the leadership of the Labor Party being hailed as a triumph insofar as faction bosses were trounced. Well, give me the cigar smoking, backroom faction bosses over the gullible, Walter Mitty-like shortcutters that put a 1 in the Latham square in December 2003.

So, is the future really gloomy? Well, probably not. As I said before, factions mutate.

So while we have suffered from the suffocating collaboration of factional Daleks – such as Conroy and Carr - the Marks – that is, Arbib and Butler – are emerging.

They are the factional leaders of the future – highly competent, well motivated and dedicated to the success of Labor as a whole.


I often hear complaints about the Party's factional make-up and operation – "If only we could return to the days when you ran things". I have to say there was never such a golden age, but one thing has changed – years ago, our word was our bond. We didn’t need secret written agreements that dealt with the Pre-selection Futures market locked away in some safe somewhere.

Today, we must demand that factions reject self-indulgent introspection. We must demand of faction leaders that they put

the Party’s interest ahead of factional supremacy.

Not every candidate needs an Honours Degree in Apparatchikism.

Equally, a parliamentary Party made up of just earnest policy gurus would be unsuccessful. It’s about getting the mix right. It will no longer happen by luck – only by good management.

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