The Labor left and its role


A response to Doug Jordan

Doug Jordan responds on the Green Left discussion list to my post, Left reaction to the Labor conference.

DJ: “Almost implict in Ed’s comments seems to be the idea that any sharp criticism of the ALP is sectarian.”

What does “almost implicit” mean? Perhaps an implication that Doug would like to be able to point to but can’t find? There’s no justification for Doug trying to read implications into my writing. I try to write precisely and avoid ambiguity, which I hope Doug as a historical writer might appreciate. Doug doesn’t indicate which part of my analysis might be ambiguous on this point, which I’m sure wouldn’t pass muster in historical circles.

In fact, my own views are also sharply critical of many Labor Party policies.

I oppose many  of the policies of Labor governments and their leaders, but when left-wingers in the Labor Party fight for positive changes to those policies I support them and I don’t tell them they’re wasting their time and should leave the Labor Party, nor do I tell them they’re sowing illusions in a capitalist party, all positions that have been put by one or another group in this discussion, or by their supporters, sometimes very experienced supporters.

As well, if I publicly attack the Labor Party I think it’s reasonable to indicate there are opponents in the Labor Party of the policy I’m attacking.

Above all, I acknowledge that there are people in the Labor Party who broadly share my views: opposition to great-power wars of aggression; a humane attitude to refugees; full democratic rights for everyone, including marriage equality and opposition to all gender and sexual orientation discrimination;  support of trade union rights; opposition to neoliberalism, and much more. All of these positions are held by people in the Labor Party, and fights about them regularly break out at Labor conferences, state and federal.

When a fight occurs in the Labor Party, I expect that the left media should provide an honest and full account (full in broad outline, not necessarily in every detail), if those media want to be taken seriously. The Green Left and World Socialist Web Site coverage of the conference was derisory because it gave no guide to the forces at work and what tactical and strategic conclusions might flow from that.

The Labor Party is a complex alliance of political forces, and always has been, as Gordon Childe pointed out much earlier in its history. It has always had a minority socialist current as Childe pointed out. In this complexity it is like the Greens to a lesser extent. I regard this complexity as a useful thing that opens up opportunities for political debate and struggle.

The political battles that go on in both organisations are of importance and should be analysed with some precision.  A single, simple-minded, unchanging approach for all times, issues and places is politically useless and misleading.

In my brief survey of left media responses to the conference, I indicated that I agreed with the Solidarity position more than any of the others, with the exception that I don’t regard the marriage equality policy change as a “small victory”, but a very important one that could be a focus for further struggle and mobilisation.

The Solidarity position outlines a view of the relationship between struggle inside and outside the Labor Party, assigning primacy to struggle outside, but not counterposing the two, as the Green Left position does: “But when this reform is won, it will have been won by the activists in the streets and not delivered by the politicians.”

The Green Left position misleads through oversimplification. Of course, nothing is ever delivered by parliamentary politicians alone, that’s a truism, but not the whole story. Reforms are won by people demonstrating in all sorts of ways that a change is popular, including at elections, in party conferences, through lobbying, street and industrial actions and many other ways.

The interview with Cat Rose, carried by Socialist Alternative, indicates some of the complexity of the relationship between the campaign outside and inside the Labor Party to change its policy on marriage equality.

DJ: “It’s an old debating trick and not much else to try guilt by association. You start an article which is little more than a rant against the far left by quoting the WWSW site — the most sectarian and bizzare of the left groups. From there you proceed to describe the positions of three other left groups and put an equal sign between all of them when you should know that the positions all quite different. In the 1930s the approach was: Trotskyites hate Stalin. Capitalists hate Stalin. Therefore the Trotskyites and Capitalists agree. A crude debating trick and nothing more.”

This is a considerable misreading of my two articles, in line with Doug’s original comment that my critique was “dishonest” when in fact he really had a different assessment of the Labor Party: that all of the leftists he knew had departed from the Labor Party, all of the activists he knew were critical of the Labor Party and “the policy of staying in and fighting is well past its use-by date”.

I haven’t expressed a view on working in the Labor Party as a tactic, simply noted that a considerable number of activists with whom I largely agree (as I largely agree on many issues of policy with many people in the Socialist Alliance, Socialist Alternative and other groups) continue to work in the Labor Party, and I think they’re doing useful work. I respect their decision to work in the Labor Party.

A problem for Doug’s view is that many leftists are still fighting effectively in the Labor Party, as indicated by the fact that the right’s wins on major divisions at the national conference came down to about 24 votes, in other words about 12-13 out of 400 or so delegates changing sides.

I have made no attempt to establish “guilt by association”, merely conducted a simple, admittedly very brief, comparison of the positions of various groups, done very fairly with links to all of the positions so that the various positions could be checked by readers. I also briefly noted the differences in the various positions.

Doug’s accusation that I have used a Stalinist technique of discussion is tortuous, extravagant and unjustified. It doesn’t stand up to examination, as I’ve indicated above.

I plead guilty to a certain Sydney-centrism in overlooking the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party is based in Melbourne, and I overlooked it.

The Socialist Party, like the Greens on a larger scale, does some good work at local government level, but I wouldn’t take very seriously its views on its period working in the Labor Party. It appears to have left the Labor Party because the Committee for a Workers International decided that was to be the international policy after much of the Militant group was expelled from the British Labour Party. It worked in the Labor Party because that was CWI policy and it left because CWI policy changed.


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17 Responses to “The Labor left and its role”

  1. Potemkin Villager Says:

    The movement changed public opinion — a clear majority of Australians now support equal marriage rights. This, plus the Greens offering an alternative electoral option on the issue, is what changed the ALP policy. It was a response to external electoral factors not internal pressure. I haven’t read anywhere other than Ozleft the suggestion that the change in the ALP’s equal marriage policy was the result of a resurgance of the Socialist Left inside the ALP.

    Anyway, the hypocritical conscience vote manoevre is designed to stop this change in ALP policy meaning anything. Therefore the movement will continue organising. I’m not aware of any instance of ALP members or supporters being excluded from the movement. But no-one in the movement, as far as I am aware, has suggested that the struggle will be won or lost in the labyrinthine internal structures of that power-obsessed party.

  2. Ed Lewis Says:

    Villager, what you say is completely unremarkable, unless you think it’s some sort of revelation that social movement on an issue is reflected in the Labor Party. That’s a very common course of events in Australian politics.

    I haven’t said anywhere that the Socialist Left was responsible for the policy change. That faction is only part of the broader Left in the Labor Party. Nor have I discounted the role of organising outside the Labor Party. In fact, several times I’ve commented favourably on the account of Cat Rose, which describes something of that.

    I know you like to keep things nice and simple in that village of yours, and I’m not surprised in view of the simple account of life presented in your local newspaper, but something went on inside the conference as well, without which there would have been nothing to organise around.

  3. Potemkin Villager Says:

    “I haven’t said anywhere that the Socialist Left was responsible for the policy change. That faction is only part of the broader Left in the Labor Party.” OK. But I’d posit that this broader left was also peripheral in bringing about the forward motion on the issue inside the ALP.
    “Nor have I discounted the role of organising outside the Labor Party.” But you have underplayed it.
    “something went on inside the conference as well,” Yes, which many people thought was disgusting. Why is a desire not to see children locked up in offshore concentration camps not something an MP is allowed to have a consciounce about whereas an urge to intefere in the personal lives of people they’ve never met is? Why did the ALP lefts let this consciounce vote bullshit through?
    Pointing out these things is not moaning. And it isn’t just the far left groups (the Potemkin Villages!) who have been pointing these things out. Everyone’s been complaining about it.
    “without which there would have been nothing to organise around.”
    This movement has been succesfully organising for years. It wasn’t organised around the ALP conference.
    This view of everything through the prism of a supposed dichotomy between a “serious” left for whom inside the ALP is a main arena of struggle and the Potemkin Village far left sectarians who ignore the Labor Party’s masses seems to me to be about ¾ century out of date.

    • Ed Lewis Says:


      You had me worried for a while. I thought we were in danger of having a serious discussion, but then some atavistic reflex seems to have taken over and you lapsed back into ritual incantations against the Labor Party.

      For what it’s worth, in case you’ve recovered sufficiently to begin thinking again:

      1. Your account of the change on marriage equality is moonshine. A very effective campaign was mounted, part of which was directly aimed at the ALP. Why did the march go on that day, at that time, to that place? Because that’s where the Labor Party national conference was. In addition, Labor Party members brought forward that motion to the conference and fought for it, against the right including the prime minister, and they won. Only Labor Party members can put a motion to a Labor Party conference.

      Your theory about pressure is so commonplace as to be a non-sequitur. Something similar applies to every reform that has ever been won. You want to tell the part of the story that suits your schema, but it’s self-delusion.

      2. Leftists have been doing what you do: denouncing the Labor Party, throughout its history, and particularly since about 1928, when the Communist Party adopted the Third Period line. It has never made a scrap of difference, and today is pretty well the most useless and self-isolating approach your organisation could possibly adopt.

      • Potemkin Villager Says:

        1. “You had me worried for a while. I thought we were in danger of having a serious discussion, but then some atavistic reflex seems to have taken over and you lapsed back into ritual incantations against the Labor Party …

        “Your theory about pressure is so commonplace as to be a non-sequitur.”

        You could probably convey more political content using less abusive and dramatic language.

        2. “A very effective campaign was mounted, part of which was directly aimed at the ALP.”
        Yes, I know. And part of it is directly aimed at the Liberal-National Coalition.
        “Why did the march go on that day, at that time, to that place? Because that’s where the Labor Party national conference was.”
        I knew that too!

        The issue is where the key site of struggle is.

        3. “Leftists have been doing what you do: denouncing the Labor Party, throughout its history, and particularly since about 1928, when the Communist Party adopted the Third Period line.” There are some leftist groups who take pride in relating more to te politics of 1928 than 2011: the Spartacist League come to mind. But from what authority do Ozleft criticise this? Seriously, when you go on about reflexive reactions, schemas, sectarians ritually denouncing parties, etc, etc, something about glass houses and stones comes to mind.

  4. Mike Says:

    As an ALP member (and a socialist who is not a member of the SL faction) I think there is scope for socialist activity inside and outside Labor.

    I don’t doubt the sincerity and seriousness of socialists outside the ALP.

    What I question is their dismissive attitude toward the ALP as a whole. Given that Labor commands the (sometimes reluctant and usually critical) support of many workers and trade unionists, being dismissive only makes you appear sectarian and dogmatic.

    If the far left groupscules were able to command significant political support then they would have a case for arguing that socialists inside the ALP are wasting their time. But of course, at present, they do not. Nor are they likely to anytime soon.

    Why not? Because (as much as we may hate it) the vast majority of workers continue to see capitalism as reformable in vaguely progressive directions. In this context the task for socialists is to push the reformist agenda to it’s limits, making socialist arguments when those reforms fail, clarifying how the disappointing experience of reform is linked to the structural characteristics of capitalism.

    One alternative approach is to stand aside, denounce all reform efforts as futile and cut yourselves off from any sizeable audience and potential source of support.

    You generate political capital and authority by struggling with those who decide to fight – even if it is only in a mild reformist direction (which is most of the time in contemporary Australia). They are more likely to listen to you if you conduct yourself as a sincere supporter of the reforms they seek – even if you are constructively critical of what can be acheived.

    But sneering that reform efforts are pointless, and that the party they look to to implement those reforms is worthy only of contempt, is ultra-left childishness.

    There may come a time when socialists inside the ALP should break-away and stand in opposition to it. But that time is not present.

    • Ed Lewis Says:

      Mike, I agree. Reforms, besides being important in themselves, provide training in struggle, which is essential for bigger goals.

      It’s dishonest and pointless to brand all Labor Party members as being responsible for the worst policies of Labor governments, when it’s clear there are ALP members struggling against those policies.

      The Labor Party always has been contested territory, and the left should not give up any contested territory unless forced to.

      All of the left has lost ground since the mid-1980s, including the Labor left, but now neoliberalism is in a deep crisis, and prospects are opening up that might prove more favourable for the left. It would be good to think we could prepare for that through some clear-headed thinking on tactics, strategy and co-operation between all sections of the left.

      • Mike Says:

        Ed, having defended socialist activity within the ALP, I should add a note of criticism. While there are socialists in the party there is very little organisation among them. Too many appear content to hold their political convictions but do nothing with them.

        As the saying goes: political ideas without organisation are little more than a hobby – and deserve to be regarded as such.

    • Ed Lewis Says:

      Mike, I agree that organising is necessary. It’s probably at a low ebb at the moment because it’s always harder to get a hearing for oppositional views when Labor is in government.

      Labor for Refugees keeps at it in difficult circumstances.

  5. Ed Lewis Says:


    The following is from Labor for Refugees’ assessment of their work at the conference. It is a list of the changes to the ALP platform achieved as a result of its work. Labor for Refugees notes that it lost on the question of offshore processing, but it did achieve changes that will improve the situation of refugees. The wording in some points is vague as a result of negotiation with the minister, but there are real concessions. No doubt the pressure of public opinion was at work in these changes as well, as is the case in pretty well all reforms. Can you name one progressive reform in which that was not the case?

    • A commitment to make asylum seekers’ mode of arrival to Australia irrelevant. For the first time, those who arrive by air will be treated in the same manner, with the same rights, as those who arrive by sea seeking asylum, with respect to the processing of their claims and access to support while on bridging visas;

    • Significant reforms to detention, including:

    – A commitment to detain asylum seekers for management of health, identity and security risks to the community for a maximum of ninety days only;

    – A commitment to release children and their families from all forms of detention (detention centres and community detention) into the community;

    • A commitment to an independent review of all decision making under the Migration Act, with a view to ensuring that principles of procedural fairness, natural justice and genuine independence are upheld at all times. This review will commence in the first half of 2012;

    • A commitment to seek advice from the National Security Legislation Monitor on establishing a mechanism for independent review of the adverse security assessments so as to ensure procedural fairness;

    • A commitment to explore options other than indefinite detention to deal with refugees with adverse security assessments;

    • A commitment to aspire to increase Australia’s humanitarian intake to 20,000 per annum;

    • A commitment to ensure that applications for refugee status are processed speedily, fairly and impartially based on individual merits;

    • A commitment to work with the UNHCR and countries of the region to expedite the claims for refugee status by asylum seekers in the region to eliminate any pull factors for vulnerable protection claimants;

    • A commitment to co-operate with regional partners to improve living standards and protection outcomes for asylum seekers in transit countries;

    • A commitment to ensure repatriation of crew members who are juveniles, and to ensure they are not ever held in immigration detention centres or adult prisons;

    • A commitment to always support changes to Australian legislation, introduced by Labor in Government, ensuring complementary protection claims will be considered by way of the Protection visa framework;

    • A commitment to always support changes to Australian legislation, introduced by Labor in Government, to abolish the 45-day rule and maintain agreements that reflect relevant international obligations and grant work rights to all people who have actively and genuinely pursued resolution of their claims;

    • A commitment to always support changes to Australian legislation, introduced by Labor in Government, to extinguish detention debts and oppose any attempts to reinstate this practice;

    • A commitment to ensuring Australia meets its obligations to the maritime principle of safety of life at sea which requires a response to assist in the rescue at sea of vessels in distress.

    • In addition to a pre-existing commitment to treat people seeking our protection with dignity and compassion and in accordance with our international obligations, Labor is now also committed to treating people seeking protection with core Australian principles of fairness and humanity.

  6. Ed Lewis Says:

    Villager asks:

    >>But from what authority do Ozleft criticise this?>>

    This thread began with my brief critique of Green Left Weekly’s analysis of the Labor Party conference, and that of other groups. In my opinion, GLW’s analysis is laughable. To be fair, I will accept that GLW has gone into recess for the year, and the article was probably patched together in less than ideal circumstances, but to present this as an analysis informed by scientific socialism is to make a mockery of the term.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “authority”. I’m just a reader of left media who looks for detailed information about important political developments.

  7. Potemkin Villager Says:

    The ALP conference was a step backward for human rights for refugees — the defining change on the issue being the ALP government’s “offshore processing” [to use the sick, clinical euphamism] policy becoming party policy.

    I really don’t think this is a sectarian statement. I think it is a statement that would get little argument from anyone in L4R.

    But if you want to read this statement as a rejection of trying to get progessive reforms because of a maximalist revolution-or-nothing Thrid Periodist lunacy, fine.

  8. Potemkin Villager Says:

    Briefly critique? you mean the thing you started: “My prediction that the Labor Party conference would be received with a round of ritual moaning and whingeing on the far left has been largely confirmed”
    And you use language like this because you believe the left needs to move away from knee-jerk sectarianism?

    “In my opinion, GLW’s analysis is laughable.” My opinion is you read Green Left Weekly subjectively. I don’t know how else someone could think thast GLW sees the marriage equality issue as a diversion from anything. You just need to look at how often the issue appears on GLW covers.

  9. Ed Lewis Says:


    Green Left carried an article that suggested marriage equality is a relatively unimportant issue on which the Labor Party could make “costless concessions”, and presumably not a democratic issue of great importance as I and many others see it.

    Peter Boyle says in the only report on the Labor conference that has appeared in Green Left: “ALP politicians have sometimes looked for costless social reforms to cover up their consistent betrayal of working class interests.”

    I said the WSWS dismissed marriage equality as a diversion, and Peter Boyle seemed to regard it as some sort of trick. That’s not what you claim above. Please don’t try to frame me up.

    Perhaps you or someone else could explain further: is marriage equality an important democratic reform and the Labor conference vote an important step forward, or is the vote at the Labor conference a cheap trick?

  10. Potemkin Villager Says:

    Costless means not costing money in the context of the article referred to.
    One sentance from one article deliberately taken out of context could create the impression that GLW sees marriage equality as an unimportant issue. Anyone familiar with GLW would know it is an issue taken seriously.
    So, marriage equality is an important democratic reform, the Labor conference vote is an important step forward, except that the cheap trick of the conscience vote means it might turn out to be less of a step forward. And the ALP’s new policy is the result of a mass movement outside the ALP that galvanised changing community attitudes.

  11. Potemkin Villager Says:

    When I say “mass”, I mean the term relatively. This is Australia after all. But the rally at the ALP conference was not the first time the movement mobilised more than 10,000 people.

  12. Ed Lewis Says:

    I’ve criticised a lot more than one sentence in that ridiculous article, and not out of context.

    But I agree there was a mass campaign, we needn’t quibble over relatively or not.

    What do you think have been the high points, the most important breakthroughs, so far, that have strengthened the campaign and made its victory more likely?

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