Socialist electoral tactics in the light of
the South Australian and Tasmanian results
By Bob Gould
Despite the inevitable abusive response to Greg Adler’s short pieces on
the South Australian and Tasmanian elections, and the abuse of me,
which is dragged into these pieces by DSP's Boyleite loyalists, these
latest elections, and the byelection in Western Australia, throw into
bold relief a number of the issues that have always faced Marxists in
Australian about running independently in elections.
This question has a very long history in Australia, and one could start
with Harry Holland, who spearheaded a small socialist group challenging
Labor at the start of the 19th century, and ended up the leader of the
parliamentary Labor Party in New Zealand.
That’s a long story, and I will tell it somewhere else, but it’s useful
for our immediate purpose to start with the old Australian Trotskyists.
When they were a small group in the 1930s, before they adopted the
tactic of entry into the Labor Party, they considered themselves too
small to run in elections.
After they adopted the entry tactic in 1941 or thereabouts, they were
still a small group, and remained so, mainly because of the objective
conditions, and the fact that high Stalinism was dominant on the left
of the labour movement.
Nevertheless they were extraordinary agitators. They led major
industrial struggles during the Second World War, culminating in the
strike at Mort’s Dock, and the less well-known printer’s strike of 1944
which kicked off the agitation for the 40-hour week. They played a
major part in the 40-hour-week struggle thereafter, which was
Later on the revolutionary socialist group I was associated with
effectively kicked off the agitation in Sydney against the Vietnam War,
and at the time we did it, we were all entrenched in the Labor Party.
Our presence in the ALP was in fact very useful in expanding the
At some key points in that agitation, the Communist Party which was
outside the ALP, and ran in elections, was the conscious right wing of
the Vietnam antiwar movement. At that stage, when the prominent
agitator Bob Gould would argue for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam as
the primary agitational focus of the antiwar movement, various
Stalinists would ridicule me, in the much the same way as the Boyleites
do now, saying “what would you know about it, you’re in the Labour
Party”, which I and others shrugged off, as we do now, as stupid
Even later, a socialist group with which I was associated, vigorously
supported a rank-and-file agitation in the Nurses’ Union that
successfully for a time ousted the right-wing leadership. The new
leadership led a vigorous and effective and partly successful series of
campaigns against the closure of public hospitals and psychiatric
institutions, which led to the official left, including the CPA (which
still ran in elections) to do everything possible to defeat the new
leadership in the Nurses’ Union.
The realpolitik in this situation was that the official left was locked
into support for the Labor government, and its demagogic Beds to the
West and deinstitutionalisation rhetoric, which was a mask for cuts and
closures. Even the DSP, which was by now also running in elections, was
drawn into the attempts to destabilise the new nurses' leadership,
obviously because these events coincided roughly in time with the DSP
leadership and the much reduced Communist Party dancing a kind of
pirouette around each other in the quest for fusion in a new left
party, which was never in fact achieved.
When the Hawke Labor Government's late and unlamented Prices and
Incomes Accord was adopted, the ideological battering ram for the
Accord was Laurie Carmichael, still then a member of the Communist
Party, which still ran in elections. The only elected union official to
vote against the Accord at the Federal Unions Conference that adopted
it was the new secretary of the Nurses’ Union, quite a long-standing
member of the ALP, even then. The members of the Communist Party at
that conference voted for the Accord.
The moral of this story is that running independently in elections is
no insurance at all that socialists will not be sucked into shifts to
the right when they happen in the labour movement as a whole.
In the long period when revolutionary socialists didn’t run in
elections they subordinated the temptation to run to an overriding
consideration that a serious presence in the ALP and the trade unions
is a greater issue than any perceived propaganda advantage from running
against the ALP in elections. The one almost immoveable rule in Labor
politics is that you don’t run against selected and endorsed Labor
Political and social agitations, and even the public advocacy of
Marxist views are tacitly tolerated, but supporting electoral
candidates other than the ALP is the only really permanent expellable
Despite the fact that the CPA “showed the face of the party” from time
to time by running in elections it rarely for any length of time
adopted the politically counterproductive rhetoric used by the DSP for
the last 20 years, abusing Labor and Laborites and all their works. The
CPA, which had an infinitely greater implantation in the labour
movement and the working class than the DSP has ever achieved, learned
by painful experience that a constant belligerent posture of exposure
towards Labor and Labourites was a formula for hopeless isolation in
the worker’s movement.
The CPA actually had a position rather like that now adopted by the
Socialist Party and Steve Jolly. The Socialist Party and Jolly share
the DSP’s analysis that the Labour Party and the Liberals are
essentially the same. However, Jolly and the Socialist Party have an
agitational posture that is actually healthily inconsistent with their
core theory, and in practice they adopt a kind of united front
strategy, interspersed with sharp criticism of the ALP and the Greens.
This is not unconnected with the fact that Jolly in his own right is a
powerful natural agitator, and wherever he happens to be, (for the last
10 years or so in Melbourne), he tends to build a base around his
agitations, which are usually fairly carefully selected.
The two instances where revolutionary socialists broke away from the
ALP and ran independently in elections, are worth a bit of
consideration. Despite the dismissive stupidity of one of the Boyleites
on the Green Left list, towards Hall Greenland’s excellent biography of
Nick Origlass, this biography should be compulsory reading for all
Nick Origlass, Izzy Wyner and their supporters had been effective
agitators in the Balmain-Leichhardt area for 30 years. Nick had almost
won an ALP preselection ballot for the seat of Balmain. When they broke
away from the ALP they formed a breakaway Balmain-Leichhardt Labour
Party, which did far better against the ALP in various elections than
any socialist candidate in recent times.
To some extent they chose to split away from the ALP because they were
forced to by circumstances. They had to choose between their commitment
to their electors to oppose a chemical tank in the area, and the
decision of the ALP municipal caucus, by a narrow majority, to support
the chemical plant.
Similar considerations operated with George Peterson on the South Coast
when he chose to break away from the ALP on the critical question of
defending worker’s compensation, and he formed the Illawarra Workers
Party. He also did far better than any socialist candidate independent
of the ALP has done in recent times. In both instances these were
parliamentary exercises, led by well-known local agitators over many
years, with their campaigns focussed on big political questions
affecting larege sections of the working class.
The DSP’s and the Socialist Alliance’s electoral campaigns are quite
different category. They are almost totally sterile, routine showings
of the flag. It’s interesting that the Dave Riley’s of this world
ridicule Steve Jolly and Nick Origlass for striking roots in particular
areas, and counterpose to that their own wish-fulfilling mental picture
of the Socialist Alliance cum DSP as some kind of powerful national
One of the most pronounced defects of the DSP’s concept of socialist
organisation is that both DSP factions have a rather dismissive
attitude towards agitators, which flows from their shared
overcentralised notion of organisation.
It’s a historical fact that there is only one person left in the DSP
who has any significant long history of independent industrial
agitation, a bloke in WA who is now I understand one of the Percy
minority. The overemphasis on the homogeneity of the organisation tends
to choke the life out of independently minded agitators, and this to
some extent applies to the DSP’s rivals , such as Socialist Alternative.
The election results in SA, WA and Tasmania
One Boyleite contributor about the WA Alliance result, inadvertently
referred to one of the key issues. According to him, about a third of
the Alliance members in WA participated in the election campaign, which
clearly suggests one of the salient points, that most of the other
Alliance members are just names on a list, and that possibly the DSP
minority supporters weren’t very active in the campaign.
In the SA election, the Alliance ran in Port Adelaide, the most
proletarian and migrant part of Adelaide and the 1.5 per cent it
achieved was roughly the same vote achieved by the CPA, which used to
run in the electorate. It is hardly worth saying because it is so
obvious, but the Labor vote throughout the state soared and many, if
not most, observers attribute some of the increase in the Labor vote to
an electoral rallying to the ALP against Howard’s anti-working-class
The collapse of the Alliance vote in Tasmania is the most interesting
phenomenon of the lot. A vote of around 0.4 is so low as to be off the
electoral radar, and could almost be described as the toss-a-coin or
stick-a-pin vote, ie the kind of vote achieved by totally unknown
This is all the more interesting in the face of the fact that couple of
years ago, when the Alliance ran a medical doctor, who they made into a
high-profile candidate by intelligently taking advantage of her
professional status in a number of agitations, they got an
extraordinarily high vote (the CPA in the long past was often capable
of achieving a fairly exceptional vote when they ran a doctor, such as
GP O’Dea, or lawyers such as Max Julius and Fred Patterson).
In the interim, the bitter internal struggle in the DSP has cut across
Tasmanian electoral issues for the DSP/Socialist Alliance. In the
process of the Boyleites consolidating their grip on the DSP apparatus,
the medical doctor and her partner, both strong Boyleites, have
transferred to Sydney, and the doctor’s partner has apparently become a
When you get an upheaval like the current one in the DSP, the dominant
faction tends to suffer almost as much as the defeated faction, because
it inevitably tends to place reliable people in the key parts of the
apparatus, weakening the organisation elsewhere. So, as the minority in
the DSP has repeatedly pointed out, the whole organisation tends to
suffer from the multitude of tasks, including running the Alliance, and
all the projects of the organisation suffer in consequence. Hence the
lamentable election results.
From a socialist point of view the main thing that emerges from these
electoral results, that has a progressive aspect, is that the Labor
vote dramatically increased in SA and held up in Tasmania. That is
clearly a reflection of the determination of the bulk of the organised
owrking class and progressive secvtions of the middle class to resist
the reactionary agenda of the Howard Government, particularly its
assault on the trade unions.
Another healthy and progressive feature of the election result was that
in SA the Greens dramatically increased their share of the vote to the
left of Labor and eclipsed the Democrats.
My major interest in all this is the damage done by the Boyleites' bad
and dangerous, constant exposure rhetoric, which lumps the whole of the
labour movement in with some reactionary leaders. Whether the Boyleites
persist with running in elections is really a secondary question.
I would also point out the absurdity of the Boyleite rhetoric, of which
Riley is the leading exponent, which absurdly insists that the whole of
the far left outside the DSP-Socialist Alliance are sectarian splitters
because they have their own projects and obstinately refuse to roll
over to the Boyleite regroupment project.
It is now quite clear that nobody on the far left has the slightest
intention of regrouping with the Boyleites on their terms. It also
seems likely to me that in the short to medium term, even the Boyleites
will be forced by circumstances to give up on the shortsighted
electoral projects of the recent past, which clearly don’t work, even
for their limited purposes.