Inside Story

The paradox at the heart of Labor’s review

Like its British counterpart, the Labor Party is grappling with wider, conflicting trends in political participation, writes Rob Manwaring

Rob Manwaring 1 March 2011 1537 words

The perception in the early 1960s that Labor leader Arthur Calwell (right) and his deputy Gough Whitlam were controlled by “thirty-six faceless men” led to Whitlam’s reforms to party decisionmaking. National Archives of Australia

LABOR’s soul searching continues apace. Three of Labor’s elder statesmen – two former premiers, Bob Carr and Steve Bracks, and that Labor talisman, former federal minister (and historian of the party) John Faulkner – have handed party president Anna Bligh their review of the party and its organisation. This is the most significant attempt to reform and “modernise” the party’s structures since the 2002 review by Neville Wran and Bob Hawke. The party’s executive will mull over the ninety-seven recommendations at its next meeting in April.

The review covers three broad areas: the Rudd government’s performance in office, the 2010 election campaign, and the party’s internal structures and membership. Only this latter section of the review was made public, although the “party only” sections were leaked to the Australian. From what can be gleaned from the leaks, the review team had an ongoing concern with Kevin Rudd’s leadership style and highly centralised decision-making structures. Carr, Bracks and Faulkner apparently recommend a return to full cabinet discussions, bolstered by a new joint policy committee to offer advice on policy. In addition, the review has perhaps finally solved the perennially tricky issue of what to do with “party elders,” often encumbered with the double whammy of too much time and too many opinions. Bracks et al recommend establishing a “leader's circle” as a sounding board for the leader. More pointedly, they suggest that Rudd’s decision to appoint his own ministers should be reconsidered.

While it is diverting to dwell on leaked sections, ironically it’s the publicly available section on boosting membership that is the most arresting. The issues raised in this section of the review go to the heart of a range of questions that face the party. What exactly is the Labor Party for? And why would someone join? It is illuminating to tease out these issues by comparing how Labor’s sister party in Britain has dealt with similar problems. As Andrew Scott notes in his seminal work on the two parties, Running on Empty, British Labour has often been quicker to attempt reforms, but Australian Labor has been successful in implementing similar reforms earlier. The classic example is the “socialist objective” that was part of each party’s constitution. In Britain, party leader Hugh Gaitskell made a failed attempt in 1959 to amend clause IV (setting out Labour’s aims and values, including its formal commitment to widespread nationalisation); the clause didn’t change until 1995, with Tony Blair as leader. Australian Labor removed its equivalent objective in 1982. Interestingly, Bracks, Carr and Faulkner remain silent on updating Labor’s core values, and Julia Gillard seems to have little appetite to engage in thoroughgoing modernisation. What is glaringly obvious is that the party is no longer deeply embedded in the community. Labor is no longer a “cause.” However, if Gillard does not seek reform of Labor’s objectives, she may be pushed in other areas.

The review paints a bleak picture of a Labor Party that is “structurally... in decline.” According to its figures, between 2002 and 2007, party membership hovered between 45,000 and 50,000 then declined sharply to 37,000. Equally stark is the closure of many local branches. Of course, the era of Labor as a mass party is long gone: in the 1950s somewhere between 7 and 10 per cent of the electorate were members of a political party; now, joining a party is a minority sport. Similar trends are also evident in Britain, which traditionally has slightly higher levels of party membership. Interestingly, Bracks et al eye with envy how party numbers have swelled since Ed Miliband took over as Labour leader in Britain, with membership now over 200,000. But this gives a misleading view of Labour’s renewal since losing the 2010 election. Between 1993 and 1997, the prolonged birth years of New Labour, Labour Party membership in Britain rose from just under 300,000 to an eye-watering 450,000. But since the heady days of 1997, membership has fallen steadily as the party (and country) fell out of love with Blair and Brown.

The story of trade union membership is similar. In Australia, the number of affiliated members has dropped by 125,000 to approximately 1.07 million since 1992. Trade union members make up about 20 per cent of the workforce, compared with over 50 per cent in the 1950s. Union density is proportionately higher in Britain, currently at 27 per cent of the workforce, but is still in steady decline. In some respects, it is the falling union numbers that present the biggest problem for Australian Labor. Even the ACTU’s successful anti–Work Choices campaign in 2007 did not buck this trend.

At the heart of this problem is the distinction between a Labor Party and a social democratic party. Unlike many of their Western European counterparts, Britain and Australia’s labour-based parties give unions a formal role in their internal structure. At what point, if any, does union density become so low that formal involvement in the Labor Party is an anachronism? Kevin Rudd enthusiastically called himself a social democrat, and one wonders whether, if still leader, he would have attempted to push this through to its logical conclusion. In response to these trends, both parties have steadily tried to dilute trade union influence, with varying degrees of success.

For British Labour, the 1979 election defeat and the shocking 1983 loss prompted a long and painful process of “modernisation.” In 1985, Neil Kinnock took on, and won, two key battles. First, he changed the internal structures to give the leadership a far stronger role in policy development. Second, he centralised the process of selecting candidates. Previously, local branches were given wide scope to appoint candidates; Kinnock introduced a measure whereby all nominees had to be approved by members of the National Executive Committee. The net effect of these changes, consolidated by John Smith and Tony Blair, was to create a highly centralised party, imposing tight control over its members.

At a different pace, the Australian story is similar. The catalyst for Gough Whitlam’s centralising reforms was a newspaper photograph of himself and party leader Arthur Calwell locked outside the room where the “thirty-six faceless men” of the party executive were formulating party policy on US airbases. At that point, the parliamentary front bench was not part of the party conference.

An added problem for Australian Labor is the power of the factions. While the 2011 review notes progress in tackling branch stacking, it also notes a new phenomenon of “branch stripping” (which isn’t as exotic as it might sound in another context). Factional bosses consolidate their power by not recruiting new members. Bracks et al hope that a proposal for a tiered system of primaries for selecting candidates, (weighted 60 per cent local members, 20 per cent unions and 20 per cent registered supporters) can reinvigorate the process.

The question of union influence at party conferences remains an ongoing concern. Until the 1990s, the trade union bloc vote accounted for about 90 per cent of votes at annual party conferences in Britain. John Smith’s lasting legacy was to introduce “one member, one vote.” Direct enfranchisement of party members was seen as key to reinvigorating their interest and activism. Following the Wran–Hawke review, the Australian bloc vote was reduced from 60 to 50 per cent. Similarly, under Tony Blair’s leadership, the party reorganised its policy-making structures under the “Party in Power” reforms. Recognising an ongoing complaint that party members were divorced from policy input (a common theme in the Wran–Hawke and Bracks–Carr–Faulkner reviews), British Labour introduced a rolling policy cycle, with larger forums for participation. Arguably, more party members are involved than ever before, but intriguingly, most party members still think they have negligible impact on policy.

In Britain, the leader is now elected by an electoral college, with three groups – ordinary members, members of the parliamentary party, and unions – having a one-third share each. In Australia, the leader is elected by Caucus. As Andrew Scott rightfully reminds us, British Labour has an annual “mass” conference whereas Australian Labor selects delegates to the triannual national conference from the state conferences. This further distances the Australian rank and file from national policy-making. In response, the 2011 review resuscitates Wran/Hawke’s proposal that members should be able to elect a component of the national conference.

There is an apparent paradox at the heart of this push for greater membership voting, however. Plebiscitary democracy is increasingly supplanting party democracy. Key pillars of party democracy, such as the old annual conferences, have been downgraded (Mark Latham made them triennial). And, as Labour has found in Britain, there is a hidden cost in instituting moves to direct democracy. Increasing party-member participation simultaneously empowers the leadership, which can more readily control the agenda; individual members, at best, can only affirm or reject the pre-set proposals put to them. So, while many of the 2011 review reforms seem laudable, they could inadvertently further hollow out a party with a highly disaffected membership. •