The current public spat between the ALP and the Greens points to deeper changes in our party system; particularly the growing irrelevance of the ALP’s structure and the way in which its blue-collar union base has narrowed the party’s connection with the community leaving it vulnerable to attacks on the right (Howard’s battlers) and on the left (from the Greens).
In my recently completed doctoral thesis (available online: http://trevorcook.typepad.com/weblog/) I drew attention to the paralysis that afflicts the ALP in its attempts to rebuild from historically low and perilous declines in its primary vote.
My thesis, essentially, is that party structure matters and that the ALP’s relationship with the union movement, through the affiliation of mostly blue collar unions, has become a burden in a world where only a minority of the electorate identifies with the old unionised blue collar world that began to decline in the 1950s and collapsed in the 1990s as Australia opened its economy and a much larger proportion of the population gained access to higher education.
The popular political image of the blue-collar worker today is the fabled ‘tradie’; an independent small business person more concerned with the impact of the tax system than industrial relations and likely to see unions as a problem or an historical artifact.
Meanwhile, the typical union member in Australia today is a professional woman with a university degree working in the community services sector. About a quarter of today’s union members belong to two big unions, covering teachers and nurses, which are not affiliated to the ALP and whose officials rarely make it into ALP parliamentary caucuses.
One interviewee with long experience at a senior level in the union movement, summed up the problem for the ALP, and gave me the title for my thesis. He said that both unions and the party want to seem more independent while continuing to derive the benefits of social democratic style dependence. They want to avoid voter and union member scepticism, even hostility, about the close relationship between unions and the ALP. At the same time, unions want the ALP to deliver legislation that protects them and the ALP wants access to the enormous human and financial resources that unions can provide at election time.
In the face of plummeting membership in the 1990s, the ACTU turned away from the Scandinavian-inspired corporatism of the Accord, with its insider tactics and elite negotiation, towards some successful pressure group style unions in the USA.
The star turn was the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) lauded in ACTU strategies and reports of the time as the fastest-growing union in the western world. The core strategy of the SEIU for recruiting and retaining members was campaigning. This new approach reached its pinnacle in Australia in 2007 with the campaign against Workchoices.
The US-inspired revival of union political clout, however, is based on political independence – the capacity to campaign for and against policies, parties and candidates based on union interests and not constrained by prior political affiliations and commitments.
In my thesis interviews, people in the ALP and in affiliated unions often praised an acceptance of these constraints as examples of political ‘maturity’, and they often criticised unaffiliated unions for lacking it.
When Labor won office in 2007, the spirit of independent campaigning in the union movement took a back seat to insider deals. Many in the union movement have blamed this predilection for elite co-operation as the reason why the union movement was ineffective in its campaign against the Abbott led coalition in 2010. It’s also why the Coalition probably has little to fear from the union movement in 2013.
Many observers like to argue that structure doesn’t matter, that voters don’t care how the sausages are made. The problem with this view is that bad structure produces unappetizing sausages. Inevitably, a few generations of tasteless sausages results in a party leadership that few people in the electorate feel connected to, much less inspired by.
This article is based on Trevor Cook's PhD thesis which can be accessed at his blog, or downloaded from Scribd.
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