In a timely contribution to debate on the future of the Labor Party, Where to next for Labor? - Coming to the Party, edited by former Minister and ALP President Barry Jones, is a welcome collection of views on what strategies are necessary to revitalise the ALP and, ultimately, win government. Issues considered range from the impact of factionalism to the decline of Labor’s traditional blue collar working class constituency, as well as the necessary work of building mass movements, and reviving structures for rank-and-file participation and influence in the ALP.
Barry Jones’ own chapter, as well as Julia Gillard’s contribution, are both positively scathing of the factional system they see at the root of many of Labor’s ills. As Jones argues:
Major factions have become recruiting and executive placement agencies, having lost any ideological basis … Rank and file members are disappearing, and those who remain have become marginalised …
In a similar vein, Gillard insists:
The factional structures of Left and Right are now ossified and devoid of meaning ... The factional labels do not mean very much any more, which can hardly be of a surprise in a world in which the meaning of the terms “Left” and “Right” are the subject of global debate.
The concentration of political power into the hands of a few in the ALP and the politics of power and patronage which stifles independent voices all intensifies the feelings of disempowerment and disillusionment among grassroots activists.
It can be argued, however, that those of a similar political persuasion will likely coalesce formally in one way or another regardless of this, and there must surely be some sense that factionalism in one form or another is inevitable. What is more, while it can be argued that Labor’s parliamentary ranks should be more broadly representative, and the road from union officialdom to parliament ought not be so well-trod, union affiliation remains an important anchor for the ALP in the organised working class.
Gillard’s attempt to distance herself from the language of “Left” and “Right” can be viewed in a number of ways. First, there is an ongoing argument, sustained by those such as David McKnight, about the relevance of an essentially linear spectrum of Left versus Right in a world where post-materialist politics and attempts by some to synthesise socialist, liberal and conservative perspectives into a new philosophy, are throwing past comfortable assumptions into question.
Against this, it can be argued that the Left’s egalitarianism remains a strong point of distinction between socialist, social-democratic and traditional Conservative and neo-liberal thought: and that the Left’s identity, as such, is worth preserving as against attempts to create an essentially “new” movement.
Some might think, rather, that Gillard is attempting to “have it both ways”: to broaden her appeal as a potential leadership contender by distancing herself from her roots in the Left, while at the same time holding on to her Left support base.
Perhaps, in a take on the question of factionalism not considered by this book’s authors, part of the answer to the “faction question” is the democratisation of the factions themselves: including efforts to build mass membership of those groups, empowerment of those groups’ activists through democratic channels and the fostering, within those groups, of a culture of grassroots political, practical and theoretical exchange, including grassroots policy development.
This needs to be as open a process as possible and for the Left in particular, socialist politics and principles need to be taken out of the closet: instead of representing something parliamentarians and prospective politicians dare not advocate openly or forcefully for fear of embarrassing the party, or complicating political ambitions.
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