Socialist Alliance lurches dramatically to the right


Green Left discussion list, March 22, 2004

The non-class, populist politics practiced by the leaderships of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) and Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP), has produced quite a major and unprincipled shift to the right by the Socialist Alliance in municipal elections in the City of Sydney.

The right-wing Labor Party machine and the right-wing Labor Party government in NSW recently amalgamated two council areas — the City of Sydney, covering the central business district, and South Sydney City Council, which includes a traditional working-class area and a gentrified area.

This amalgamation took place with little notice and rather bureaucratically. It wasn’t very carefully designed to create a viable municipal area, and it included a plebiscite vote for mayor and an all-in vote for nine councillors.

Some time ago I made a submission as an individual to the government inquiry into municipal boundaries and organisation, and outlined and and gave reasons for a much better scheme than the one hastily adopted by the state government.

Despite the fact that the amalgamation took place bureaucratically, it has one potentially useful aspect, from a socialist point of view. If the new council area were to elect some kind of Labor-Green progressive majority who found some basis for working together it would be possible for such an administration to use the high rate revenue from the central business district to fund council services, in particular in working class and deprived areas.

It could be a kind of Sydney populism. To some extent, this role was played in the past by a Labor-led greater Sydney council, which existed in roughly the same area from about 1948 to 1968, before it was carved up by a conservative government.

The rapid development of urban gentrification and the new politics of home ownership, expressed electorally

One feature of NSW politics in the past 15 years has been the emergence of independents, who have beaten the main political machines in certain areas. Under the conservative Liberal government of Nick Greiner, three independents were elected in NSW, who held the balance of power.

These independents chose to keep the Greiner government in power because it had a majority of one in the lower house, and they argued that its majority was sufficient reason to support him staying in power.

The policies of the Greiner government included, among other reactionary legislation, industrial and other laws attacking the rights of unions and workers. The three independents voted for this legislation too, on the grounds that the government was entitled to carry out its legislative program, “in the interests of democracy”.

The most high-profile of these independents is Clover Moore, the independent MP for Bligh, which takes in the once proletarian, but now upper-end gentrified suburbs of Paddington, Surry Hills and Darlinghurst.

Moore is a classical practitioner of the new politics, based on civic sense and home ownership, and pitching at the interests of rather affluent people as residents. This politics has some progressive aspects, and some deeply reactionary ones. For instance, homeless people are often regarded as a pest, the sex industry tends to be hated, etc.

The nitty-gritty of the contradictions inherent in the new politics relates to the question of rates. Many young urban professionals respond vigorously to an appeal for a reduction of rates by way of outsourcing council services, ie getting rid of permanent employees and engaging contractors, which it is claimed, reduces costs (this claim is often false).

In municipal politics, particularly in the City of Sydney, these are visceral issues. The Greens, who are pretty leftist on some questions, are often contradictory and ambiguous on the class question of outsourcing and contractors. Independent practitioners of the new politics such as Clover Moore are usually unambiguously in favor of contractors and outsourcing.

In municipal politics, such questions are right at the heart of politics, and the non-class appeal to ratepayers as ratepayers often has deeply reactionary implications.

The battle for representation on the Labor side was a bit complex. The mayoral candidate, Michael Lee, was imposed by the right-wing, Labor Party head office. A local pre-selection ballot was held for three of the councillor positions and the three were won by local leftists (I had a vote in the pre-selection ballot, and in general voted for the winning candidates, although I voted for another left-winger for the third pre-selected position).

The Labor ticket for councillors ended up being Michael Lee, the mayoral candidate, number one, the three left-wingers, two, three and four, a right-winger at five, and the rest don’t matter because Labor is unlikely to get more than four councillors.

About a third of Clover Moore’s electorate is in the City of Sydney, and she announced that she was running for mayor with a team of candidates. Moore doesn’t live in the City of Sydney.

The Labor mayoral candidate and his team have announced their firm support for council direct employment and that outsourced contracts with the old City of Sydney area will be terminated as they fall due (there was no outsourcing, to speak of, in the old South Sydney area, where two of the left-wingers have been councillors for some time).

Lucy Turnbull (wife of the newly selected Liberal candidate for the seat of Wentworth), who is former Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney, is supporting Clover Moore.

The political line-up in the election is as follows:

  • Labor is well and truly the underdog. Both factions of the Sydney bourgeois press, Murdoch and Fairfax, are supporting Clover Moore.
  • The Greens, probably a 10 per cent force in the area, are directing their preferences to Moore.
  • The conservative Liberal opposition is directing its preferences to Moore.
  • Some of the minor candidates are either supporting Moore or not directing preferences.

The hard-core Labor vote in the area, which is based mainly in the blue-collar areas of South Sydney, is between 30 per cent and 40 per cent, probably closer to the upper figure, and Labor is in a standalone situation.

Enter the Socialist Alliance

Comparatively late in the piece, the Socialist Alliance decided to field a candidate for lord mayor. The candidate is Susan Price, a DSP member, who is also running in the ungrouped spot for city council.

For the first couple of weeks after the candidature in the City of Sydney was announced, the leaders of the ISO and the DSP, the two main groups in the Socialist Alliance, have been coy about the question of preferences. They have said it was a matter for the rank-and-file of the Socialist Alliance in the City of Sydney (in which, however, the overwhelming majority of members are either in the ISO or the DSP).

It has now been announced that the Socialist Alliance is passing preferences to the Greens and then to Clover Moore. The DSP leaders are busily blaming the ISO leaders, who they assert took a hard line in favor of preferences to Moore.

Directing preferences to the Greens, if followed by preferences to Labor, would not be an unreasonable position for a socialist group, but directing preferences to Moore is a cynical, reactionary and completely indefensible position for any socialist group, or even individual socialist.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald has a complicated and almost unintelligible map of the City of Sydney, with particular spots nominated (by Clover Moore) to be the focus for non-car transport. Its difficult, from the map and the associated rhetoric to work out what this proposal actually means, but it will no doubt be presented by the opportunist leaders of the ISO and DSP as some evidence of Moore’s progressive credentials.

Compared with the issue of her public support for outsourcing, and her past support for the Greiner government’s reactionary industrial legislation, rhetoric about traffic in the city is a 10th-rate issue.

The DSP and ISO leaders capitulate to non-class new politics

The leaders of the DSP and ISO justify all sorts of things on the basis of what they call “the trajectory of movement”. In practice, they capitulate to a kind of ignorant populism, which in this case replaces any kind of class analysis.

As a guide to practical political decision-making, from a Marxist point of view, this approach is poisonous. On the one hand we have candidates of the chaotic, mass organisation known as the Labor Party, a core feature of which is the presence within it of most trade union structures.

In this instance, the Labor organisation in the City of Sydney also includes a majority of left-wingers, and the trade union representing council workers, the Municipal Employees Union, plays a big role in defending the interests of council workers within this structure.

On the other hand, we have the conservative populist Clover Moore. Inability to distinguish between these two forces underlines how far the practical politics of the DSP and ISO leaderships have traveled from even the most basic conceptions of Marxism and class.

In this situation, even conservative right-wingers in the Labor Party, such as Lee (the mayoral candidate), are locked in by of the Labor Party set-up to opposing outsourcing. Labor in NSW, despite its domination by the right, has removed most of the worst features of the Greiner industrial legislation, which Clover Moore helped push through the parliament.

This unprincipled opportunism in the Socialist Alliance is causing a considerable upheaval in that organisation. A number of the smaller affiliates are, quite rightly, demanding a call to order on this question and it will be interesting to see how the argument proceeds about preferencing the conservative populist Moore and her team over Labor.
In this situation, the DSP leaders, who claim that they initially opposed this preference flow, are blaming the ISO leadership, and/or the rank and file of the Socialist Alliance.

This line of argument is completely precious. The DSP has sufficient weight in the Socialist Alliance to achieve anything it wants, as has been demonstrated on a number of occasions.

The domination of what I call the ALP-trade-union continuum by the conservative ALP bureaucracy over a very long period has led to alienation of many people, particularly from among the new social layers of highly educated wage workers from the ALP machine.

There are a number of leftist aspects to this alienation, but unfortunately there are also a number of deeply conservative aspects. Marxists, obviously, have a fairly complex path to tread through this situation, but doing on the basis of class forces is a necessary part of the training of any Marxist cadre in this period.

A bland capitulation to conservative electoral populism is a terrible miseducation of potential Marxist cadres. Many of these young socialists know very little about the Labor Party and trade union movement, and this capitulation simply panders to a backwardness on these questions.

Another feature of this decision is that it tends to reinforce a jagged and unproductive split between anyone active in the broader labour movement, and socialists operating among the new social layers and the Greens. This is particularly dangerous in the current situation leading up to the coming 2004 federal elections, in which a united front will be critical to chances of removing the reactionary Howard government.

For all these reasons, socialists should lend their support to the call of a number of the smaller Socialist Alliance affiliates for the speedy reversal of the reactionary decision to direct preferences to Clover Moore and her team of independents.

For open public discussion instead of abuse and obfuscation

March 23, 2004

The responses to my post on the Sydney council elections are cynical, a bit surreal and rather dishonest by way of omission and by way of complete failure to indicate where any of these people stand on the preference question, other than by inference.

Peter Boyle and Dr Reid shelter behind quoting from The Guardian, the organ of the Stalinist group that helped evict us all, the DSP and myself included, from the broad antiwar committee that formed against the Iraq war. Even more significant, politically, is that The Guardian is the organ of an unrepentant Stalinist organisation that routinely lies about historical questions such as the Moscow Trials.

A few months ago The Guardian published a lengthy article defending the witchcraft trials in Moscow in the 1930s. This article caused me to send an open letter about the Moscow Trials demanding a debate, which they ignored.

If the CPA Stalinists continue to defend the exploded lies about the Moscow Trials in the year 2003, it’s a comparatively small thing for them to lie about the role of Clover Moore, which they do by omission in the article Peter Boyle and Dr Reid have posted.

The Guardian mentions progressive things supported by Moore and the other independents, but it omits the fact that they kept the Greiner Liberal government in office and to the end voted for its reactionary, anti-union, industrial legislation. Some progressives!

The Guardian article also doesn’t address the vexed, immediate question of contracting out council workers’ jobs, against which, as recently as last night at the debate in Sydney Town Hall, Clover Moore was not willing to commit herself. Again, some progressive!

In matters of truth and the interests of the working class, internationally or in Australia, the Stalinists of The Guardian are a very tainted source to rely on for arguments.

The really cynical aspect of this matter is the failure of anyone from the DSP leadership to express their point of view on this question of preferences to Clover Moore.

Boyle accuses me of being a disrupter because I assert that a number of DSP leaders are saying they disagree with the decision, but that it was the rank and file in the Sydney branch and the ISO leadership who pressed for the preferences to Clover Moore.

At last Sunday’s antiwar demonstration I spoke to about six people in the DSP, including a number of leaders, and about half of them, including some leaders, said they disagreed with preferencing Moore before Labor.

I actually had a conversation with Boyle in which he said he had initially disagreed with the decision, but it might be necessary to look again at questions of the trajectory of movement, etc.

I’m now accused of attacking the Socialist Alliance unreasonably for trying to bring the question of preferences into one arena of where it’s possible to debate it publicly, the Green Left Weekly discussion site. If it can’t be discussed frankly on this site, where can it be discussed?

The explosion of innuendo from the four people above underlines the political problem of the structure that is the DSP. Obviously some kind of decision has been taken at leadership level in the DSP not to have a frank, public discussion of the issues involved in preferencing Clover Moore.

This is demonstrated by the failure of the members of the DSP and its leadership who disagree with the decision to preference Moore, to express their point of view publicly. They obviously feel bound by some notion of DSP discipline not to express their view publicly, even on the GLW discussion site.

It was possible in the Bolshevik Party, as I point out in my article, Reclaim Lenin from “Leninists” and “Leninism”, for Bolsheviks to disagree publicly about questions such as Lenin’s April Theses in 1917, but it doesn’t seem possible in the DSP to have a public discussion on a question such as preferences in a local government election.

It’s also striking that none of the four people from the DSP who’ve posted on this question actually take up my arguments. They just ignore my arguments and abuse me and/or the Laborites.

I’ve lived a long time, politically, and I have the benefit or perhaps the curse, of a long memory, and I’ll just repeat a little anecdote. The issue that blasted me out of the orbit of the old Stalinist Communist Party in 1956 was the lies and dishonesty of the CPA leadership about Khrushchev’s secret speech.

I was present at a packed meeting of CPA activists in East Sydney, chaired by Bernie Rosen, who is now a member of the Socialist Alliance and can confirm the authenticity of this story.

The CPA leadership, in Tribune, had denied the authenticity of Khrushchev’s report (as published in the New York Times) and said it was a CIA fabrication. A number of oppositionists in the Wolloomooloo branch of the CPA, with whom I was associated, knew it was a genuine document, and that this had been reported to the CPA Political Committee by Harold Silverstone, a leading member of the New Zealand CP, who had heard the speech read out at the British CP congress, which he had attended on behalf of his party, with a watching brief from the CPA.

Silverstone had met one of the members of the Wolloomooloo branch in Sydney on his way back to New Zealand, and said the CPA leadership was lying because he had reported to them on the authenticity of the document, but he swore the CPA branch member to secrecy about having told him, for reasons of party discipline.

The cadre meeting on the crisis was addressed by the very accomplished Stalinist demagogue, Jack (J.R.) Hughes. The man from the Wolloomooloo branch bravely asked Hughes at the meeting whether the report was genuine and the party leadership was lying, but he was hamstrung by not being able to name his informant.

Hughes, who was one of the great Stalinist orators, didn’t answer the question directly. He just went on for about 20 minutes about the “filthy New York Times, which lies about the workers all the time, how can you believe anything it says” etc, etc, at great length.

Eventually, he had about 100 CPA members eating out of his hand and looking at us oppositionists as if we were vermin. That was the last CPA meeting I attended as any kind of supporter of the CP.

Regarding Peter Boyle’s cynical demagogy, I’m in very much the same position as the man from Wollomooloo was concerning Harold Silverstone. Two DSP leaders told me they opposed the decision to preference Moore over Labor, but I’m not going to name them publicly. This situation underlines the similarity of the DSP’s conception of discipline to that of the old Stalinists.

My purpose in raising this question was to initiate a responsible and serious discussion of preference policy. Some people might not agree with my position, but I’ve put forward some substantial arguments. I’d dearly like to see a response to them so we can have something approaching a discussion.

Ben Reid demands to know what my associates on Ozleft think on this question, because the Greens are preferencing Moore. I know a lot of Greens, including my associates on Ozleft, and I know quite a few in the Sydney council area who disagree with the decision to preference Moore, but that doesn’t matter too much in the Greens or among the Ozleft collaborators because it’s possible in both those environments to have public disagreements.

I would imagine that my colleagues at Ozleft will express their point of view in due course if they disagree with me. That’s no big deal.

We should cut through the extraneous issues and try to have a serious discussion on who it’s appropriate for socialists to preference in the Sydney council, and a good way to start would be for anyone who disagrees with my point of view to try to refute my position in detail, rather than with generalities and abuse.

Small group discipline, public discussion and the Socialist Alliance

March 24, 2004

I’m not too worried by the offensive tone routinely adopted towards me by DSP leadership supporters. As Alan Bradley points out, I have been around for a long time and I’m used to it. I would point out, however, that I’m pretty sharp with institutions and structures but I’m generally careful not to imply personal ill will or bad faith to individuals.

The tone adopted towards me, however, constantly implies some sort of bad faith on my part, and that, in fact, is the only level of some DSP leadership supporters’ contributions.

That kind of attack on me is par for the course, but I would point out that its constant use in that way is an indication of political bankruptcy on the part of the people who do it. No one, so far, on that side of the argument has even attempted to address the substantial arguments about the weight of structures, etc, and the class issues that are built into the argument about preferences.

All you get is a stupid mantra: “Bob Gould supports the ALP”.

Paul Benedek lets the cat out of the bag by quoting Clover Moore’s website, on which she praises herself for being the only person to vote against the Carr government’s most recent workers’ compensation legislation. It’s clear from this that DSP leadership supporters have combed Moore’s website for anything they can use to pretty her up as essentially a progressive figure.

It speaks volumes that this is all they could find on broader political questions. Where did Moore stand on the Iraq war? Did she speak or march against the war? A big slice of the ALP in NSW did speak and march, including the deputy premier, and the leader of Labor’s parliamentary wing has just announced, in a guarded way, a policy of withdrawing troops from Iraq, and the Liberals are attacking him for daring to do so.

Where was Clover on Iraq?

Two of the aldermanic candidates for the ALP in the City of Sydney, the two women who are in winnable positions, are both relatively active members of Labor for Refugees. Where has Clover been over the past two or three years on the bitter and vexed question of refugees? And so it goes.

It’s not necessary in this situation to try to prettify the shambling, contradictory mass organisation that I describe as the ALP-trade union continuum. Prettifying it wouldn’t work anyway, and it’s not the point.

The point in deciding preferences in this situation is what class forces are in play? Benedek asserts that the Laborites are on the nose with Green Left Weekly readers he meets. Well, that’s a bit of a tautology, knowing Brother Benedek, they’d have difficulty getting a word in edgewise before he had told them how bad the Laborites were, and it would be a bold GLW reader who would disagree with him.

Another way of looking at the class forces at work will emerge when the votes are counted on Sunday. The Labor team is the underdog, and it may well lose, but the social pattern of the voting, which will be relatively easy to unravel, will tell us volumes.

In Sydney, the highest Labor vote will be in booths in the poorer, more blue-collar areas, such as the housing commission flats in Surry Hills and Redfern, and even further out in Beaconsfield, the still- proletarian parts of Alexandria, etc, etc. There will also be a particularly high Labor vote in the Glebe Estate public housing area.

The more affluent other end of Glebe will be a hotspot for Moore and the Liberals. The Potts Point/Kings Cross area will also vote strongly for Moore and the Liberals. The pattern of higher or lower Labor or Moore votes will follow the income divides in the City of Sydney, and it will be quite possible to discern the pattern. It always is for those who have eyes to see.

The different social composition of the votes is a pretty important factor in where one should direct socialist preferences.

How the DSP, the ISO and the Socialist Alliance actually work

In my recent long piece on Leninism and Zinovievism (cited above) I tried to describe in some detail how public disagreement on even minor matters is strangled in Zinovievist political groups. This issue of preferences is a striking example of how that works.

Peter Boyle now concedes that a number of DSP and ISO leaders and/or members opposed the preference decision. That’s well and good, but the striking thing is that not one of them so far has felt sufficiently free to express that point of view even on the Green Left Weekly discussion list, or in the Socialist Alliance internal bulletins.

A member of the ISO who has been vocal on this question told me in conversation that initially he opposed the Clover Moore preference decision, but the ISO caucus met and decided in favour of it, and therefore he changed his position and played a substantial role in persuading the Central branch of the Alliance to preference Clover Moore. Presumably, something analogous took place in the DSP.

At no point in the Socialist Alliance, apparently, has a horizontal discussion taken place outside the framework of the strict discipline of the two major Alliance components. In that kind of circumstance, obviously what happens is a kind of negotiation between the leaders of the two groups.

My overview of how the two groups work might be changed if there was some kind of public discussion of this modest issue, but on form so far that’s unlikely to happen.

It’s all very well for Keiran to say the decision on preferences doesn’t lead to a sectarian attitude towards the ALP, but that’s hopeful rubbish. Taking such a preference decision has the very practical effect of isolating the groups that do it, thoroughly, in the broader labour movement.

Laborites tend to react very viscerally against people who give their preferences to politicians who most Laborites regard as essentially conservative. It’s particularly ironic of Peter Boyle and the DSP leadership to be quite properly pointing to the progressive aspects of federal Labor leader Mark Latham’s public announcement today on withdrawing troops from Iraq at the same time as the Socialist Alliance is deliberately reducing the possibility of influencing Laborites in the city of Sydney by this preference decision.


See also: The Greens and the 2004 NSW local government elections

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