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The unions and the ALP: the sound of two wings flapping

By Peter Lewis - posted Thursday, 15 August 2002

The one element missing from the current debate about the relationship between the labour movement and the ALP is any discussion about what's in it for the unions.

While everyone now seems to agree that the question of union control of party forums is a red herring, the real question is what responsibilities elected Labor MPs carry.

Are they elevated to elected office by dint of their own intrinsic value or are they merely custodians of a workers' movement that created the party they represent more than 100 years ago?
The answer to this question is integral to any renegotiation of the relationship.


If one takes the view that these are brilliant individuals who have achieved office because they are talented and wise, then it would be fair to give them freedom to set their own course into the future.
If one takes the broader historical view and recognise Labor MPs as representatives of the movement, then they must carry certain obligations into the Parliament.

Like adhering to the policy of the Party they are elected to represent, even when it may not be electorally popular. Like championing policies consistent with trade union values, even at the risk of losing a few dollars in corporate sponsorship. Like treating trade unions as partners in policy, not headaches to be side-stepped and avoided.

The problem with the current reform agenda for many in the union movement, is that the call to break ties comes from those who have taken the most from the union movement; who have been shoe-horned into seats on the back of the factional deals that they now purport to undo.

It's like the ethos of people born wealthy who then profess a firm belief in the rights of the individual over society - they turn their backs on the structures that have given them their privileged position.

The current project seems to have become more about how to make 'brand ALP' most electable, rather than making the Labor product as good as it can be.

John Button copped all sorts of flak for his essay on the future of the ALP, not least for the headlines that had him calling on the Party to sever ties with the union movement.


But maybe this should be the starting point of a new relationship. Let's go back to first principles and work out why it is that the relationship exists in the first place.

Let's look at the experiences abroad where social democratic parties are independent of organised labour; let's see what happened when the Swedish union movement severed all ties with the political party it created; let's see how the British movement has fared under Tony Blair's New Labour.

If on the evidence it is determined that the relationship should continue, then let's lay it out clearly: what is expected of the ALP, what is expected of MPs, what is expected of union leaders and what is expected of the rank and file.

If there's going to be a New Deal, the union movement and its leadership must be partners in the process not victims of the outcome.

The ALP makeover has to work for both wings of the movement, to create a vessel that flies politically and industrially.

And if Simon Crean succeeds in forging a New Deal it should be recognised that it is not the unions he has busted; but the ideological void within the political wing of the movement that made his predecessor unelectable.

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About the Author

Peter Lewis is the director of Essential Media Communications, a company that runs strategic campaigns for unions, environmental groups and other “progressive” organisations.

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