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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 ultimately successful.

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 agitation

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 demagogy.

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 candidates.

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 offence in ALP politics.

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 socialists.

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 operation.

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 industrial laws.

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 independents.

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 Sydney organiser.

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.

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March 20, 2006