Jack Lang, Rand Paul and Bob Brown

The rise of the Greens attracted Labor comment, some of it is uniquely self-absorbed we have those who blame their rise on the 1990 election when Labor appealed for second preference votes. Or historian true believer Nick Drenyfuth who identifies a looming battle betweenLabor’s social democracy and Green environmentalism, in fact the Greens are currently more ‘social democratic’ than Labor (and we have other Labor supporters claiming that they are Communists). We might argue that in the future the Greens might become less social democratic than Labor, much would depend on what sort of votes they attracted from Labor as Tad Tietze argues, but currently they are clearly a social democratic force.

The rise of the Greens however may pose an impossible challenge for the political left as whole.  What if the majority of left of centre voters are so far to the left that any Labor or Green party will become unelectable if it reflects their views. Are the Greens a left-wing version of the American Tea Party who reflect the views of activists that alienate a majority of voters? The Democrats have targeted Tea Party endorsed Republican candidates, such as Rand Paul, in the belief that they are too extreme for voters. Something like this may have occurred with British Labour in the 1980s and with Australian Labor between the wars. In the British case the tight control of the party by an alliance of politicians and conservative unionists prevented this popular radicalism from being expressed but this control broke down from mid 1970s (brilliantly chronicled in the works of Lewis Minkin). In Australia the experience of imperialist war and the red twenties radicalized Australian workers but this was a minority radicalization. However workers’ party identification with Labor prevented this radicalism from being reflected electorally as Labor was largely controlled by an alliance of centrist politicians and the AWU but in NSW this broke down. I argue in my book:

A feature of Australian political history has been the hegemony of moderate labourism on the left, potential challenges such as radical liberalism, agrarian populism or Communism have never won mass support. Until the recent rise of the Greens Lang Labor was the most significant challenge to mainstream Labor on the left. The electoral weakness of Australian communism is striking; the rapid rise of the ALP suggests a high level of class mobilisation. If half the electorate were willing to support an avowedly socialist party it seems plausible that there would have been a substantial portion of the electorate whose political views were well to the left of the Labor mainstream. Labor’s hegemony on the left has frustrated socialists. Pre-1914 socialists tended to blame the working-class for their apathy and ignorance, Communists from the 1930s hoped that the industrial radicalisation of workers would spill over into the political sphere. Neither was particularly successful. Verity Burgmann has come closest to an answer. She argues the ALP was born too early and lacking a coherent socialist philosophy it was soon corrupted by the fruits of office. But Burgmann cannot explain why workers have not rejected Labor. The answer lies in a consideration of the individual working-class voter; in a mass democracy any one voter knows that he or she can have little impact on the outcome of an election. The voter has little incentive to invest time in developing their knowledge of the parties on offer; there is an incentive for the voter to develop a partisan identification, loyalty to a particular party, and stick with this. Once a voter regards himself or herself, as being on the political left it is a simple matter simply to vote Labor. Australian Labor had, to borrow a phrase from business history, ‘first-mover’ advantage it occupied the marketplace and established a brand loyalty. Its challenges may have a better product or at least one more attuned to many Labor voters but they could not get Labor voters to listen. This interpretation could be applied to the right; the rapid growth of the ‘secret armies’ and citizen’s movements in 1930-31 suggests the potential for a more radical challenge to orthodox parliamentary conservatism. The 1931 split in the ALP forced voters to choose: there were now two Labor parties, each with components of the institutional embodiments of the Labor brand: MPs, branch activists and affiliated union. Labor’s core electorate chose the left. We see here the crucial importance of institutions. European Communism only established itself as a mass political force where there was a significant institutional split in social democracy; at their first political outing in 1920 German Communists polled only 1.7%, once however the Independent Social Democrats voted to join the Comintern in 1920 the Communist vote leapt to 12.6% in 1924. … The state electorate of Nepean was in 1932 contested only by Communists and the UAP. The Communist polled 14.2%. At the 1931 election Lang Labor polled 17.6% and the Communists 0.2%. The correlation between the 1931 Lang Labor vote and the 1932 Communist vote by subdivision was 0.88. Most 1931 Lang voters felt closer to the Communists than the UAP.

It is possible to imagine circumstances in which Australian Labor would have split on European lines. If the First World War had persisted much longer Labor may have divided again over whether to maintain support for the war. If the war had dragged on for years would Labor have eventually shared in the process of radicalisation that saw the French Socialists and Norwegian Labour vote to join the Comintern? What if Willis and Garden had the numbers at the 1919 party conference, would Labor MPs have stayed or left the party?

It was always possible that there might have emerged in Australia a workers’ party well to the left of where the Labor party ended up. The 30.8% Lang Labor polled in NSW in 1931 provides an illustration of its potential magnitude. But this was not a majority. The project of the industrial left was not achievable in a democracy. In 1939 the industrial union left again found itself in a position to dominate the NSW ALP having finally overthrown the Lang group, but it was the union dominated NSW party conference in 1939 that restored to caucus the right to elect its leader. ..Unions surrendered their power in the NSW ALP in 1939 because they knew that if they held it they would make the ALP unelectable, British trade unions followed a similar path in their acquiescence to Tony Blair. Here lies the eternal dilemma of forces to the left of the Labor mainstream from the 1920s to the present. The Greens feast on Labor’s left, but any prospect of Green political power will dependent on cooperation with a Labor party in government whose margin of electoral success will depend on voters that the Greens disdain.

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