Listening to Labor’s true believers

The current malaise of the ALP has seen a recent upsurge of interest in primaries as a way to draw Labor supporters into participation within the ALP. But would this work? What do Labor supporters want?

None of the recent discussion about primaries considers the example of Tasmanian state politics. The Hare-Clark proportional representation system at the state level has enabled voters to choose between competing candidates from the same party. A critical view of PR was provided by Tasmanian history academic and ALP left activist Richard Davis in 1983:

Hare-Clark facilitated compromising, middle-of-the –road government…[it] ensured strife within parties…individual candidates consciously appeal to as many sporting religious, occupational and domestic interests as possible…an all-night chemist known as a good Catholic, who advertises frequently on TV and is a former Australian Rues footballer would be an unbeatable Labor candidate

Today Labor’s constituency is more fragmented so the ideal Labor slate mixes women, men, inner-city lefties and old guard unionists, An attempt by the then dominant ‘Broad left’ faction in 1980 to have an official Labor how to vote failed in the face of voter and parliamentarian resistance.

Arguments for primaries are largely of the ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ variety. NSW Centre Unity:

Primaries are a logical progression of the principles the founders of our party espoused that our representatives should be chosen by a large cross-section of our members and supporters.


I have no idea who these founders are presumed to be and what they are supposed to have said. Nowhere is this theme apparent in the 3 volumes of early ALP conference reports edited by Michael Hogan. The recent Carr-Bracks-Faulkner review of the ALP proposed:


That the Party nationally implement a tiered system of Party primaries for the selection of candidates. That this commence in open and non-held lower house seats and be considered for held seats in the future. That a system with three weighted components be established comprising a 60 per cent component drawn from local Party members, 20 per cent from members participating from affiliated trade unions, and 20 per cent from registered Labor supporters in the community.


The registration requirements are unclear, but the NSW Centre Unity proposal suggests that


Any person who is not a financial Party member must first sign a declaration stating that they:

(i) Are a Labor supporter;

(ii) Will assist the Labor candidate selected in the ballot for which they are registering

as a voter; and

(iii) A re not a member of another political party or one of its affiliated organisations


The limited weighting given to primaries and the registration hurdles suggest to me that in practice primary voters would mostly be recruited by pre-selection aspirants. Parallels could be drawn with Tasmania where it seems that aspirant Labor MPs mobilise constituencies around personal rather than policy appeals. The Tasmanian system doesn’t empower Labor voters. This is my reading of the experience of the Country Party. For a long period this Party allowed multiple candidates to nominate in general elections with the expectation that they would swap preferences. Mostly this worked although occasionally it failed. However I don’t think that multiple candidates within the Country Party ever become a vehicle for policy conflict.


However what if primaries did actually involve Labor voters? The 2010 Australian Election Survey found that 7.8% of respondents claimed very strong identification with the ALP. These are the ‘true believers’ whom primaries would be supposed to bring into the party. Of them 94.8% voted ALP.


What do these voters think? This question is of interest because primaries if they were to mean anything might empower them to have more impact on the ALP and because left-wing critics of the Greens see these voters as potential constituency (or so I thought after attending Capital Against Capitalism). A quick examination of the 2010 Australian Election Survey sheds some light. Very strong Labor identifiers favour increased social services expenditure over tax reductions by 49.6% to 30.6%, compared to 43.2% to 32.2% for all Labor identifiers but their support for turning back asylum-seeker boats is strong at 53.6% for to 34.7% against and here they take a harder line position than Labor identifiers a whole who favour turning back the boats by 47.8% to 34.5%. Very strong Labor identifiers are close to Green identifiers on tax and services where Green identifiers favour services over tax reductions by 52% to 26.7% however they are quite divergent on asylum-seekers: Green identifiers oppose turning back the boats by 17.6% to 67.6%.


Looking over these figures I am reminded of Chris Bertram’s recent identification of four groups on ‘the left’:

1. The technocratic quasi-neoliberal left as incarnated by the likes of Peter Mandelson. Pro-globalisation, pro-market, pro-growth: keep the masses happy by improving their living standards. It’s the economy, stupid. Prone to witter self-regardingly about “grown-up” politics. Fixated on electoral competition with the right, with winning elections the essential prerequisite to changing anything. Who is in this box? Well I guess New Labour in the UK, plus (in practice) the leaders of the main European social-democratic parties. In power, this group (or those who think like them) have achieved very little. They certainly haven’t done much to stem the rise of inequality, to protect working-class communities from the winds of globalisation, to end poverty, or, for that matter, to protect the environment. Their attitude to those to their left has been to call for discipline and silence, for fear of frightening the median voter, coupled with hostility, ridicule, character assassination. Their appeal to the left has always and only been that they are slightly less bad than the full-on right wing. (If they have a feature one can admire, it is their comparative lack of xenophobia and racism, however much moved by a desire for “free” labour markets.)

2. The “left” version of populist nationalism. Culturally conservative, worried by immigration (and willing to indulge popular anxieties), anxious about the effects of markets on working-class community. Maybe “blue Labour” in the UK is an example of this, though, of course, plenty of Labour politicians are willing to swing both “new” and “blue”, whistling a communitarian tune whilst relaxing planning laws for the supermarkets, which would be anathema to the core blue Labourites. British Labour leader Ed Miliband was plainly flirting with this current in his most recent speech. Like the first group, power is important for this current. But power isn’t everything, for two reasons: (a) being in government and not achieving improvement in social justice would be pointless for those members of this group who are not career politicians and (b) unlike the left-neoliberals there are things they can do outside of parliamentary politics: they can organize, resist, use the power of the trade unions (such as it is). The trouble for this group is that their core group of supporters, on whom they can rely at election time, has been getting smaller for decades and the solidaristic norms that used to be the conventional wisdom of their supporters are fraying, and will fray more as the material and institutional supports of the labour movement erode further (cf André Gorz, I suppose). The current UK government may be upsetting a lot of voters with its cuts policy, but, long-term, they are also chipping away at an important social support for this kind of politics: public sector employment.

3. The eco-left. Highly egalitarian. Deeply sceptical about the capacity of capitalism to provide real improvements in people’s lives through “growth”. Anxious about the way in which both the natural and the social environments that make life tolerable are being undermined by neoliberalism. Tending to communitarianism and anarchism. Not very coherently both localist/communitarian and cosmopolitan in outlook. Highly connected to the social movements that have in fact given us most of the left’s real policy gains in the past 40 years. Again, this group doesn’t need to win parliamentary elections to make a difference, since it can, to some extent, both organise resistance to government policy and implement alternative ways of living in the here and now. Obviously there are worries about thinking of this group coherent at all, since it takes in all kinds from the Zapatistas to Colin Ward-inspired anarchists, to UKUncut, the the Spanish street protesters, to Greens and maybe even some of the people who had washed up in the Lib Dems in the mistaken belief that it was to the left of Labour in the UK.

4. The old Leninist hard left. Naturally they fancy themselves as the people strand 3 need to give them organization and direction. I don’t think so. Washed up, marginal, authoritarian and unappealing.

In Australia we have seen the ascendancy of 1, minus even its attractive features (an explanation for Lindsay Tanner leaving politics?). After Capital against Capitalism I think Bertram is too dismissive of the ‘Leninist’ milieu even if he might have a point about card-carrying sect members. Do Labor’s remaining true believers fit under heading 2?


The other point about primaries is that if ALP candidates are to compete on policy then they will have to stand up for that policy in parliament. Effective primaries are incompatible with caucus discipline.

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