An open letter to my colleagues of the Labor left in NSW
I gave out 150 copies of this open letter this evening (Monday) at the annual general meeting of the NSW Socialist Left and it got a pretty good reception from people who read it.
I hope the sect builders in outer space, my old acquaintances of the World Socialist Web Site, take careful note of this piece. They’ve been attacking me for my views on the apology to indigenous people, and this open letter will no doubt give them the basis for another of their eccentric exposure articles in which they attack people involved in struggle in the labour movement as being, in some incomprehensible way, in league with the people they’re fighting.
It’s an article of faith for the WSWS that all people involved in any sort of struggle are somehow part of a conspiracy with the people they’re fighting against. The WSWS’s outlook is of the same order of interplanetary madness as that of the curious person who calls himself Nemo Etomer on the Green Left Weekly list. He has a similar line of argument about everyone else who is involved in any sort of struggle.
If the WSWS wasn’t attacking me for my political activities, and even more so if they indicated any sort of agreement with anything I said or did, I’d be seriously worried and I’d feel obliged to examine what I’d done wrong.
It’s time to speak frankly. Doug Cameron in his very stirring and extremely useful address to the Labor Party rank and file meeting against electricity privatisation, began by quoting the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times and the worst of times.”
It was a sensible way to start, as he went on to make the sound point that we were all extremely pleased with the results of our common agitation to get the federal Labor government elected, and this had been thrown into bold focus by the moving events surrounding the apology to indigenous Australians. At the same time, however, the Labor government of NSW is trying to flog the family silver by privatising the electricity system.
It’s necessary to speak very frankly on the left about these questions, but to put things in context a little history and a bit of an appraisal of the current state of the Labor Party in NSW is required.
The right in NSW has historically been extremely hierarchical, with little pretense at much in the way of democratic processes. There has always been a division of labour between Unions NSW (formerly the Labor Council) and the right-wing political apparatus. This used to function relatively smoothly when the old Labor Council was a stronghold of conservatism under successive secretaries, culminating in Mick Costa.
John Robertson’s term in office has been a completely different kettle of fish. Robertson has been an energetic innovator in a trade union setup that was in steep decline when he took over. He has been a bit of a factional conciliator but his main role has been to resurrect Unions NSW as a serious organising centre for the affiliated unions and for the workers of NSW. His greatest achievement so far has been to turn the campaign against Work Choices into a slightly chaotic, trundling, but very much alive and effective working class popular movement. He has gradually eased out hopelessly conservative functionaries who were mainly political operatives of the Centre Unity faction, and he has replaced them with functionaries whose first allegiance is to the unions.
Robertson has been a pretty effective Bonapartist in the sense that he has balanced between various factions and forces and to some extent he has managed to sideline a couple of union officials who were his rivals for the top job, although those divisions still exist.
He uses a certain rhetoric about non-factionalism, but in practice he’s a considerable political mover and shaker in the Centre Unity faction. He has also gone out of his way to involve the left unions in the day-to-day activities of Unions NSW.
Robertson’s personal probity is never questioned by anyone, to my knowledge, although he’s not naive and he’s a fairly tough union manoeuvrer, who generally sides with the incumbent officials of his union affiliates against insurgencies and rebellions in their organisations.
His base of support now is a comfortable majority of the Centre Unity unions and most of the left unions. In particular, the officials of the public service unions are very close to, and up to a point loyal to, Robertson.
So far (despite furphies about him looking for another job, which appear to be disinformation coming from some political leaders of the left) he shows no sign of going anywhere.
That the struggle against electricity privatisation has got as far as it has is a tribute to the leadership of Robertson and his Centre Unity union colleagues, Bernie Riordan and Ben Kruse. It’s clear that enormous pressure is being brought to bear on those three and on Unions NSW as a whole by the Centre Unity political operators in the NSW government.
It’s not completely excluded that at some point the key figures resisting privatisation in the Centre Unity unions may be given offers they can’t refuse, but it’s hard to know what they could be offered that they might want, because the political spots usually used as inducements for people to roll over seem to be occupied for the foreseeable future.
As well, these Centre Unity union figures are all old campaigners and people who’ve never been associated with any hint of corruption, and with the avalanche of problems and the aura of corruption surrounding some Centre Unity politicians at state government level at the moment, it’s unlikely that Robertson, Riordan or Kruse are breaking their necks to get involved in any of that by moving to the state political sphere at this time.
The proposition being spread by some self-interested politicos on the left, that the Centre Unity trade union people will inevitably roll over, doesn’t seem to be at all indicated by what the progressive Centre Unity unionists are doing at the moment, which is turning anti-Work-Choices committees into anti-privatisation committees and encouraging mass meetings of union members to reject the privatisation, and organising a substantial political and industrial demonstration at the opening of parliament.
It would be difficult for the Centre Unity union people to turn back now without an enormous loss of face and without what is even more important, a complete abdication of the political influence traditionally exercised by the unions in the Labor Party.
There’s an additional consideration: the Centre Unity unions and the unions on the left are to some extent bureaucracies, the officials of which are used to exercising power, but it’s a mistake often made by the far left and by the media to reduce union officials to simply that aspect of their activities. They’re usually people who’ve come up through the ranks or chosen to work for unions, rather than somewhere else, and to a very considerable extent they identify emotionally very strongly with the unions they lead. They’re usually not stupid and they can see that privatisations and the industrial and political demoralisation they cause among workers, and the decline in membership that follows, are all factors in the decline of organisations to which they’ve devoted their lives and of which they’re usually pretty proud.
Electricity privatisation and the left
The left’s contribution to the struggle against privatisation of electricity has mainly come from the left unions. The role of the metalworkers union has been outstanding. It has seconded one of its hardest working and most intelligent officials to the campaign in the same way that Robertson has assigned one of his most competent associates, Matt Thistlethwaite, to the campaign.
The Labor-Party-affiliated white collar unions and the unaffiliated white collar unions aligned with the left, also have been solid in their opposition, as has the CFMEU.
As with the situation on the right, this has not been without a certain amount of pain to some of the ;left union officials. For instance, many of the key left union leaders have strong personal, and even family, connections with some left politicians, at the federal level in particular, who are clearly supporting the privatisation. So far, that hasn’t stopped the forthright campaign of the left unions against the privatisation.
It’s an open secret that despite the fact that Labor holds office in all the states and territories and at federal level, Labor Party membership everywhere is steadily declining, even it seems after the Rudd victory, because people don’t feel that they can have much political influence by joining the Labor Party.
Diehards like myself who’ve held a Labor Party ticket for more than 50 years seem to be a dying breed but it’s our job to see that this set of circumstances changes, and changes quickly.
The very best way to revive the Labor Party at membership level in this state would be for the left, in particular, to conduct a big public campaign against the privatisation, with street stalls etc, around the suburbs, recruiting people to the Labor Party to fight the privatisation. This is the kind of activity that revived the Labor Party, and particularly the left, during the struggle against the Vietnam War, and during the struggle against uranium mining somewhat later. Demobilisation of the Labor rank and file, and particularly of the left, tends to happen when the left abstains from popular struggles.
The structure of the left in NSW has been for a long time pretty moribund. It comes to life before conferences, and for preselection battles. The left is still affected by the ongoing subterranean battle for the available bums on seats between two clans, almost like the Hatfields and the McCoys. The origins of this clan warfare on the left are lost in the mists of antiquity, but it’s still a factor in the affairs of the Socialist Left, and the SL leadership is usually a careful balance between the two clans.
The life of the SL these days revolves around quite a few younger members, one-time student activists, some of whom work for unions, and a larger number of whom work in the offices of politicians, state and federal.
As with the situation on the right, although it’s not as acute on the left as it is on the right at the political level, there’s a bit of careerism endemic in this situation. Again, for instance, many on the far left and in the Greens who have an excessively romantic view of politics, are driven by their rivalry and past conflicts with them to treat the large number of young people who work for Labor pollies as an undifferentiated reactionary mass. This is an unrealistic and grossly oversimplified approach to politics. Most of the people who work for unions and Labor politicians have in the first instance considerable identity with the aspirations of the labour movement, which is why they choose labour movement career paths rather than the infinitely more lucrative careers available to young people downtown, where the headhunters of the ruling class are constantly looking for recruits.
Nevertheless, working for Labor pollies, in particular, creates strong pressures towards opportunism, which on the left is sometimes veiled by a fair bit of left talk. In the current electricity privatisation campaign the first impulse to oppose the government’s push has come from Labor Party branch members who, depleted though they may be in numbers, are overwhelmingly fed up with privatisations, and from the better union officials of both right and left factions.
The neoconservative propaganda that privatisation is the inevitable wave of the future has taken a terrible belting from recent economic developments. Costa’s statistical trickery and juggling looks pretty sick in a world in which the British government is nationalising the Northern Rock bank in the interests of the very survival of the British economy.
In society at large, the hostility of most of the population to privatisation is absolutely clear. Even in the poll that the government solicited and paid for, with push-polling loaded questions, the push-poller still couldn’t secure anything like a majority for privatisation.
A feature of the current situation in the Labor Party, both in NSW and federally, is that a dearth of talent on the right at state level, and an obvious desire by Kevin Rudd to keep a few potential competitors on the right at arm’s length in the federal sphere, has resulted in the left having rather more cabinet positions than might be expected in other circumstances. I disagree profoundly with the decision of the left in the federal caucus to give the prime minister the permanent power to select the cabinet, but in the short term the left’s acquiescence in Rudd’s supreme leader role seems to have benefited it in the carve-up of positions.
I’m deeply ill at ease with the need felt by one of the left leaders to say on television that he was a fiscal or economic conservative (I forget which formulation he used), and I’m deeply uneasy with the role of a left figure like Lindsay Tanner as chief axeman in the campaign to reduce government spending. I believe many left rank and filers in the Labor Party share my unease about such things.
In the short term, however, from the rank and file level we can’t do much about those matters in the federal sphere while the very politically adroit federal leader, Kevin Rudd, extends his honeymoon period with the electorate by such principled and deeply moving means as the apology to indigenous people. What we on the left can do in the short term is conduct the campaign against electricity privatisation in NSW in such a way that the privatisation is defeated. In my view, the defeat of the privatisation push requires several political considerations and actions.
In NSW, the arena where the left rank and file can exert some influence at this stage is the anti-privatisation camapign. It must be said that the left cabinet ministers have been very reluctant to take a public role in opposition to the privatisation, even inside the Labor Party.
Most people in the Labor Party are anything but naive about political processes in the party. When preselection conflicts erupt, Labor Party members as a whole, the majority of whom aren’t just stackees, exercise our preselection prerogative in a pretty careful way. For my own part I choose who to support in preselection ballots according to a combination of my judgment as to the candidates’ basic socialist principles, and consideration as to whether they’re competent for the job.
I don’t think I’m much different from others on the left in this. I tend to get pretty angry when people to whom I’ve helped deliver a little bundle votes in relatively tight preselection ballots seem to evolve very fast into pretty calculating representatives who are disinclined to challenge other cabinet members on such basic questions as electricity privatisation.
I’ve been around the Labor Party quite long enough not to expect perfection in left political represenatives. By and large the left representatives who’ve been hoisted into positions in inner Sydney, with which I’m most familiar, such as Paul Pearce, Verity Firth, Carmel Tebbutt, Penny Sharpe, Linda Birney and the deputy premier John Watkins, at state level, Tony Pooley at municipal level, and Senator John Faulkner, Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek at federal level, are excellent and competent Labor representatives. In my view anyone who tried to challenge any of those people for their positions would be completely nuts. I always work hard for such people on election day against, for instance, the Green electoral challenge in the inner city.
Having said that, I believe that the left rank and file, which is after all the substantial political force that elects all those people in preselection ballots, have the right to expect from their representatives a reciprocal relationship: that is that they fight vigorously, and use their political skills, to get a preferred left outcome on key questions, such as electricity privatisation.
Like most left rank and filers I don’t think it makes much sense to make unreasonable demands of our representatives, and the most competent among them have in recent times acquired a work load that would kill an elephant, and for that reason I don’t expect them to load themselves down with trivia. Also, knowing how political life in the Labor Party operates, it would be quite unrealistic to expect them not to develop and promote their own political careers. I don’t see anything particularly wrong with that. The overarching proviso, however, is that they should fight hard on basic matters of principle that go to the heart of any left outlook, such as the battle against electricity privatisation.
In the electricity privatisation crisis a number of left politicians in the state parliament, particularly cabinet ministers, have been leaning heavily on appeals to the inviolability of “cabinet solidarity” and even “caucus solidarity” at the same time as telling the story that it’s unfortunate about the privatisation but we can’t win because the right (and/or the other left clan) will sell out on the question, etc, etc.
These stories are furphies. In the rules of the Labor Party in this state, cabinet solidarity in battles within the party doesn’t exist. Caucus solidarity is mentioned, but it applies strictly to votes in the parliament, and it has never applied in internal policy debates. Undue emphasis on both those concepts is being used by some left politicians to ease their adoption of the line of least resistance, which is to acquiesce in the privatisation while blaming the right (and/or the other left clan).
There’ve been plenty of issues in the past in which cabinet members have taken different sides on the floor of Labor conferences. A striking example was the late Jack Ferguson’s spectacular intervention on the floor of conference against the admission to caucus of members of the Legislative Council while they were still semi-elected part-timers. The roof didn’t fall in, Jack Ferguson remained deputy premier, and there have been quite a few similar occurrences.
In my view the failure of the left cabinet ministers to campaign vigorously and publicly against privatisation in the Labor Party is a dereliction of their socialist duty. In the current relationship of forces in the Labor Party, if the left cabinet ministers took a forthright and public stand against privatisation, the matter would be almost all over bar the shouting and electricity privatisation would be overwhelmingly defeated at the coming state conference. That would be the major initial political step towards forcing withdrawal of the privatisation.
A combination of the public industrial and community struggle led by Unions NSW, with a forthright political battle in the Labor Party, led by the left cabinet ministers and left MPs would be unstoppable in the Labor Party.
If that kind of campaign were conducted, the inevitable victory at the Labor state conference would create new political conditions in the party in this state. Already, in anticipation of the possibility of losing the conference, a legal eagle who’s the head of one of the Labor Party policy committees has circulated a bush lawyers’ opinion based on a convoluted argument that defeat of the electricity privatisation at the conference wouldn’t be binding because, on his narrow view of what was decided 10 years ago at conference on this issue, the government wouldn’t be bound because the details of the government’s proposals are a bit different to those defeated 10 years ago. He’s obviously testing the water for the government to defy conference, and Costa in his belligerent way has been insisting that the government will defy conference if necessary.
In these circumstances, the need for the left ministers to make a public stand against electricity privatisation is even more pressing. Their relative silence on the question is a kind of de facto acquiescence in advance in the possible defiance of the conference. Incidentally, the ministers are doing premier Morris Iemma no favours by keeping silent, because at some point Iemma, who’s no fool, may be persuaded that it’s politic to dump the proposal, which after all is Costa’s baby. It would be intelligent politically to leave that option open to Iemma, but leaning as heavily as the left ministers do on cabinet solidarity at this time is the not the way to achieve that desired result.
There’s an additional problem for the left ministers: a number of them are outstandingly competent and there’s no hint of corruption associated with any of them, but the aura of corruption and jobbery that surrounds some of the more senior Centre Unity ministers is very public. The media are having a field day with various scandals, and using them to condemn and humiliate the whole government, both the Centre Unity ministers, some of whom are quite competent, and aren’t involved in the jobbery allegations, and the left ministers, who also aren’t involved in the allegations.
The problems facing Labor in the state sphere in areas such as health and public transport are pretty obvious as well. Add to all those problems, and the aura of jobbery, etc, a grossly unpopular electricity privatisation and you have an obvious political disaster for the Labor Party in the making.
The media, print and television, are making Costa a kind of hero of the privatisation push, while bashing the daylights out of the rest of the government, but the proprietors of the media are extremely class-conscious bourgeois political cynics, and despite their support for the electricity privatisation they will quite inconsistently use the unpopularity of the privatisation, along with all the other issues they beat up, to tear down the Labor government if they can.
The left ministers and MPs are the usual human mixture that you find in Labor politics, of principle, competence and quite strong ambition. No one active active in working class politics for any length of time expects them to be any different, we are not naive. But I appeal to the ministers and MPs to think again about the tactics they are adopting on the electricity privatisation. Some, along with some state pollies on the right, are even kind of friends of mine (or at least very good acquaintances).
I have no desire to see the Iemma government fall, because the Tories who would take over are the old enemy that we’ve been fighting all our lives. Nevertheless, electricity privatisation in combination with all the other current disasters, could bring down the government.
For all the above reasons, the left ministers and MPs at state level should change tack, quietly drop the furphies about caucus and cabinet solidarity and locate themselves firmly and vigorously at the front of the developing campaign. A good way to start would be for some of them to speak at the protest at the opening of parliament.
A labour movement united on a principled basis is just beginning to be within our grasp, up to a point. The defeat of Howard demonstrated the mighty potential for such a united labour movement. We should seize the day.