British Labour, Australian Labor: splits and insurgencies

by Tom Bramble • Published 12 January 2017

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party (BLP) was an unprecedented development in the history of the party. For the first time a genuinely left wing leader had emerged within the party and did so without the backing of the big majority of the parliamentary caucus.[1] This development was the result of the social and political tensions that emerged in the UK as a result of decades of neoliberal attacks on the working class and the discrediting of the Labour party establishment under prime minister Tony Blair for its role in the Iraq war.

Corbyn’s success in a party which to all intents seemed virtually bereft of a serious left was then facilitated by the establishment of an electoral system designed by the Blairites as a way of reducing the power of the union bureaucracy and placing it in the hands of what were presumed to be a conservative membership. The introduction of one member, one vote and the new system of voting (union members who have paid the political levy; individual constituency labour party (CLP) branch members; registered supporters) then created the circumstances in which Corbyn, a backbencher, ridiculed, despised or ignored in turn by the majority of the caucus for decades, whose candidature was only put forward as a way of demonstrating the supposed broad church character of the party, became its leader. Also crucial was the role played by the leaders of some of the biggest unions who threw their weight behind Corbyn.

The election, and subsequent re-election, of Corbyn was significant because it represented one of the few ruptures in the party’s history. The BLP has suffered splits both to its left – the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1931 – and to its right – notably the desertion of a section of the parliamentary labour party (PLP) leadership under Ramsay McDonald to form a National government in 1931 and the breakaway by the Gang of Four in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – but these were not of the same scale as the current tensions that permeate the BLP. Even the ILP, which took out 17,000 members, pulled out very few MPs and no unions and within a few years was essentially a spent force.

The BLP has therefore been one of the more stable social democratic parties in the world. Central to this stability has been the powerful bloc of PLP leaders and union leaders who have closed ranks at crucial moments to protect the party’s essentially conservative character from left wing challenges by individual parliamentarians or factions and from radicalising members.

If stability has been a feature of the BLP, splits and divisions have featured much more regularly in the ALP, with the first occurring as early as 1894 when a battle between the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and its rivals led a large number of newly elected MPs to walk out of the party. Splits and schisms occurred regularly right through to the 1960s. They include the split over conscription in 1916, which saw the expulsion of both the prime minister and state premiers of New South Wales (NSW) and South Australia (SA), the split by NSW premier Jack Lang in 1932, which resulted in, at one point, the existence of three labour parties in NSW and the same number in SA, and, finally, the split by the right wing to form the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) in 1955, which took down the state Labor government in Victoria and, two years later, Queensland.

And even though the Socialist Left pulled back from the brink, the federal intervention in the Victorian branch in 1970 almost precipitated a further major split. These ruptures were no small affair. The DLP split, for example, resulted in the loss of more than half of the party membership in Victoria.

The ALP has seen many situations where Labor leaders, even state premiers like Edmond Hogan in Victoria, during the Depression, and Vince Gair in Queensland, in the aftermath of the Movement split, have been expelled from the party. There is no equivalent of a British Labour prime minister being forced from his position by an internal revolt – in 1931, the majority of McDonald’s Cabinet supported their leader, although that did not stop the prime minister putting an end to his government to allow him to form a National government with the Conservatives.[2]

The purpose of this article is to explain why the ALP has been historically more prone to splits and divisions than the BLP, at least until the 1960s. An answer to this question means, first of all, explaining what is distinctive about the union-based labour parties such as those of Australia and Britain. Second, I will point to some differences between the ALP and BLP which emerged in the first few decades of their existence which might explain their different trajectories. I will then discuss the three splits highlighted above – in 1916, 1932 and 1955 – using this framework. Finally, I will suggest some reasons why the ALP has not experienced a split since the 1950s but also why, although a split is unlikely in the future, such a development cannot be ruled out.


Labour parties like the Australian and British can be defined by the unique relationship between the parliamentarians and the union bureaucracy, which comprises the core of their material constitution. Coming to grips with this relationship is essential to understanding their internal affairs.

The role of the parliamentarians from all parties with a pretension to govern is to manage the interests of the capitalist class in parliament. Different wings of the capitalist class – industrialists and bankers, agrarian and commercial, urban and rural, big and small, have different interests and prefer different programs. In Australia, the Nationals tend to advance the interests of the rural capitalists in country and regional towns, along with the big mining companies. The Liberals promote the interests of the big urban capitalists. In Britain, the Conservatives and Liberals vied for support from the major capitalists for decades, before the rise of the Labour party forced the capitalists to throw their support behind the Tories in order not to split the vote. Labour parties are a little different to these parties in that, being based on the votes of the more class conscious workers while aiming to manage the capitalist system, they do not position themselves primarily as representatives of one wing or another of the capitalists, nor indeed of the working class, but as the best guardian of the broader, “national interest”.

This “national interest” boils down to the interests of the capitalist system. From the day they put themselves forward for preselection, the entire pressure on labour parliamentarians is to be “responsible”, not to those who vote them in every three years but to the capitalists and the broader ruling class. Once in parliament, this pressure is only intensified as the behaviour of labour politicians is put under scrutiny by the media to ensure that they do not deviate from the pro-capitalist script.

Beyond the behaviour of individual politicians, the behaviour of labour parties is disciplined by the power of those elements of the state that are not elected. In Australia, these include the Reserve Bank and High Court, the heads of the public service, the police commissioners and armed forces chiefs of staff. In addition, big capitalists outside the state machine make their demands on the party known. Those who in any serious way appear to disturb the capitalists have only to look at the experience of Chile’s President Salvador Allende to understand their potential fate.

Conformist tendencies in the labour parties are reinforced by the conservatising nature of the politician’s career – the remuneration packages valued at many times average earnings, the privileged social environment in which they mingle, the fact that they are now important people whose speeches are reported in the media, and the career opportunities that await them on quitting parliament. These elements encourage them to identify with capitalist norms and ideology. Set against this pressure from the capitalists, pressure from the working class is minimal. Accountability to workers at election times is infrequent, highly limited by the nature of the parliamentary system and diluted further by the structures of the party itself.

So far, so capitalist. But unlike most other parliamentary parties around the world, the labour parties also incorporate a central role for the union bureaucracy in their internal operations. By “union bureaucracy” I mean a large body of full time officials who form an intermediary layer between the capitalists and working class, whose chief role is as brokers of labour power. As negotiators seeking to extract the best terms for the workers, they may challenge the capitalists, but because wage labour is premised on the continued existence of capitalism and because, like the politicians, they too enjoy material benefits from their role, these challenges are limited to those that do not pose a fundamental threat to the capitalists. Adding to these constraints on their behaviour is their fear of being overthrown or pushed to one side by a membership revolt. The union bureaucracy wants a membership that is sufficiently mobilised to provide them with a credible threat when approaching the capitalists for concessions, but not one so aggressive that it can challenge their control over the union apparatus. They are caught in a contradiction between labour and capital and tend to vacillate between the two.

In many respects, the union bureaucrats and parliamentarians are brothers and sisters operating to imprison the working class within the capitalist system. There is a difference, however, based on their relationship to the capitalist state and the working class. The parliamentarians are for the most part working within the state apparatus and are most directly subject to pressure from the state and the capitalists. Particularly at national level, they are far removed from the concerns of their working class voters. The union bureaucracy, however, usually operates at one step removed from the capitalist state and is more intimately engaged, both positively and negatively, in the travails of workers. They are, therefore, more susceptible to pressure from the union ranks.

The union bureaucracy has played a particular role within the labour parties. They see these parties as the vehicle by which they might promote the interests of the working class (and themselves) within the state machinery. Parliamentary pressure is primarily understood as a substitute for waging a serious class struggle at the point of production, even if such struggle may sometimes be used to enhance their bargaining power within the party and state apparatus.

The union bureaucracy was the major force responsible for founding the labour parties in both Britain and Australia. In Britain, they were joined by the ILP, the Fabians and the small Social Democratic Federation. In Australia, the main forces were the AWU, the NSW Labor Council, some of the urban craft unions and the Australian Socialist League.

Through the first half of the twentieth century, trade union leaders played a significant role in the internal affairs of the labour parties of both Britain and Australia, helping to decide party policy, elect the governing bodies and choose candidates for office. Union affiliation fees and special levies unions paid to the party were the basis on which labour parties survived. Unions have also provided staff to enable labour parties to run election campaigns and, more generally, to promote them in the working class.

The fact that unions have historically played a very powerful role within labour parties did not mean that their leaders dictated matters to the parliamentarians on a day to day basis. The party leader, for example, did not need to have every decision sanctioned by the union leaders. The union bureaucrats were happy to allow the parliamentarians some leeway. How much leeway varied. The union bureaucracy have wanted the PLP to form a government which would be an honest negotiating partner with which they could work. The PLP very often have chosen to snub their noses at the union leaders, asserting their autonomy from the “sectional” demands being pressed upon them by the bureaucrats. Mostly the union bureaucracy has accepted being ignored or abused by the PLP leaders. However, at times, either because they came under pressure from their members to do so, or simply to ensure that they were not pushed to the margins by the politicians, the potential has been there for the union bureaucracy to put their foot down, disciplining the parliamentarians, or even expelling them from the party.

By and large, divisions in the labour parties have not comprised a straight battle between the parliamentarians and union bureaucrats. Most have involved combinations of both on each side, the natural result of differences in the political complexion of the unions themselves.

One other aspect of labour parties follows from their material constitution. The trade unions have given the labour parties roots in the working class: trade union membership has long been the single most significant predictor of labour voting. This means that the union bureaucracy have been a mechanism by which pressure from the working class has been transmitted, albeit in a highly mediated way, to the parliamentarians. This connection also meant, however, that labour parties could play a role in defusing class struggle and promoting a pro-capitalist agenda more successfully than the outright parties of the capitalists. This was evident with the Social Contract in Britain between the Wilson government and Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 1974 and the 1983 ALP-Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Prices and Incomes Accord in Australia.

In addition to the parliamentarians and the union bureaucracy, the party machines are also elements of the material constitutions of labour parties. Within the ALP, the party machine at the state level was dominant until the 1960s. The state executives were important bodies, with the power to over-ride preselections by local bodies and to direct state MPs. Nonetheless, to an important degree, the state executive and state conference, which elected the executive, were controlled by blocs of union leaders or their proxies. Likewise, state secretaries and state presidents all usually held their position by virtue of their support within a bloc of unions or, in the case of the AWU in Queensland, simply by one large, powerful union.

In Britain, the national machinery has played a much more important role. The headquarters of the party in London has extensive resources, both of finances and personnel, and has used these to proscribe or shut down whole bodies within the party, including the Socialist League in 1937, the Militant Tendency in the 1980s and virtually every youth group in the party’s history. When compared to the BLP, the ALP has historically had a much weaker national structure, with the first full time ALP national officer not appointed until the 1960s.

The final element of the material constitution of the labour parties is the largest but politically weakest layer, the membership organised in local branches/ CLPs. In theory, the members have a significant voice in the affairs of the labour parties; in Australia, for example, they constitute half the voting bloc on conference floor and the election of the party leader. In NSW, parliamentarians are preselected by the local electorate councils, although members have less direct say in other states. Nonetheless, there are clear limits to the power of members: preselections in the ALP can be overridden by the federal and state executives. In Britain, the CLPs also preselect MPs, but, again, head office retains veto rights. As for the role of BLP members in determining policy through conference, former Cabinet minister Richard Crossman spelled out in his memoirs the real power of party conference:

[T]he Labour Party required militants, politically conscious socialists to do the work of organising the constituencies, but since these militants tended to be “extremists”, a constitution was needed which maintained their enthusiasm by apparently creating a full party democracy while excluding them from effective power. Hence the concessions in principle of sovereign powers to the delegates at the annual conferences, and the removal in practice of most of this sovereignty through the trade union block vote on one hand, and the complete independence of the Parliamentary Labour Party on the other.[3]

The impotence of the membership is demonstrated by the fact that since the Wilson government of 1966-70, Labour governments in Britain have repeatedly and openly flouted conference decisions,[4] just as the Cain government in Victoria of the 1980s simply ignored state conference policy defending the Builders Labourers’ Federation.


The British and Australian labour parties have a common material constitution based on the relationship between the union bureaucracy and the parliamentarians. It is this that distinguishes them from, for example, the Australian Greens or the US Democrats. There have been, however, some important differences between the two parties that help to explain their differing propensity to fracture and split in the first half of the twentieth century.

The biggest difference is the bigger role played by the union bureaucracy within the ALP. The most obvious indication of this was the central role of the AWU within the ALP, something with no parallel in the BLP. From the party’s earliest days, the AWU was one of the single most important power centres. Such was the union’s size and funds and its dispersal across the big states like NSW and Queensland through the large rural workforce, that many ALP branches were little more than extensions of the local AWU machinery. And until the party reforms of the 1960s, the delegates to the party’s federal conference were in the big majority trade union representatives, the so-called “36 faceless men”. The union bureaucracy in Australia has repeatedly used their power to discipline the parliamentary party, even to the point of forcing out parliamentary leaders.

There are certainly parallels in the UK. For decades, the trade union bloc vote in the British party accounted for as much as 90 percent of the total vote on conference floor. The union leaders have not hesitated to use this, sometimes, as in the votes in the mid-1950s over defending Clause IV in the party’s constitution which enshrined nationalisation as a party objective or supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament, in direct defiance of the PLP leader. Decades earlier, in 1914, the union bureaucracy replaced McDonald with Henderson as party leader on the grounds that the former lacked enthusiasm for the war.

Leaders of Britain’s biggest union, the Transport and General Workers Union (and its successors), such as Ernest Bevin, Arthur Deakin and, today, Len McCluskey, have played a very important role in the BLP’s history as did TUC general secretaries Walter Citrine, Vic Feather and Len Murray.

Nonetheless, despite these similarities, which arise directly out of the union bureaucracy’s role within the two labour parties, the union leaders in Britain have seen their role more often as one of buttressing the power of the parliamentary leader than challenging it. They have repeatedly used their bloc vote in conference not to bring the leader down but to protect them from any challenge from the left. During the 1950s battles between party leaders Clem Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell and the left’s Nye Bevan and his supporters, the leaders of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), the General and Municipal Workers Union and the Mineworkers’, repeatedly squashed the Bevanites at national conference.[5] The union bureaucracy may have backed unilateral nuclear disarmament at the 1960 conference but, realising the enormity of what they had done, flipped over at conference in 1961 and handed Gaitskell a crushing victory against the left.[6] The union bureaucracy similarly backed up Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair in more recent times even when they were brazenly breaching longstanding Labour principles and severely weakening union rights.

A second broad difference between the British and Australian labour parties is that the constituency labour parties have played a more active role in the former and have with few exceptions been the basis of the party’s left. Both Bevan and, later Tony Benn, were able to galvanise significant support in the CLPs.[7] The leftism of the branches was not universal of course: in the post-war decades, many Labour controlled city councils were bywords for right wing corruption. But when left wing challenges have developed in the party, they have frequently emerged from within the CLPs.

In Australia, by contrast, the local branches have in some areas played an active role but they have not been the central player in most big movements within the party. Again, this is not a cast iron rule: in the case of the Socialisation Units in the 1930s, the Groupers in the 1940s and 1950s and, later, the Socialist Left in Victoria, the branches were an important power base. But these have been exceptional – the unions have tended to be the major players.

One factor that might help explain the greater push coming from the local branches in Britain is the role of voluntary voting: the Labour party machine needs activists to get the vote out on election day and therefore has to at least give a nod to the membership. In Australia compulsory voting means that Labor can usually take voter turn-out as a given, and the membership is accordingly more taken for granted.

The youth wings of the BLP have also been more active than in the ALP, sometimes with tens of thousands of members.[8] At times, as in the early 1960s, blue collar apprentices have provided the party with a draft of new recruits. The BLP youth wings have also been more left wing, providing a happy hunting ground for various far left groups over the decades. But they have, for the same reason, on almost every occasion been crushed by the parent party as part of broader offensives against the left.[9] Only on rare occasions have youth sections played a significant role in the life of the ALP.

The state-based nature of Australian politics may be an important factor contributing to the more fractious and unstable history of the ALP. While the federal government assumed significant powers during World War I, these were for the most part wound back following the end of the war, leaving the states in charge. Only from World War II did the federal government become the decisive factor in the Australian polity. Up until then state governments were in many domains the more powerful, especially in terms of relations with the working class: they directly employed tens, if not hundreds of thousands of workers and determined workers’ rights and conditions like the 40-hour week, not just for their own workforces but for all workers. A further factor encouraging state autonomy was the large size of the Australian continent and dispersed state capitals which made it difficult to construct strong national bureaucracies.

This balance of power between the national and state levels in the broader political economy was reflected within the ALP and the unions. In the party, state-based political machines were dominant, and each state, even the smallest, was given equal representation on the national executive. Dispersion of power within the ALP allowed political forces, whether premiers like Jack Lang or factions like the Groupers, to build substantial factional machines, creating opportunities for splits. Within the unions, each state branch pretty much ran its own race, limiting the ability of the national office to bring them to heel. In a fragmented and decentralised structure, where many union state branches only had a few hundred or a few thousand members, there was no great concentration of personnel and resources. Compared to the national leaders, therefore, the state branch union leaders were more subject to rank and file pressure, creating more potential for ruptures.

In Britain by contrast, economic and political life has been dominated by London, a centre not just of British capital but international capital too. Strong centripetal forces have resulted in the labour movement. The national leadership and parliamentary caucus have clearly been the major power centre in the party, along with the national trade union bureaucracy. Municipal and county councils could sustain local power bases for particular individuals or groups of individuals, but they were incapable of generating the resources at the disposal of, for example, state premiers in Australia. London and Westminster were what mattered. With power more centralised in the BLP, it has been more difficult to organise and sustain splits. The same dynamic is in operation within the unions: with some exceptions, national offices dominate union structures in the UK. They are much bigger, with hundreds of thousands of members, have more resources, are more removed from rank and file pressure and therefore run the union machinery with a heavier hand, reducing the tendency towards splits within the party.

A fourth point of difference between the two parties is that the ALP was established earlier and was much more successful in taking office in its early years than its British sibling.

The first election contested by recognisably Labor candidates in Australia was the 1891 NSW state election, when the Labor Electoral League won 35 of 141 seats. In 1905, the Labor party in SA formed the first stable labour government anywhere in the world. In 1910, the federal party, only in existence for nine years, formed its first majority government and by 1915, Labor ruled at the federal level and in all states except Victoria. No other working class party in the world could boast of such electoral success at such a young age.

The BLP was formed a decade later than the ALP and took much longer to become a significant force in British politics. For most of its first two decades in existence, it existed as little more than an appendage of the Liberal party. Only in 1918 did it emerge from out of the Liberals’ shadow. Labour formed a short-lived minority government only in 1924, and a more longstanding minority government in 1929-31. Only in 1945, 35 years after the ALP, was it able to form a majority government.

It was not just that the ALP won majority government long before the BLP; the ALP dominated several states for decades: the party ruled NSW from 1941 to 1965, Western Australia (WA) from 1924 to 1947, Queensland from 1915 to 1957 and Tasmania from 1934 to 1982 (albeit with a three-year interlude of conservative rule in each of the last three cases).

Early electoral success had consequences for the ALP as the ruling class quickly put pressure on the new Labor governments to shift to the right. The parliamentary leaders in most cases soon obliged. As a result, the tensions within the party between the parliamentarians, the union officials, the members and the party’s working class electoral supporters came to the surface earlier than in Britain, making it more prone to splits and ruptures.

The electoral success of the ALP partly reflects a difference in the political culture of the working classes of the two countries. As a very broad generalisation, the working class in Australia in the late nineteenth century and first few decades of the twentieth, was more industrially militant and less empire-loyalist. One important factor here was the central role played by workers of Irish background in Australian politics.[10] In many trades and industries Irish-Australian workers were a significant minority right up until the 1960s. They voted overwhelmingly for the ALP and formed the core of the party’s vote, starting with the first majority government of 1910. Along with Irishness went Roman Catholicism: as late as 1954, 60 per cent of Labor’s federal caucus were Catholics, and figures such as archbishops Daniel Mannix of Melbourne and James Duhig of Brisbane played a major role in the party over several decades.

Subject to suspicion by the Australian ruling class on two grounds – being working class and Irish Catholic – Labor’s most loyal supporters in the period up to the 1950s were not inclined to fondness for King and Empire. It is impossible to understand the split over conscription in 1916, for example, without highlighting this factor. It is also true, as sectarianism began to fade and the position of Irish Catholic workers began to improve after World War II, that Irish-Australian party members could be mobilised for right wing purposes within the ALP, as they were most obviously with the DLP split in 1955.

Another factor contributing to the more militant and irreverent working class in Australia was the weaker position of the Australian ruling class in foisting its ideology on the working class. Only with federation in 1901 did Australia become a nation state, and long after this date many sections of the capitalist class looked primarily to their own state government, state markets and state resources for their advancement. The ability of the ruling class in Australia to present itself as a powerful national force, able to mobilise a common national identity along with the requisite national myths, was weaker as a result.

The British working class, by contrast, was situated in the belly of the imperialist beast. The ruling class in Britain was very conscious of its own interests as a national force in politics. It had an empire which straddled the globe, it was able to construct national myths about the royal family reaching back over centuries, and it had well-established means to cohere its own ranks: the public school system, Oxbridge, the BBC and the Church of England. The British ruling class was therefore simply more powerful and in a better position to impose its ideology on the working class who were more subject to imperial propaganda and more likely to accept the interests of their rulers as their own.[11] Certainly the early Labour politicians were for the most part fawning toadies of the British establishment: Cliff and Gluckstein write that “The way in which most Labour ministers [in the first Labour government of 1924] literally fell over themselves to conform to pomp and ceremony would have been laughable had it not been so nauseating”.[12]

The conservatism of broader British society and the leaders of the BLP was partly reflected in the broader working class. The fact that for decades after the Labour party’s formation, many British workers continued to remain loyal to the Liberals or Conservatives is part of this general phenomenon. The deferential, Daily Express-reading, Tory-voting, monarchy-loving, flag-waving worker is a definite British working class type. While London dockers and building workers walked off the job in 1968 and marched in support of the racist, immigrant-bashing Conservative MP Enoch Powell, for example, there has been no equivalent significant racist mobilisation by sections of the Australian working class.

These differences in working class culture between the two countries can be demonstrated in quite practical ways. General strikes and mass strikes on either a state- or nation-wide basis, have been more common in Australia than in Britain. The strikes and lockouts of 1889-92 in the maritime, shearing and mining industries in Australia took on the proportions almost of a civil war, far overshadowing the London dock strike of 1889.

While unions in Australia helped to lead a combative campaign against the imposition of conscription in 1916, followed in 1917 by a general strike that spread throughout NSW and Victoria, the union leaders in Britain imposed a right wing pro-war leader on the party, led the military recruitment effort and joined dozens of wartime production committees. Meanwhile, the party leadership, after initially rejecting conscription, switched over to supporting it, joined the Liberals in a wartime coalition government, virtually disappearing as a discrete force in doing so, and hounded the party’s reformist wing, the ILP, which contained pacifist elements.

Another indication of the more advanced state of working class organisation and combativity in Australia in the first half of the century was the high rate of unionisation in Australia – in 1912, unions covered nearly one third of the workforce, the highest figure in the world, and by the early 1920s more than half the Australian workforce were trade union members, an achievement sustained over the following six decades. In Britain, by contrast, union coverage on the eve of the Great Unrest of 1911-14 was only one in six, before rising rapidly, peaking at 40 percent in 1920, at which pointed it started to slide again. Not until 1974 did British union membership account for half of the workforce.

Partly as a reflection of the less combative nature of the British working class, the trade union bureaucracy in Britain were more conservative than in Australia and more loyal to the ruling establishment. Mention has already been made of their fervent support for the war. Although subject, like all union officials, to pressure from below, they tended to be more vigorous in wanting to squash strikes. While the NSW Labor Council only with some difficulty suppressed the 1917 general strike, the TUC much more effectively squashed the 1926 general strike in Britain. The respectability of the British union bureaucracy is reflected in the string of knighthoods, CBEs and peerages bestowed on retiring union leaders over the decades.

In short, the ALP was embedded in a more oppositional working class culture in the first half of the twentieth century than was its British sister organisation. The Australian ruling class attitude to Labor governments reflected this. Together with the British banks, the Australian ruling class squeezed the Queensland Labor government by denying it loans in 1922. It brought down the Lang government in 1932. But it was in the federal sphere that the ruling class hostility to the ALP was most pronounced: it openly backed Labor rats Billy Hughes, Joe Lyons and the leaders of the Movement and in 1975 it simply sacked the Whitlam government. The British ruling class may have helped bring down the first McDonald government in 1924 with the fabricated Zinoviev letter, and carried out MI6 subversion against the Wilson governments of 1964-70, but it never sacked a Labour government.

This greater hostility evinced towards the ALP by the Australian ruling class may reflect its concern about the country’s more prominent left outside the ALP. The left in Australia outside the ALP was larger in the late nineteenth century through to the 1970s than was the case in Britain. The Victorian Socialist Party, for example, had about 2,000 members in a state population of just 1.2 million in 1907, a larger organisation than the Social Democratic Federation in Britain which claimed 10,000 members in 1896 in a population of 40 million. Two decades later, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Australia, with 1,500-2,000 active members at its height, had much greater influence than its numbers suggested. The “Trades Hall Reds” led by Jock Garden, who ran the NSW Labor Council after World War I, controlled the most important union body in the country and had no parallel in Britain. And during the Great Depression, of the two organisations that emerged within their respective labour parties in response to the political radicalisation of a minority – the Socialisation Units in Australia and the Socialist League in Britain– the former was much more significant, with several thousand members and 180 branches, compared to the latter’s 3,000 members and 74 branches in a much larger population.

But it is a comparison between the two Communist parties that make the contrast in size and influence most sharply. Starting in the early 1930s, the Communist Party of Australia began to win leading positions in a wide range of core blue-collar unions, including the coal miners, wharfies and seafarers, painters and dockers, railway workers, ironworkers, construction workers, the metal trades and NSW teachers. Even after the Groupers pushed them out of the ironworkers and clerical unions in the late 1940s (on which, more below), the CPA held on in other unions right through to the 1980s. The CPA therefore had a moderately sized working class base.

The CPA was able to use this union base to influence many within the ALP once it abandoned its sectarian Third Period approach of denouncing Labor as social fascists. In the late 1930s, the CPA allied with forces in the ALP in NSW hostile to Lang. The anti-Lang forces, including many dual CPA-ALP members, ousted the former premier in 1939. At one point, the position of general secretary of the NSW ALP branch, one of the most powerful positions in the entire party, was held by a dual member, Walter Evans who had joined the CPA in 1937.[13] From this position, the CPA had an impact on the policies of the federal party, with McKnight arguing that the CPA prevented the ALP from forming a national government with the United Australia Party (UAP) in 1940 after Menzies, then prime minister, offered this option to the party. After World War II right through to the 1980s, the CPA’s union machine formed the base for the Labor left in several states, and CPA political positions, mainly left and not so left reformism, constituted much of what constituted the common sense of left wing politics in Australia, both within the ALP and without, for several decades.

In the British labour movement, the balance of forces was quite different. The CPGB was simply a less significant force in the British working class and had less impact on the Labour party. The numbers tell the basic story: while CPA membership peaked towards the end of War II at 22,000 in a population of just 8 million and with ALP membership about 50,000, membership of the British party reached 56,000 in the same period,[14] in a population of 50 million and with Labour party membership of half a million, heading to more than one million by 1951.[15]

But it is not just a question of their relative size. Until the 1940s, the CPGB was less industrially implanted in the big battalions of the working class than the CPA, although it had begun to make some inroads in the aircraft, engineering and coal mining unions in the lead-up to World War II.

The CPGB was also generally more right wing than the CPA and, sometimes even than the BLP. As noted above, the CPA urged the ALP to reject a unity government with Menzies during World War II, but in Britain the CPGB was a keen supporter of the Tory-Labour coalition government formed in May 1940 headed by Winston Churchill. Even before the war, the CPGB, in line with Moscow’s efforts to cobble together an anti-German axis, had called for the formation of a “Peace Bloc” to be led by Churchill to include the CPGB, the BLP, the Liberals and any Conservatives opposed to prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of “appeasement”.[16] As war’s end approached, as the BLP was readying itself to fight the 1945 general election, the CPGB still urged the party to maintain its coalition with the Conservatives. On the future of the Empire, the CPGB also tacked right in this period. It not only opposed the push for Indian independence but also supported attempts by Allied governments to resume control over their former colonies at war’s end. The CPA, by contrast, through its leadership of the Waterside Workers Federation, helped the struggle for Indonesian independence by blocking military supplies to the Dutch colonists anxious to take power back into their own hands.

In summary, the left outside the ALP was larger and, often, more left wing than the left outside the BLP. The left inside the BLP, furthermore, was simply more hostile to the CPGB than the left inside the ALP was towards the CPA. As the Cold War set in, for example, the left in the BLP supported the ban on CPGB members holding office within the TGWU and backed the removal of CPGB members from certain civil service positions.[17] And although Labor prime minister Ben Chifley ran a vicious anti Communist campaign during the coalminers’ strike of 1949, his replacement, Herbert “Doc” Evatt QC, ran the High Court case against the Menzies government’s attempts to ban the CPA. The Evatt leadership then campaigned for a “no” vote in the subsequent referendum, securing its defeat. And, finally, as we shall see below, Evatt drove out the hard anti-communist minority inside the ALP in 1955. In short, the left outside the ALP, in particular the CPA, was a bigger pressure on the ALP’s left flank. This may have contributed towards greater ruling class hostility towards the ALP.

Finally, the electoral system in Australia may have been more conducive to splits in the ALP. The British first past the post system is harsh on smaller parties – the SDP in the 1980s, for example, which initially enjoyed strong media backing, an influx of former Labour MPs and strong polling, vanished as a threat to the Labour party within a few years – second place in election campaigns racked up millions of votes for the party but few MPs. Faced with the prospect of the political wilderness, it is understandable that most Labour right wing dissidents stay put rather than quit. Preferential voting, as occurs in Australia, could have transformed the fortunes of the SDP had it been in place in the UK. This voting system certainly kept the DLP alive for decades in Australia, allowing it to prop up the Liberals in government and keeping the ALP out of office for a considerable period.

To summarise my argument: I propose that while the material constitutions of the ALP and BLP were (and are to this day) broadly similar, with the relationship between the union bureaucracy and parliamentary leadership the crux of the matter, there were also some important differences between them in the period from their formation until the 1960s. Compared to the BLP, the ALP was characterised by a bigger role played by the union bureaucracy; a lesser role by the local branch membership which was, compared to the British party, quite small; a less powerful national office and greater dispersion of power to the states or regions; greater electoral success soon after the party’s formation; a more left wing and combative political and industrial milieu, with a working class less integrated into ruling class norms; a ruling class both more hostile and less internally cohered; and a different electoral voting system.

I further propose that several of these characteristics can help explain the greater tendency to internal ruptures in the ALP’s first few decades in existence. This will become more obvious in the account of the three biggest splits which follows, but for now it is worth pointing to the following: the greater ability of the union bureaucracy to intervene to bring the parliamentary leadership to heel; the greater space for localised breakaways due to the federal structure of the party and political life more generally; the emergence of internal tensions resulting from holding office and the need to satisfy the ruling class; and, finally, the greater prospects for breakaway formations to survive with ongoing parliamentary representation.


The three splits that form the basis of this section of the article, the 1916 anti-conscription split, the 1932 Langite split in NSW and the 1955 split by the Movement, are all different kinds of split and are the product of different trajectories within the working class broadly, the party membership, the union bureaucracy and the parliamentary leadership. They also take place in very different circumstances – a major imperialist war, an economic depression and an anti-communist offensive.

The 1916 anti-conscription split

The 1916 split is the best case of a split in the party produced by a radicalisation within the ranks of the working class and an initiative by the union bureaucracy to strike at the leadership of the party. It is probably the closest case of a split in the party in which the great bulk of the union bureaucracy was at loggerheads with the parliamentary leadership. It is also an example of the union bureaucracy riding a wave of working class discontent to achieve its own aims – forcing out a recalcitrant party leadership – while ensuring its own position was not threatened – as when it refused to mobilise in a serious way for the 1917 general strike or against the war itself.

War is an extreme test for a political party, a world war still more so. World War I posed the questions of class and nationalism in the starkest terms. When war broke out in August 1914, the leaders of the ALP marched in step with the empire. During the election campaign that returned Labor to office shortly before the hostilities began, Labor leader and prime minister Andrew Fisher pledged that Australia would support Britain to the “last man and last shilling”. He was as good as his word. His new government soon established the Australian Imperial Force to fight for the empire.

During the first period of the war, the Australian economy was in recession and the level of class struggle was low. The war itself was broadly popular, including among the union bureaucracy.

Yet, by the middle of 1915, war fever was cooling. Wages had been frozen since January but prices were continuing to rise rapidly. Many unionists were not only increasingly dissatisfied with the Labor government’s economic policies but also with its commitment to Britain and the war effort. Fisher resigned in October and was replaced by Billy Hughes.

Responding to the pressure from the working class and within the Party for relief from the inflationary squeeze on living standards, the Hughes government promised a referendum to give the Commonwealth the capacity to control prices but state Labor governments and business campaigned fiercely against the proposal. Hughes backed down and scrapped it, which led to widespread criticism from unionists and Party members.

As the government would not protect their living standards, workers took action themselves, Members of Hughes’ Waterside Workers Federation staged wildcat strikes. As the economy began to revive in 1916, the scale of industrial action rapidly increased. With metal prices high because of the war, miners in Broken Hill imposed the 44 hour week by refusing to work on Saturday afternoons, defying their union officials. When some miners were dismissed, the rest struck. Neither the NSW nor the federal Labor governments were sympathetic with Hughes accusing Broken Hill strikers of following “the advice of German sympathisers who are insidiously active in fomenting disturbances”.[19] Despite opposition from the Labor leaders, the metal miners won; their campaign emboldened coal miners to strike, with some success, for shorter hours. In Queensland and western NSW, shearers went out over wages. All in all, 1916 saw a record number of strike days.

Meanwhile, anti-war sentiment was growing. The IWW was the most outspoken organisation in denouncing the war, suggesting that “those who own Australia do the fighting”. The Wobblies also advocated direct action over wages and conditions and it was this that initially won them a wider audience. Their syndicalism, the idea that industrial action is the key to social change, also influenced socialists who won control of the Broken Hill miners’ union and a group of radical union officials that emerged in Sydney. Increasingly, industrial and political issues overlapped. Conscription became the key battleground.

In September 1915, the Melbourne Trades Hall Council voted to oppose conscription. The Labour Council in Sydney condemned state direction of labour as “industrial conscription”, while business was free to deploy its capital wherever it saw fit. Then, in a highly significant move, the AWU, the bulwark of the trade union right inside the Labor Party and longstanding Hughes supporter, unanimously opposed conscription at its national conference in January 1916. The Queensland, Victorian and NSW Labor Party conferences soon followed. In Sydney, the ALP organised a rally of between 60,000 and 100,000 anti-conscriptionists. Sensing the tide turning away from him, Hughes announced in August that a referendum on conscription for overseas military service would be held in October. Hughes’ decision split the Party and opened up the biggest schism in Australian social and political life since federation.

The Irish Catholic factor was very important. Archbishop Mannix was able to tap into the anti-British grievances of Irish Australians, both historic and contemporary – the issue of independence for the homeland had been given a shot in the arm by the Easter Rising of 1916. Many Irish Australians owed no loyalty to the British empire.

Under pressure from the Party’s members, and acting in its own interests, Labor’s extra-parliamentary machine, dominated by union officials, stepped in to bring the parliamentarians to heel. In circumstances of sharp political polarisation and enormous hostility to conscription in the ranks of the ALP, the union leaders could not allow the Hughes government to defy the Party. Had Hughes won there was the very real prospect of thousands of working class members quitting the ALP in search of a more radical alternative. The unions campaigned hard, with widespread strikes and demonstrations against conscription in the lead up to the referendum.

The conscription referendum was narrowly defeated. Hughes and 24 others walked out of the federal caucus. Forty remained. Conscriptionist parliamentarians were expelled from the ALP and ultimately went over to the conservatives, followed by many of their more middle class supporters and some more conservative workers.

The immediate result of the split was an electoral disaster. The ALP lost office federally, in NSW and South Australia. While there were six Labor governments in Australia in mid-1915, less than two years later there was only one, in Queensland. Despite the loss of government, the union leaders regarded this as a price worth paying in return for reasserting their control over the ALP and preventing the desertion of large numbers of working class members and supporters from the Party. The all-out fight over conscription during World War I demonstrated that when battle was joined, the union officials and the ALP machine had the power to eject any politicians, no matter how prominent, who would raise themselves above the Party.

There were, however, distinct limits to the leftward shift in the Labor Party at this time. While opposed to conscription, Labor was still in favour of Australian participation in the war and never came out against it. Another indication of the limits of the leftward shift in the Party was the reaction to the 1917 NSW general strike, which began with an attempt by management to speed up work in the tramway workshops in Randwick in Sydney. There was widespread working class dissatisfaction with conditions of work and falling wages at this time, and sympathy for the unionists in the workshops was widespread. Ordinary workers in the main, rather than union officials, decided to spread the strike to include other engineering works, the trams, railways, maritime, road transport and mining industries and also into other states, particularly Victoria, and even New Zealand. Around 97,000 workers participated in the strike, the core for about five weeks. Up to 150,000 people participated in weekly processions organised by the strike defence committee.[20]

The dispute was significantly larger than any of the strikes of the early 1890s and was a greater potential threat to the established order. It also disrupted the war effort. Employers and the conservative governments were clear about this and were determined to crush the strike. The Nationalist NSW and Commonwealth governments, led by Labor rats William Holman and Hughes, organised scabs to operate trams, trains, shipping and coal mines.

ALP parliamentarians, committed as they were to prosecuting the war effort, for the most part simply sat on their hands. NSW Labor leader John Storey said, “If it be possible for one to take no attitude, I will plead guilty to the offence”. He wanted a quick resolution of the “industrial difficulties without humiliating either side”.[21] The strike ended in a serious defeat.

The Langite split in the Great Depression

The 1931 split by NSW premier Jack Lang involved a different line-up of forces than the 1916 anti-conscription battle. In 1916, the union officials, pushed by the growing war weariness and hostility to conscription within the working class, mobilised the party against the right wing parliamentary leadership. In 1931, in the midst of a deep and painful economic depression, Lang built a significant base of support in the ranks of the working class by proposing an alternative to the harsh austerity measures being forced through by the Bank of England and Australian ruling class, peppered with some fiery bank-bashing rhetoric. He was then able to leverage this support to lead a break from the federal leadership of the party, while at the same time using his support within a section of the trade union bureaucracy and the party machine to smash the threat from the genuine left that had emerged within the party’s local branches. Eventually, however, he was undone as most of his former allies in the unions turned against him.

The October 1929 federal election, in the context of a gathering economic crisis and a series of bruising union defeats, saw Labor sweep to power under leader Jim Scullin. Success followed in Victoria (December 1929), South Australia (April 1930) and NSW (November 1930). In each case, the number of Labor seats swelled to record numbers.

The new Labor governments faced a severe challenge. If they wanted to keep the support of their core voters they had to maintain workers’ wages and government services. But there was pressure from business to cut public spending and wages.

Four major currents emerged within the ALP in response to these contradictory pressures, ranging from a conservative right to a socialist left. Joe Lyons, a senior member of the federal parliament and Cabinet, totally capitulated to the demands of big business, Scullin reluctantly pursued “responsible” economic policies, Lang adopted a radical, populist rhetoric and made concessions to capital and labour, and the most serious left wing in the Party’s history, the Socialisation Units in NSW, agitated for “socialism in our time”.

It was apparent from the outset that the response to the Depression by Scullin and his treasurer, Ted Theodore, had nothing to do with socialism. Labor had abandoned an election promise to support the locked out NSW coal miners, for which it was roundly denounced by the NSW Labor Council.

Its economic policies were no more effective. In response to the economic collapse, Scullin dramatically increased tariffs, but not enough to prevent bosses from continuing to sack large numbers of workers. The Bank of England sent Sir Otto Niemeyer to advise the Australian authorities. Under his influence federal and state governments, Labor and Nationalist alike, signed the Melbourne Agreement in August 1930, which committed them to balance their budgets. Scullin’s treasurer put together an alternative strategy, the Theodore Plan. This provided for mild inflation, government expansion of credit and the devaluation of the Australian pound.

Parliamentarians on the right wing of federal Labor, grouped around Joe Lyons, regarded the Theodore Plan as irresponsible. Together with his supporters, Lyons joined forces with the former Nationalists in setting up the new, conservative UAP under his leadership in May 1931.

In NSW, meanwhile, the new Lang government, elected in October 1930, under pressure from the union bureaucracy, quickly legislated for the 44-hour week. At a time when the federal Arbitration Court reduced award wages across the board by 10 per cent, under the Lang government wages set by the state Industrial Commission were not cut, and pay cuts for public employees in NSW were more moderate than in other states.[22] Lang hoped that wage stability would put a floor under household spending and promote economic growth.[23]

Despite Lang’s efforts, the Depression deepened and unemployment rose to one-third of the workforce. The worsening economic situation precipitated a crisis in the ALP that was played out in the Battle of the Plans. The premiers’ conference in February 1931 saw a contest between the Theodore Plan, presented by the federal government, and the Lang Plan of the NSW government. The Lang Plan called for the suspension of interest payments on governments’ overseas debt, lower interest rates and an end to the gold standard (the valuation of the Australian pound in terms of a specific quantity of gold). Wrapped in radical rhetoric, the Lang Plan became a rallying point for many in the ALP, including a number of federal parliamentarians who took up the cause. To large numbers of workers in NSW and beyond, Lang seemed to be the only Labor leader prepared to resist retrenchment and austerity.

The result was a split in the NSW branch of the ALP. Scullin, with the help of his defence minister, Ben Chifley, established an official, federally recognised Party in NSW in direct competition with the Langite Party. All significant affiliated unions, apart from the AWU, and a very large majority of the membership remained loyal to Lang.

In April 1931, the dispute escalated when NSW failed to pay interest to British bondholders. The Labor federal government paid instead and began legal action to recover the money from NSW. Scullin’s willingness to take on the Lang government in the name of financial creditworthiness did not help him much. The Commonwealth Bank and the Senate blocked the Theodore Plan and insisted on drastic retrenchment. Scullin and Theodore gave in, agreeing to abide by the June 1931 Premiers’ Plan, which included a 20 per cent cut in government spending, and consequently slashing public works, welfare benefits and public service salaries.[24]

South Australian premier, Lionel Hill, and his ministers signed the Plan and were promptly expelled by the state Party in August 1931, under pressure from rank and file members, union officials and a rising Lang organisation in that state. Hill remained in office, propped up by the Nationalists. In Victoria, Premier Edmond Hogan also signed the Plan, but his own ministers repudiated him, which brought down the Labor government in April 1932. The state executive expelled Hogan and other right wing politicians three months later.

In NSW, the Lang government played a two-sided game. On the one hand, Lang, like his fellow Labor premiers, signed the Premiers’ Plan and cut public employees’ pay. On the other, under pressure from the unions and the working class, his government protected tenants from eviction if they were unable to pay rents, did not compel the unemployed to work for the dole and made attempts – blocked by the Legislative Council – to increase taxes on the rich and to force insurance companies to make loans to the government. The Lang administration did cut wages, but with proportionately larger reductions for those on higher pay.

In November 1931 cross-bench Langite federal parliamentarian in the lower house joined with the UAP in a vote of no confidence in the Scullin government, bringing it down in a round of mutual acrimony. At the following election, in January 1932, the UAP romped home. In a stunning reversal of fortunes, the combined vote of the official and the Langite parties fell by more than 11 per cent.

The political situation in NSW was by now deeply polarised. The economic crisis was going from bad to worse. Unemployment continued to rise. The state’s public finances were in disastrous shape. As the state’s budget deficit deepened, the new UAP federal government attempted to seize control of the Lang government’s funds. The far right was also on the move. Armed organisations, the New Guard, a fascist movement with a base in the middle class, and the more substantial Old Guard with supporters in the NSW political, judicial and military establishment, began to rally their forces. Workers’ meetings were attacked by the fascists. Meanwhile, on the left, Lang attracted huge crowds to meetings and hundreds were flocking to join the ALP in the hope that it would institute a new socialist order.

The political crisis in NSW climaxed in May 1932. State governor Sir Philip Game sacked the government after the Legislative Council, swamped by Labor appointees, passed a 10 per cent tax on mortgage creditors. Hundreds of thousands of Labor supporters rallied to support Lang with, according to various estimates, between 200,000 and 750,000 people turning out at the Sydney Domain at the height of the subsequent election campaign. Lang, however, despite rhetorical bluster, continued to play by the parliamentary and legal rules that were stacked against him and, more profoundly, against the working class. The result was that Lang could not win over broader layers of the middle class and less class conscious sections of the working class and the government was heavily defeated at the state election.

Langism was not the only manifestation of the deep seated anger among large numbers of working class people during the Depression. Revulsion against capitalism led to a sharp shift leftwards within the ALP, beyond Lang’s radical populism. This shift took the form of the Socialisation Units.

Labor had adopted the socialisation objective at its 1921 federal conference but its leaders had done nothing to promote let alone implement it. Now, in the midst of capitalism’s worst ever crisis, many in the Party concluded it was time for socialism. In 1930, the NSW state conference authorised the establishment of committees by local branches, Socialisation Units, to promote the objective and the goal of socialism in our time.[25] The Units grew very quickly, with 97 Units in early 1931 and almost 180 by late 1932 and many thousands of members. The Units also published a monthly newspaper, Socialisation Call, and organised lectures and classes. Many of these ardent socialists then flocked into the ALP itself, soon controlling many local branches and electing delegates to state conferences.

Their problem was that the leadership of the ALP, known as the Inner Group, comprising politicians and union officials loyal to Lang, had no intention of agreeing to pursue the demand for socialisation beyond rhetoric. This much was clear at the 1931 NSW Party conference when the Inner Group won a vote on conference floor to strike down a motion that had been carried just the day before which had called for “socialism within three years”.

A different fight over the achievement of socialism flared up inside the Party after the release of the Payne Report in August 1931 which had been commissioned by the Units. This report argued that the Units’ strategy of relying on propaganda alone was not enough to deliver socialism and that the Labor Party should lead working class struggles. The Report’s clear call for action rallied the more radical members of the Socialisation Units. Most of the leaders of the Units were, however, reformists who believed that the Labor party could be won to a program of legislating socialism into existence. These leaders along with close Lang allies rejected the Payne Report. But Lang was worried by the rising influence of the Units and for a period used more left wing rhetoric, claiming that “the revolution has come … by Act of Parliament”, meaning the Lang Plan.[26] But Lang remained committed to managing Australian capitalism and was never a socialist.

So far as Lang was concerned the Units could be tolerated as a means to channel the surge of working class radicalism into safe activities within the structures of the Party and to limit the appeal of the CPA. He ignored a motion passed at the 1932 state conference which urged the government to emphasise the Socialisation Objective at the next election. But when it became clear that the informal leadership of the Units was planning to challenge the Inner Group for control of the ALP, Lang struck hard. In the months leading up to the 1933 state conference, Lang mobilised his supporters against the Units with the result that the conference voted to dissolve them, resulting in their rapid demise. A minority of members of the Units, including Payne, quit the ALP to join the CPA but the big majority simply faded away.

It was no accident that the NSW branch of the party was the most affected by the leftward shift within the working class during the Depression. The working class and union movement was largest and strongest in that state. Lang’s policies complied less with the demands of business and the advice of senior public servants and were less hostile to working class interests than those of other Labor governments. For their part, federal politicians were more insulated by distance and the structures of the ALP than their state counterparts from Labor’s working class supporters, and were able to rely on a conservative base of support from the smaller states at the federal ALP conference.

The Socialisation Units wanted the Lang government to challenge capitalism and advance workers’ interests by parliamentary means. They failed to take over the NSW Party because the parliamentarians and union leaders, the dominant actors in the party’s material constitution, were solidly opposed to them. It was impossible to alter Labor’s nature as a capitalist workers’ party without blowing it apart.

The 1955 split by the Movement

Finally, we turn to the 1955 split. This differed from the other two in that it was not underpinned by any radicalisation within the working class. Far from it, Australian society was shifting to the right at the time in the context of the Cold War, economic expansion and full employment. The result was that neither the union leaders nor the parliamentarians were driven to act because of any pressure from within the working class. Nor did the split involve any significant mobilisations of workers in public meetings, strikes or local campaigning. It was a split from above, driven by the needs of the union bureaucracy and sections of the parliamentary leadership seeking to preserve the working class and social democratic character of the party in opposition to elements within the party – both union officials and parliamentarians – and outside the party – who wanted to convert it into an outright pro-capitalist party on the lines of the pro-US Christian Democratic parties in Europe.

Labor had been defeated at the 1949 federal election in an environment of growing Cold War hysteria which the party had itself done nothing to temper. For most of the life of the Chifley government, the ALP had been locked in a battle with the CPA, which was being urged on by Moscow to pursue an aggressively “leftist” line. Chifley imposed drastic punitive measures against the CPA and militant workers regardless of party loyalties.

This was the circumstance in which the secretive National Civic Council (the “Movement”) came to the fore within the labour movement. The Movement had been set up under the auspices of the Catholic church in Melbourne under Archbishop Mannix but soon spread into other states. Within a fairly short period it had won control of the Industrial Groups which had been established by the ALP to fight the Communists in the trade unions. With the backing of employers, the media and the Catholic church, whose leadership still held sway among many Irish Australian workers, the Groupers scored some spectacular successes in court-supervised union elections in the late 1940s, notably in the clerks’ and ironworkers’. The influx of the Movement into the unions was accompanied by an invasion of the party at branch level with hundreds of new members being signed up every month, particularly in Victoria where branch stacking flourished.

The Movement’s success started to sound alarm bells. ALP union officials were happy to help the Groupers get rid of their Communist opponents but were not so pleased when the Groups began to move against Labor union leaders and politicians labelled corrupt or insufficiently anti-communist. The right wing state president of the powerful Queensland AWU, Joe Bukowski, and Victorian Trades Hall Council Secretary Vic Stout, for example, had collaborated with the Movement to set up and expand the Groups during the 1940s. Now they turned against it. They were joined by many senior figures in the federal caucus, including party leader Doc Evatt, who had become a Movement target because of his decision to fight the Menzies’ government’s anti-Communist referendum, and Evatt’s eventual successor Arthur Calwell.

The royal commission called by the Menzies government around the Petrov Affair of 1954, which investigated allegations that Evatt’s staff had been implicated in leaking information to the Soviet embassy, only ratcheted up the anti-Communist frenzy, with the press speculating feverishly about rampant Communism in the Australian labour movement. In this context, the ALP, although registering its second highest ever primary vote, was defeated at the 1954 election. Evatt lashed out, alleging that Menzies, Petrov and spy agency ASIO had conspired to injure the ALP.

The internal tensions came to a head over the following months. On 5 October 1954 Evatt accused two Victorian members of federal caucus, Stan Keon and J.M. Mullens, of being disloyal to the Labor Party and of being subject to outside influences in the form of The Movement. In the recent elections, said Evatt,

one factor told heavily against us — the attitude of a small minority group of members, located particularly in the state of Victoria, which has, since 1949 become increasingly disloyal to the Labor movement and the Labor leadership. It seems certain that the activities of this small group are largely directed from outside the Labor movement. The Melbourne News Weekly appears to act as their organ.

Evatt was immediately supported by senior figures in the federal caucus, including the left’s Eddie Ward and the right’s Pat Kennelly, by the South Australian executive and by most of the trade unions that were not under Grouper control, including the AWU. Evatt was strongly opposed by the Victorian and NSW executives of the ALP, which were under strong Grouper influence. A bitter and bloody battle then ensued within the party which culminated at the March 1955 national conference in the expulsion of the whole Victorian executive and a walkout by 17 out of the 36 delegates. The Industrial Groups were shut down and the expelled members went off to form the Democratic Labor Party.

As a result of the split, the ALP lost office in Victoria and was not to return to power until 1982 due to the DLP’s policy of directing preferences to the Liberal party. Menzies called a snap election to capitalise on his opponents’ disarray and the ALP suffered a 5 percent swing against them. Labor was to be kept out of office federally for another 17 years, again due to DLP preferencing. Two years later the Split enveloped Queensland, ending Labor’s long rule in that state, when the central executive expelled Premier Vince Gair over his refusal to legislate for 3 weeks’ annual leave: in Queensland, Labor was not to sit on the Treasury benches again until 1989. Overall, party membership, which had been massively boosted by widespread branch stacking during the internal fight, plummeted from 75,000 in 1953 to under 45,000 in 1958.[27]


Three major splits in just 40 years had an impact on the collective consciousness of successive generations of ALP and union leaders, creating an aversion to any further such episodes and helping to prevent some of the subsequent internal battles developing into full blown warfare.

Nonetheless, there is more to the story than simply a fear of history repeating itself. Several other developments have contributed to the party’s relative stability in the subsequent decades.

The first is that the party today has become less deeply rooted in the working class while becoming more centralised and bureaucratised. The party’s roots in the working class have diminished in various ways. First, it is simply a much smaller party relative to its working class base. Compared to its federal vote, whereas one in every 33 ALP voters was a Party member in the late 1940s, by 2007 the ratio had fallen to one in every 108.[28]

It is not just the number of members, but the composition. The largest cohort of ALP members are those registered as pensioners, students or the unemployed, in other words those who can be signed up by branch stackers at the cheapest rate. But in terms of those who do more than simply vote during preselection fights, the party’s membership has become much less characterised by those from routine working class backgrounds. In the 1960s, the blue collar membership was already being overshadowed by teachers and those with university backgrounds. By the 1980s, those identified professionally with the party apparatus had come to dominate. The party apparatus has expanded enormously in recent decades, thanks to the explosion in public funding of political parties. Today, the ALP has at its disposal thousands of paid staff, with the number increasing when the party is in office. These include party members working as staffers for federal and state parliamentarians, the small army of Labor students working for parliamentarians on a part time or ad hoc basis, and the many hundreds of public service advisers working in Labor ministers’ offices. Then there are those paid by trade unions but who are essentially deployed to work for the party full-time.

Those attached to the party apparatus in one way or another – either employed by the party or the public service, including the parliamentarians – are now the major moving force within the ranks of the party. Solid numbers are hard to come by, but in 2005, former NSW Labor cabinet minister Rodney Cavalier estimated that the NSW branch had only 1,000 active members outside the apparatus and that the number of local branches that had a real life was not much over 100.[29] The transformation of the membership is also reflected in the backgrounds of the parliamentarians themselves, few of whom have any lengthy experience as routine blue or white collar workers of the type that typify the party’s voting base, and many of whom know little of life outside one wing or other of the party, public service or union apparatus.

The smaller size and changed composition of the party both contribute to the party’s attenuated roots in the working class. Although the ALP’s membership has always been relatively small compared to the BLP, even more so relative to the European social democratic and communist parties, its shrinkage has helped to reduce even what small influence the local branches had on the leadership. The significance of this is that a more muted local branch voice may have contributed to the lesser tendency towards internal fracturing.

The impact of membership atrophy is further exaggerated by the growing centralisation of the party. While the state branches are still influential, since the 1970 federal intervention the federal leadership and federal apparatus forces have become much more significant, regularly intervening in the affairs of state branches. This process has run alongside the greater national integration of the Australian capitalist class and state machine. Such centralisation reduces the ability of leaders or factions organised on a state basis to pull out large numbers of members and split the party machine. In this sense, the ALP has become more like the BLP.

The decline of the party’s left as a distinct political force has also reduced internal tensions. While the discipline of cabinet solidarity meant that the practical – as opposed to rhetorical – differences between the left and right were always small when Labor was in office in earlier decades, there were some quite important points of ideological cleavage between the two sides. The left was distinguished from the party’s right by references to socialism, commitment to social equality and a greater willingness to promote and participate in extra parliamentary struggles. Influenced by the CPA, many on the party’s left had sympathies for the “Communist” states in Eastern Europe and China. The left voiced the concerns of more militant workers and helped to harness them to Labor’s project of managing Australian capitalism.

This changed during the Hawke and Keating governments, when most of the distinctiveness of the left’s formal policies, let alone its actions, evaporated. The left was complicit in these governments’ most significant policies and was responsible for carrying out many of them. This process only consolidated the conclusion drawn by many in the party after the Kerr Coup, that any whiff of anything “unorthodox” had to be strenuously avoided. Today, the party’s left is virtually indistinguishable from the right, evident in the bloodless and lifeless leadership contest between the right’s Bill Shorten and the left’s Antony Albanese after the 2013 election defeat. The left no longer plays any distinct role in extra-parliamentary activism and in no sense does it embody, even if just rhetorically, a different political project to the right. “Fairness” has become the rallying cry for both left and right within the party and the factions have little function other than as job placement agencies within the party.

Any internal grumbling within the left at its leaders’ capitulation to the right has not produced any ruptures within the party. And, in recent years, the emergence of the Greens as a sizeable electoral force provides ALP dissidents for somewhere to go. Rather than try to cohere an oppositional bloc within the party, exit is a feasible option for those repelled, for example, by the ALP’s policies on refugees who wish to stay active in parliamentary politics.

The disappearance of any meaningful left, along with the party’s record in office at both state and federal levels, contributes to the more relaxed attitude by the ruling class towards the ALP. In no sense does the ruling class fear that Labor will, for example, try to nationalise the banks. Other than the more extreme right-wing ideologues, no-one connected to the ruling class accuses the ALP of being socialist anymore. This is not to say that the ruling class, or important sections of it, have not campaigned against Labor at times: they ran an intensive media campaign against Labor governments in South Australia and Victoria at the height of the deep recessions of 1992-93, against the Rudd government’s proposed mining tax in 2009-10, and against the Andrews’ government during the Country Fire Authority dispute in Victoria in 2015. But these were a long way from the kind of destabilisation used prior to World War II or again in 1975 against the Whitlam government. It’s also possible that the ruling class too has drawn lessons from the Kerr Coup – that such actions have a cost both in terms of potential backlash at the time and the subsequent lack of legitimacy for the conservative government that follows.

The end of the Cold War has been a further factor pushing in this direction: the ruling class does not have to wage campaigns against the ALP on the suspicion that it might, somehow, be an unreliable instrument for governing a junior imperialist state in competition with another with which it might have some sneaking sympathy (as, undoubtedly, some in the Labor left did). And so, when the federal ALP leadership baulked at support for the 2003 US war on Iraq, this did not bring down on their heads any rage from the ruling class, no accusations of “disloyalty”, of the type flung at Labor leader Arthur Calwell when he campaigned against conscription for the Vietnam war in 1966.

Furthermore, the quarter century without a recession in Australia has taken the sharp edge off class antagonisms in this country, both lowering the pressure on the ruling class to mount a major offensive against the working class and tempering working class bitterness at their condition. In these circumstances, the ruling class is fairly uncaring about whether the ALP or the Coalition win office – it is not a matter of life or death for them. With the class struggle at a fairly low ebb and the overall political situation consequently flat, it is little surprise that tensions within the ALP are moderated.

All these factors suggest that a split or ruptures in the ALP are less likely in coming years. But we cannot rule out such a prospect. The chief reason is the continuing embeddedness of the trade unions in the party, which means that it cannot escape the kind of tensions that tore at it in the first half of the twentieth century.

Unions still matter within the ALP, even if the collapse in the strike rate and union coverage since the early 1980s mean they are less significant in broader society. They continue to play an important constitutional role within the structures of the party. Even though their formal weight, in terms of voting power, has been wound back, they still retain a 50 percent share of conference floor and have substantial representation on the national executive: in 2016, union officials comprised 11 of the 21 members with voting rights on the party’s central body.

More important than the formal representation, however, is their political weight where it matters. Trade unions still form the basis for the most important factional blocs in the ALP. The AWU’s rural machine has dwindled along with employment in rural industry, but, together with the shop assistants’ (SDA) and the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU), it still forms the bedrock of the powerful right wing factions at state and federal level. This much was obvious in the last Labor government when the AWU switched its support back and forth between Rudd and Gillard, bringing down and raising up prime ministers every time it did so. On the left, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, United Voice, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Community and Public Sector Union and the Australian Services Union are all big players within the party: it was only because delegates from some of the left unions sat on their hands, or even voted with the right, that party leader, Bill Shorten, got his way on important votes at the 2014 national conference.

The influence of the union bureaucracy within the ALP can be demonstrated in other ways. Since 1945, six Labor leaders (Chifley, Calwell, Hawke, Keating, Crean, Shorten), or seven if you include Gillard who cut her teeth working for a firm of labour lawyers closely tied to the union machine in Victoria, came from a union background. In the BLP, by contrast, none have come from the unions. Consider also the state Labor leaderships. The current NSW opposition leader, Luke Foley, was an organiser and elected official with the ASU and South Australian premier Jay Weatherill worked for the AWU for several years.

Trade unions play a particularly important role in the ALP during election campaigns, more so now that the local branch membership is in decay. In recent state and federal elections, the unions have provided a substantial number of staff and volunteers to staff the polling booths and phone banks. They have contributed tens of millions of dollars to fund Labor’s election efforts. Although there is nothing new about these types of contributions, the numbers and funding being advanced have become much more significant. Indeed, union campaigning for the ALP has become the dominant feature of the party’s public profile at elections and a major element of the internal life of the unions themselves.

The significance of ongoing union involvement in the ALP is two-fold. First, the union bureaucracy provides a conduit through which the working class can impact the party in a way that is not available with any other party, the Greens, for example. Trade unions may have lost substantial numbers of members but they remain by far the most effective vehicles capable of mobilising the working class. In the 1980s and 1990s, trade unions brought out many tens of thousands on each occasion during protests against right wing state governments in NSW, WA, Victoria and SA, while the Your Rights @ Work rallies in 2005-06, with anything between 250,000 and 550,000 attending across the country on each occasion, were the largest in Australian history, dwarfing anything organised by British trade unions. In order to be able to mobilise such numbers, and more generally just to do their job of negotiating agreements with the bosses, the trade union bureaucracy cannot cut themselves off from pressure from members. This means that, as in 1916 and to a lesser extent 1932, the union bureaucracy may have to lean to the left in response to pressure from the working class, bringing them into conflict with the parliamentarians, or at least sections of them.

The second reason why the union connection is significant is that the union bureaucracy can put demands on the parliamentarians for their own reasons – to preserve their role within the party. This does not mean that they will do so. For the most part, the union leaders today give their parliamentary colleagues a blank cheque. Thus, support for the ALP at elections or while in government is rarely made conditional on the party supporting legislation to improve the lot of workers or of the union leaders themselves. Rudd’s proud 2007 election campaign boast that he would not listen to the unions if Labor won office and Gillard’s speech at the 2010 ACTU conference where she berated the construction unions and lauded the ABCC stand out as examples of the high-handedness with which the parliamentarians treat the union leaders.

But there are limits to this, as the NSW Labor government found out to its cost in 2008 when it tried to push through electricity privatisation, a very unpopular measure in the unions and population at large. The Labor Council, firmly aligned with the party right, fought the Treasurer Michael Costa and premier Morris Iemma, also members of the right faction, and forced them both from office over the question.[30]

The need for the union bureaucracy to respond at times to pressure from the working class, and their desire to prevent their marginalisation within the party mean that, despite the many changes in the ALP over the decades, pressures towards ruptures remain latent within the party. Only the complete removal of the union bureaucracy from the party, transforming the ALP’s material constitution in the process, would remove this factor from its internal dynamics. It is impossible to predict what form any rupture might take – the possibilities are endless. Nor is this to predict that a rupture will, or is even likely to, happen in the next decade or two – the probability is that, for the reasons spelled out above, it won’t. But, as the unexpected nature of the Corbyn victory in Britain in 2015 demonstrated, flare-ups, ruptures, splits in the ALP cannot be ruled out.

[1] George Lansbury, who took over the leadership of the party on Ramsay McDonald’s defection to the Tories in 1931 and who served until 1935, is the closest parallel. However, Lansbury, unlike Corbyn, never had to fight for the leadership as the top job fell into his lap once McDonald’s successor Arthur Henderson lost his seat at the 1931 election.

[2] Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party: a Marxist History, Bookmarks, London, 1988, p160.

[3] R. McKenzie, British Political Parties, 2nd ed., Mercury, London, 1963, p641.

[4] Cliff and Gluckstein, p299.

[5] Cliff and Gluckstein, p267.

[6] Cliff and Gluckstein, p275.

[7] Cliff and Gluckstein, p264.

[8] Z. Layton-Henry, “Labour’s Lost Youth”, Journal of Contemporary History, vol.11, 1976, pp275-308.

[9] Cliff and Gluckstein, p190; Layton-Henry.

[10] Patrick O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia, revised edition, New South Wales University Press, Kensington, 1993.

[11] The same factor helps explain the predominant conservatism of the US working class in the twentieth century.

[12] Cliff and Gluckstein, p96.

[13] David McKnight tells the story in his book Espionage and the Roots of the Cold War: The Conspiratorial Heritage, Frank Cass, London, 2000. The relevant chapter is excerpted at

[14] Both the CPA and CPGB experienced a big influx of members during World War II as a result of their championing the “Patriotic War”, but membership dropped off sharply during the latter stages of the war or in its aftermath. The figures of 22,000 and 56,000 therefore inflate the real membership of the respective parties. O’Lincoln estimates CPA membership at 16,000 at the end of the war, dropping to 12,000 by 1947. Thorpe gives a figure of 45,000 by March 1945 for the CPGB and 42,000 by April 1946. Both figures, however, were still substantially higher than at the outbreak of war. Tom O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism, Stained Wattle Press, Sydney, 1985, p52; Andrew Thorpe, “The membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1920-1945”, The Historical Journal, 43, 3, 2000, p781.

[15] No consistent records have been kept of the national membership of the ALP, only inconsistent and rarely published branch membership figures.

[16] Cliff and Gluckstein, p186.

[17] Cliff and Gluckstein, p150.

[18] The following material on the three splits is drawn directly from Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn, Labor’s Conflict: Workers, bosses and the politics of class, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2010.

[19] Ian Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics: The Dynamics of the Labour Movement in Eastern Australia, 1900-1921, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1979, p87.

[20] The definitive account of the general strike of 1917 is Robert Bollard’s “’The Active Chorus’: The Mass Strike of 1917 in Eastern Australia”, PhD thesis, School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts Education and Human Development, Victoria University, Melbourne, September 2007, at; see also Robert Bollard, “’Rank and fileism’ revisited: trade union bureaucracy and the Great Strike”, Marxist Interventions, 2, 2010, available at

[21] Turner, p150.

[22] See Peter Sheldon, “State-level Basic Wages in Australia during the Depression, 1929-35: Institutions and Politics over Markets”, Australian Economic History Review, 47 (3), November 2007, pp249–77.

[23] “Rationing and 44 hours”, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 January 1931, p8; “Unemployment growing” Sydney Morning Herald, 7 January 1931, p12.

[24] Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party, 1891-1991, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991, p175.

[25] The following account draws on Robert Cooksey, Lang and Socialism: A Study in the Great Depression, ANU Press, Canberra, 1976.

[26] Cited in Cooksey, p54.

[27] Andrew Scott, Fading Loyalties: The Australian Labor Party and the Working Class, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1991, p30.

[28] For the late 1940s figure, see Scott, p30. The 2007 figure is calculated by the author on the basis of declared party membership and its vote at the federal election in that year. Scott gives a figure of one in every 96 voters being a Party member in the late 1980s. These figures should not be treated as exact, as published party membership is very rubbery, but the trend is clear.

[29] Rodney Cavalier, “Could Chifley win Labor preselection today?”, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April 2005.

[30] The negative example comes from Queensland when the Bligh government was only able to push through very unpopular electricity privatisation measures on the floor of Labor state conference in 2009 because two left unions absented themselves from the vote for fear of embarrassing the party leader. The parliamentary cretinism of the union bureaucracy runs deep.

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