Recommencing the Forward March of Labour

Recommencing the
Forward March of
Raymond Markey
Centre for Workforce Futures
Macquarie University
Eric Hobsbawm 1978 lecture The Forward March of Labour Halted?
• Analysed British Labour Party’s declining support base & drew on
historical record to suggest ways forward
• In same spirit I draw on ALP’s historical experience to address need for
reform as support base has withered
• Numerous reform proposals, some adopted, but most shallow
• Particular focus on trade unions/party relationship & decline of classic
social democratic nature
• Weakening relationship with unions a strategic error, but relationship
requires renovation
• Historical record suggests way forward combining labour & citizen
repertoires of contention that also maintain essential nature of party
The problem
• ALP holds office in only 2 States (SA & Vic) & 1 Territory (ACT)
+ probably Qld– all bar Vic minority governments
• In preceding 5 years ALP lost government in Vic. (2010), NSW
(2011), Qld (2012), NT (2012), Tas. (2014), & nationally (2013)
• Large scale of defeats
- NSW: ALP suffered 13% swing, gained 25% of primary vote & 20
seats of 93 – worst defeat of any govt in NSW history, worst swing
against any Aust govt since WW2, & lowest % vote & seats since 1901
- Qld: 16% swing, 27% primary vote, 7 of 87 seats – lowest % votes
since 1907 & seats since 1893
- Federal: 33% primary vote (Reps) lowest since 1931 but really 1903
• Special issues at play, & huge swings back to ALP in Qld 2015 &
Vic 2014 after 1-term governments, but
Long term decline
• In 9 federal elections since 1987 when Hawke was returned as PM with
46% vote, ALP’s primary vote exceeded 40% only twice:
- 1993 (45%) & 2007 (43%) which won it office
- 40% insufficient in 1998, though 39% in 1990 won office for ALP
• In preceding 30 elections 1906-87 ALP vote <40% only in 1931 & 1934
but exceptional because of Lang Labor split
• ALP average primary vote for Reps: 39.3% 1990-2013, 46.5% 1910-87
• Several reasons, affecting Labour /SDPs parties internationally:
Voters & electorates more volatile
Decline in class consciousness & collectivism
Decline in traditional blue collar working class
Decline in party membership
Impacting all parties & civic organisations
Growth in independents & minority governments as result
unions/party relationship
• Big impact of declining union membership: 56% 1975, to 17%
2014, private sector 12%
• Unions founded ALP & maintain strong institutional links:
• integration based on individual union affiliation- also typifies other
LPs – UK, NZ
• gives unions representation in internal structures, forums processes;
influence in choice of parliamentary candidates
• Unions rely on ‘quiet’ internal lobbying
• Party derives financial & personnel resources & influence on workers
• Convergence of elites & ideology, union leaders become MPs
• Part of social democratic (SD) type: mass parties & collectivist ideology
• Contrast pressure group (PG) type of non structured relationship:
US unions & Democrats – relies more on external lobbying,
political campaigning & community alliances
Evolving unions/party relationship
• Unions’ political capital & reach reduced by membership decline
• More easily cast as 1 interest group amongst many
• Decoupling of unions/party relationship in SD types (Hyman &
Gumbrell-McCormick 2010; Piazza 2001; Upchurch et al. 2009; McIlroy1998; Quinn
2010; Lavelle 2010; Griffin et al. 2004)
• Adoption of neoliberal policy settings & contingent strategic
electoral choices by SDPs:
• Deregulation of economy & labour market: competition & flexibility
• Decline in collectivism in favour of individualist ideology
• Transition from mass bureaucratic to autonomous electoral
professional parties
• Emergence of ‘catch-all’ political strategies to appeal to wider range
of social groups (Howell 2000, Manning 1992, Smith 2009, Katz & Mair 1995)
Evolving unions/party relationship 2
• Decline in % ALP MPs with union official background:
- 79% in 1901 to 44% in 1962
- stabilised at 45% in 2013 but higher in Senate (55%) than Reps (40%)
- Deceptive because few of these came through ranks of unions
• Party power & resources shift to MPs & parliamentary leadership
- focus groups, polls, electronic media
• Small gene pool of MPs: former staffers, union officials (with
limited work experience), party functionaries
• Existence of highly organised factions contribute to centralisation
& reduction in role for rank & file members – but factions are
clans or tribes for distribution of benefits & power, not ideological
• Increasingly professional isolated political elite – decline in
membership unsurprising
Reform proposals
• Various ALP reviews since 1979, most recent 2010
• Centralisation of electoral campaigns,
• Improved communication re policy
• Partnerships with NGOs & advocacy groups with compatible aims
• US style primaries, & some trialled
• Election of parliamentary leader by caucus & membership
• Easier online membership
• Greater membership voice in pre-selection & conference
• Mixed usefulness
Reforming unions relationship
• Reform commonly framed as curtailing unions’ importance & influence
• Union representation at conferences reduced to 50% in 2003, & calls
now for further reductions, recently Senator Faulkner to 20%
• 2002 review referred to ‘partnership’ with unions
• 2010 review refers less extensively & more vaguely to ‘links’ with unions,
with equal emphasis on other ‘community organisations’
• Shorten re removing union membership prerequisite for ALP: ‘It used to
be said that Labor was the political arm of the union movement. I’m saying today ,
as proud as I am of unions & what they’ve done, that the Labor party is the political
arm of no one but the Australian people’.
• Broad appeal to ‘the people’ traditional & electorally necessary
• But a huge strategic error to further distance ALP from unions:
still largest representative civil institution in Australia rivalled only by
numbers who at least occasionally attend religious services – resources &
mobilisation potential
real problem with the unions/ALP
• Unions with influence in the ALP are unrepresentative of unions
• 11 unions account for all ALP MPs with union official background, 9
of which are affiliated
• Almost half of 39 ALP MPS with union background provided by 3
unions: SDA (8), TWU (5), ASU (5)
• Change in union composition:
• Decline in traditional blue-collar union base: mainly ALP affiliates
• Growth in white-collar, professional & public service unionism: mainly
• Unionism concentrated in health, education, retail & govt administration
• Public sector unionism accounts for 41% of all members, density 42%
compared to 12% in private sector
• Problem is influence of small number of unrepresentative union bosses
Broadening repertoires of
(Gentile 2011, 2014; Gentile & Tarrow 2009)
• Labour repertoires: associated with SD type of unions/party relationship
• Political unionism, collective bargaining & industrial action, based on
statutes unions influence through party relationship when in govt.
• Corporatist (Scandinavia, Germany) or Anglo (Oz, UK, NZ) regimes
• Citizen repertoires: US style PG type relationship
• Focus on citizen rights because more embedded & protected than labour
rights that have always been more contested in US
• more widespread as unions decline
• Labour’s legal & political exchange rights constrained & labour
decategorised as member of the polity especially in neoliberal regimes
• Labour draws on citizen rights & collective action characteristic of social
movements – demonstrations & community action rather than pickets
• Strategies for union revitalisation often associated with citizen repertoire
• US unions’ organising model associated with social movement or
community unionism, developing links with broader social & community
groups – chrches, student groups, environmentalists, NGOs.
Australian union citizen repertoires
• ACTU adopted US-style Organising Works program 1994,
• recruitment & campaigning over key issues,
• creative campaign tactics, including demonstrations, media
events, development of strong networks of worker & community activists
• associated with social movement/community unionism
• Unions relied on community coalitions in 1998 maritime dispute
• ACTU-led Your Rights at Work campaign against WorkChoices 2005-7:
• Unions’ independent mobilisation directed at 2007 elections
• ‘union power’ (labour rights) removed from contention: WorkChoices framed as
threat to individual rights & working conditions
• Information & media campaign, focus groups identified issues for working
families, TV ads based on individuals
• Unionists mobilised in workplaces, phone & house calls, local events, online
• Highly successful in shifting IR debate & election results (1929 example too)
• YRaW represents a shift to citizen repertoire
• Australian unions now have hybrid labour & citizen strategic repertoires
• Need strategy to build on this for political mobilisation
4 Lessons from history
1. Broad appeal: alliances with other progressive organisations in
1890s & selection of diverse range of candidates 1890s-1980s
2. Established party platform: development & communication of
‘Labor culture’ in 1910 (Dyrenfurth 2012); Whitlam’s platform &
3. Key role in 1890s of peak union councils in political
mobilisation in colonies: in 2 most early successful parties in
NSW & Qld., NSW TLC & ALF represented most unions,
though union density low (20% NSW)
4. Local basis of organisation: unions & branches more localised
& autonomous in 1890s & early 1900s
1 & 2 partially addressed by existing proposals, but not 3 & 4
Ways forward
1. Enhance relationship with ACTU, representing most unions
Can play same political mobilisation role as 1890s peak bodies
Draw on Your Rights at Work Campaign 2005-7
ALAC (Australian Labor Advisory Council) previously brought
ALP & ACTU leaders together for policy discussion dormant for
years – could be revived & extended
Norwegian Labour Party & LO meet weekly in consultative
Swedish, Norwegian & (until 1995) Danish parties have peak body
representation on SDP executives
Political mobilisation around platform beforehand rather than
reacting to policies of Lib/Nat governments
Ways forward 2
2. Replace union affiliation at central or State level with
affiliation of union local branches or workplace groups to local
party branches - Following Swedish practice
• Only where local union groups sufficiently engaged with ALP
• Could be based on substantial work sites, clusters of work sites, or
residential areas with substantial numbers in particular unions
• Might require realignment of branch boundaries, or new branches
• Advantages: Bolster membership at branch level
• Reduce influence of factions at party conferences by breaking central
control of union bloc voting
A renewed SD type relationship providing opportunity for greater rank &
file participation at grass roots plus coordination with ACTU
representing all unionists.
Reinvigorate ALP position as mass party of workers instead of party of
disconnected ‘union bosses’.
• Combination of labour & citizen repertoires to
mobilise workers politically
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