Launching Victorian Socialists: An anti-capitalist electoral alliance

by Liz Walsh

The Victorian Socialists is a state-based political party launched in February 2018 by an alliance of socialist organisations, trade union activists, left wing journalists and individuals. In contrast to many other new left formations, the Victorian Socialists was not established as a “broad party” aiming to become the primary vehicle through which socialists organise interventions into union, social and political struggle, although it does mobilise its members for protests and strike solidarity. The party is more akin to an electoral front, with participants primarily uniting around the concrete goal of electing a socialist to the state parliament.

Australia has not had a socialist parliamentarian since 1950. The last was Fred Paterson, a Communist Party member who represented the state seat of Bowen in Queensland from 1944 until 1950. There have been Labor party politicians who have identified as socialist. However, the ALP’s Socialist Left faction, particularly its parliamentarians, have been virtually indistinguishable from the right in the party’s recent history. Anthony Albanese, the current ALP leader, is a case in point. A darling of the NSW left, his first few weeks as leader have been marked by overtures to big business, including coal companies, as well as grovelling commitments to end the tepid “class war” rhetoric of former leader and quintessential right wing machine man, Bill Shorten.[1]

Since the late 1990s, the Greens have sought to benefit from the space opened up by a decaying Labor party. Today they average 10 percent of the vote nationally and have a number of state and federal parliamentarians and hundreds of councillors. While on paper their policies are, in the main, superior to the ALP’s, they have very little connection with or orientation to the working class or union movement. They are a predominantly middle class party, despite high levels of support from white collar workers with liberal politics.[2] The class character of the Greens has been highlighted by their attempt to win over Liberal party voters alienated by the ascendency of hard right cultural warriors in the main party of capital. This strategy has manifested in pouring resources into blue ribbon wealthy seats in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs. In a bid to “professionalise” the party and to move further away from any identification with protest politics, the Greens leadership has also waged war on the party’s left in NSW and Victoria. The most significant casualty has been former senator Lee Rhiannon, who was the leading left wing voice in the Greens. Rhiannon was first publicly attacked by Bob Brown, the historic leader of the Greens. She was then excluded from the Greens’ party room by national Greens leader Richard Di Natale, with the support of almost every caucus member, for publicly opposing a Greens deal with the Liberals over school funding.[3] The right’s campaign culminated in Rhiannon’s failure to secure preselection for the top spot on the NSW Greens slate for the federal senate.[4]

The establishment of the Victorian Socialists reflects that socialists need our own party to intervene on the electoral field independently of the Greens and the ALP. Neither of these organisations are capable of consistently articulating left wing, working class discontent with the system and putting forward principled political alternatives. This task of building a left alternative to the major parties is all the more pressing given that the disintegration of the neoliberal political centre in many countries has encouraged the growth of the far right.

Electing a genuine socialist would be a step forward for the left in Victoria. It would provide a greater platform for opposing the neoliberal status quo that dominates state politics despite the progressive posture of Labor premier Daniel Andrews. Many thousands more would hear the left’s denunciation of “Red Dan’s” ongoing privatisation agenda, his failure to stop old growth logging, the militarisation of the police and endless expansion of the prison system. A socialist parliamentarian could use their political profile to encourage greater identification with socialist ideas and to provide active solidarity to trade union and community struggles, struggles which are at the heart of any effective strategy for winning social change. Their office could be transformed into a hub for grass-roots organising.

The Victorian Socialists’ first campaign was the November 2018 state election. Our aim was to elect Stephen Jolly, a prominent socialist councillor in the City of Yarra and active socialist of several decades’ standing, as a representative of the Northern Metropolitan region of the upper house. This Legislative Council is elected on a proportional basis, with five representatives elected in each of the eight regions which cover the state. The regions are vast areas. The Northern Metro, for instance, includes 11 lower house districts and approximately 500,000 voters.

The campaign mobilised hundreds of supporters, including 750 on election day, who campaigned across the north and won 4 percent or 18,200 first preference votes. By Australian standards, it was an impressive electoral campaign for a socialist ticket. Disappointingly, despite coming in fourth out of 19 parties, once preferences were distributed, Jolly was not elected.[5] The other standout result was in the predominantly migrant and working class lower house seat of Broadmeadows where Victorian Socialists candidate Jerome Small received more than 7 percent.

The overarching aim of the Victorian Socialists continues to be the election of a socialist to the Victorian parliament, with the party setting its sights on the state election in 2022. To continue to build its profile and supporter base, the Victorian Socialists contested the federal election in May 2019, running candidates in three lower house seats in the northern suburbs, with each candidate winning over 4 percent of the vote. In October 2020, the party is also likely to field a number of local council candidates. More than a year on, and with two major election campaigns under its belt, it is time to assess the experience of this electoral experiment.

Establishing the party

The proposal to form a socialist party in order to contest the 2018 Victorian elections was made initially by Stephen Jolly and a left wing Crikey journalist. In 2017 they approached the two largest socialist organisations in Victoria, Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Alliance, to make the case that electing a socialist to the Victorian upper house was not only desirable, but feasible.

Socialist Alternative has long recognised the utility of intervening into the parliamentary arena. Elections are an opportunity to both test support and reach a wider audience. Radical parliamentarians have at times been a beacon of resistance. Bernadette Devlin, a revolutionary socialist and member of parliament for Mid Ulster landing a punch on the British home secretary in the wake of the Bloody Sunday massacre in January 1972, when British troops opened fire on Irish Catholic civil rights protesters, is one such example. Another is Karl Liebknecht of the German Social Democratic Party, who alone voted against war credits in the Reichstag in December 1914. His stand was crucial for laying the basis for an anti-war movement.[6]

However, socialism cannot be delivered by a parliamentary majority. Instead it is the workplace where the potential power of the working class to cripple the capitalist economy lies, and it is in the process of engaging in collective action, as opposed to the relatively passive act of voting, that working class consciousness becomes radicalised on a mass scale.

Socialist Alternative has long been critical of socialist electoral efforts in Australia. Very few have made much of an impact electorally or politically. Socialist Alliance candidates have received, in the main, between 1 and 2 percent of the vote in state and federal election contests since the founding of the party in 2001. In 2016, for example, Zane Alcorn won 0.69 percent in the federal seat of Wills. It’s arguable that these state and federal election campaigns did more to expose the weakness of the left than they did to build confidence in and support for socialist politics.

One exception to the generally weak electoral results was Jolly’s candidacy in the state seat of Richmond in 2010, where he stood as an independent and won 8.7 percent of the vote. He was primarily backed by his then-organisation, the Committee for a Workers International (CWI)-affiliated Socialist Party.[7] Socialist Alternative also backed him, as did a number of trade unions, which contributed $25,000 to the campaign. In 2014, Jolly also won 8.5 percent.

But in general, the electoral scene in Australia hasn’t been particularly rewarding for socialist challenges. Indeed, in some cases, a long term overemphasis on electoral work, the watering down of revolutionary politics in the chase for broad electoral appeal and a grandiose sense of what was achievable for small groups of socialists, have also contributed to the decline of once healthy revolutionary organisations. Socialist Alternative considered the Victorian Socialists project to be different, and as such felt it could help to strengthen the revolutionary left.

A viable candidate

Reflecting the fact that it was a united left effort, the 2018 Victorian Socialists Legislative Council list in the Northern Metro included Sue Bolton, a leading member of Socialist Alliance and a Moreland city councillor since 2012, and Colleen Bolger, a lawyer for asbestos victims and member of Socialist Alternative’s National Committee.

Victorian Socialists ran candidates in all eight upper house regions, many of whom were independent socialists not affiliated with any organisation. It also ran candidates in every lower house seat in the Western District and in a number of lower house seats in the Northern Metro region, to build the party’s profile in those areas and to make it easier to engage in preference negotiations with other parties.

But the lead candidate and the focus of the campaign was Stephen Jolly. It was his profile as a long-standing left wing activist and in particular his roots in the Yarra area, where he’s been a local councillor since 2004, that gave the project a greater chance of success. In his role as councillor he has built a reputation for taking on corporate property developers, fighting for public housing residents and championing progressive drug reform. Not only has he built a loyal local support base, Jolly is frequently quoted or given air time in the mainstream media. A recent campaign which added to Jolly’s prominence was the successful fight against the East-West link toll road, in which he used his council position to help build a campaign of direct action against the project.

Jolly has also taken a stand around important questions of racial and social justice. In 2017, for instance, he became the target of far right hatred after he backed calls by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to end council citizenship ceremonies and nationalist celebrations on Australia Day, a day which commemorates British invasion and the start of genocidal violence against Indigenous society. The city of Yarra was the first local council in the country to back this initiative.

Before becoming a councillor, Jolly was a widely known left wing activist because of the leading role he played in the year-long campaign to save Richmond Secondary College. In the early 1990s the school was being shut down, along with hundreds of other public schools, by the widely reviled Liberal premier at the time, Jeff Kennett. The struggle was a significant partial win, with the site being preserved for public education.

Jolly’s support in the local area was apparent in the 2018 state election results. In the booths that correspond to his council ward, the Victorian Socialists won between 11.46 and 18.23 percent of the vote.

Trade union support for the state campaign

The state election campaign garnered $61,850 in donations from trade unions for the Victorian Socialists’ Northern Metro campaign. This was in large part thanks to Jolly’s connections with trade unions from his time as a shop steward for the construction union, as well as his role providing political and material support as a councillor to a long-running dispute led by the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) at the Carlton and United brewery in the city of Yarra. The ETU donated $50,000 to the state campaign, the lion’s share of union donations. Speaking of his support for the campaign, ETU state secretary Troy Gray told The Age newspaper that Jolly has “been a tremendous advocate for working people and the disadvantaged for many years; his reputation in that area is second to none”.[8] It should be noted that this financial support didn’t reflect a shift to the left in the ETU. Unfortunately, at the same time as donating to the Victorian Socialists, the union was also re-affiliating to the Labor Party and ploughing millions into Labor’s state and federal election campaigns.

Not all union support was contingent on the candidate. The first to declare support and provide initial union funds for campaign t-shirts was the Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association (VAHPA). Craig McGregor, VAHPA’s secretary, is a long time socialist activist and former member of the Democratic Socialist Party, a forerunner of the Socialist Alliance. He was more inspired by the left unity element of the project.

The United Firefighters Union, the Maritime Union of Australia, the Meatworkers Union and the National Union of Workers (NUW) also donated to the campaign. The prospects of a socialist win appealed to the unions. After all, a socialist in parliament would be an unwavering supporter of any progressive industrial legislation the unions pushed for and another way to pressure the Labor government to deliver for workers.

Support from the NUW was particularly remarkable. While the donation was not particularly hefty, it was politically significant. In contrast to many Victorian unions, the NUW does not have a tradition of donating to electoral campaigns other than Labor’s. It is firmly affiliated with the ALP and has never toyed with political independence, unlike the ETU. Like most ALP-affiliated unions, the NUW requires its paid organisers to be members of the party and to support its campaigns on election day. However, agitation on the part of a number of left wing NUW organisers for the union to soften its approach successfully opened the way for union staff to campaign for the Victorian Socialists. Socialist Alternative trade unionists have also helped to create a bridge between the NUW staff and the organised socialist left, as a number of our members are delegates in distribution warehouses and call centres, and have led some important industrial disputes.

Another significant donation from the trade union movement was the $50,000 contributed to the Victorian Socialists for Tim Gooden’s campaign in the Western Victoria region. This money was dedicated to producing local TV and radio advertisements. It was hoped Gooden, a construction worker, leading Socialist Alliance member and former secretary of Geelong Trades Hall Council, could assist in pushing out right wing micro party representatives that have altered the balance of power unfavourably in the upper house towards the right.

The modest growth of Socialist Alternative

The modest growth of Socialist Alternative over the past decade was also part of our assessment that a serious electoral campaign was possible. Nationally, Socialist Alternative has just under 400 active members. Our largest district is Melbourne, with a combined membership of 170 across four branches, alongside a broader network of supporters. The organisation is made up of university students, workers – many of whom were recruited during their days on campus – and a smattering of socialist veterans from earlier periods of heightened struggle. Socialist Alternative members have gained political experience through intervening in student union and trade union structures and campaigns to challenge reformist and right wing political currents and argue for a class struggle approach. They also participate in and at times lead campaigns for refugee rights, against fascism, for LGBTI and women’s rights and for climate justice, among others.

The high level of political disengagement that characterises the political situation in Australia, and has for some time, places real limits on this growth and development. Building a modestly sized socialist organisation has required patience, determination, prioritisation of work among young people on campuses, and an understanding that it is primarily our political ideas, as opposed to our capacity to lead mass movements, which are crucial for growth. Keeping our feet firmly on the ground and being sober about what a group of our size can achieve has been critical for making the most of whatever opportunities exist to strengthen the forces of the revolutionary left.

Many on the left have criticised Socialist Alternative’s approach as sectarian. But when opportunities for genuine left collaboration presented themselves, with Victorian Socialists the most recent and high-profile example, Socialist Alternative members have been eager to seize the moment, building strong comradely relationships with collaborators. Furthermore, it has been the growth of Socialist Alternative that has been critical for leading and carrying out much of the mass work that a serious electoral campaign like Victorian Socialists depends on.

Political themes of the state campaign

In August 2018 the Victorian Socialists launched its “Manifesto”. It outlined a socialist approach to key political questions facing the state, including the need to stop privatisations and to bring key public services, infrastructure development and utilities back into public hands.[9]

Victorian Labor premier Daniel Andrews has a reputation for being left wing, but this is totally undeserved. In the lead up to his 2014 electoral victory, Andrews promised to defend disability services from privatisation, stating he would make sure that “under a Labor government, mental health care, disability care is not for profit and not for sale”.[10] A year later, he broke this promise and invited private providers to tender for contracts. In 2016, Andrews sold a 50-year lease for the Port of Melbourne, the largest container port in Australia, for $9.7 billion. In 2018, he sold off the Land Titles Registry office, the government agency which keeps records of who owns land across the state, information about mortgages, titles and leases, for $2.86 billion. The majority of infrastructure projects involve public private partnerships, including with firms that are virulently anti-union, such as construction giant John Holland.

Andrews also renewed the contract with multinational consortium Metro to run Victoria’s public transport system, providing $786 million a year in government subsidies to the company. This is despite substandard service and mounting consumer costs. In 2019, Metro posted a $29 million profit, up 140 percent from the previous year, which is paid out to shareholders instead of reinvested into the public transport network. During the campaign, Victorian Socialists distributed tens of thousands of leaflets at railway stations calling on the government to take public transport back into public hands, to invest over a billion dollars to expand and improve the network and to run this essential service for free.

Electricity prices have been spiralling out of control, rising at four times the rate of inflation over the past decade, putting immense cost of living pressures on working class people. Andrews acknowledges these pressures by taking swipes at Jeff Kennett’s privatisation of the State Electricity Company in the 1990s. But his solution is a contemptuous gimmick, a $50 voucher for using a government website that recommends the cheapest private electricity distributor. Andrews has refused to even countenance bringing electricity back into public hands. Such a move could not only address issues of equity, but also the urgent need to enact a radical transition to renewable energy to arrest runaway climate change.

Most striking of all has been the destruction of public housing amid chronic shortages. In Victoria over 82,000 are on wait lists, with 500 people joining the list every month. State investment in public housing in Victoria under Andrews is shamefully lower than under his Coalition predecessor.[11] The Victorian Socialists called for 50,000 new public housing dwellings to be built in five years in order to reduce the waiting list, and a five-year rent freeze to combat the ballooning cost of rent.

Instead of expanding public housing, Andrews has sold off nine walk-up public housing estates in lucrative inner city areas, long coveted by private property developers, under the guise of “renewal”. Most of the new development will be private apartments built and sold for profit, with a small proportion to be privately-run social housing with dramatically reduced bedroom numbers.

Instead of imposing rent controls, Andrews has introduced tokenistic “renters’ rights” legislation that is woefully inadequate given the scale of the housing crisis. To help build a fightback, the Victorian Socialists organised a public meeting on a public housing estate to discuss the attack on public housing residents and organised a protest with the support of the Greens at one of the threatened estates.

The failure of Labor to deliver for marginalised communities is particularly acute in Broadmeadows and the surrounding suburbs. The destruction of Victoria’s manufacturing industry and government neglect means the official unemployment rate in the area is around 25 percent. There is also a high concentration of migrants, particularly from the Middle East, Turkey and newly arrived South Asians, which welds together issues of class inequality and racism. In particular, police surveillance of the Muslim community and semi-regular “anti-terror” raids is the sharp edge of the Islamophobia.

Broadmeadows has also been one of the safest seats for Labor, with the primary vote reaching 70 percent at times. Frank McGuire, the sitting member, is notorious for doing next to nothing to fight for the interests of his working class electorate. There is a widespread understanding that the Labor party takes the area for granted, prioritising instead marginal seats in the south-east.

The Victorian Socialists ran Jerome Small, a construction worker, long-time anti-racism campaigner and Socialist Alternative’s industrial organiser, for the seat of Broadmeadows. He won 7.15 percent, including 11.60 percent at the Meadow Heights booth and 10.56 percent in Fawkner, a suburb that has a strong history of campaigning against toxic waste dumps.[12] It was an impressive vote from a standing start. The vote confirmed a central thesis of the campaign: that Victorian Socialists could find an audience among not only progressive inner city voters, but also blue collar working class residents. The Broadmeadows campaign focused on the need for government intervention to create jobs and to take on the corporate cowboys that operate in the area. Of particular concern are the waste dumps and chemical storage facilities which regularly catch on fire, injuring workers and blanketing the northern suburbs in poisonous smoke.

Victorian Socialists’ call to put politicians on a skilled worker’s wage, and its candidates’ commitment to only accept that wage if elected, connected with widespread hostility towards politicians in working class areas. The campaign also took a stand against the racist scapegoating of migrants, arguing that the blame for the lack of jobs and increased job insecurity, as well as overcrowded and inadequate infrastructure, lies with government and big business.

Racism and law and order hysteria, driven by the Murdoch press and the Liberal party, was the dominant issue of the state election campaign. The Sudanese community, especially the South Sudanese, have been particular targets. The swing towards Labor across the state, with Labor winning the two-party preferred vote by 57.3 percent to the Liberals’ 42.7 percent, was rightly seen as a repudiation of this scaremongering. However, instead of rejecting outright the frenzied calls to teach African youth a lesson, Andrews set up a special police task force to police the African-Australian community. He also called for the “full force of the law” to be brought down upon those who offend.[13] Likewise, police demands for more cops, greater powers and new militarised weaponry have been acceded to by the Andrews government. Police numbers have reached record highs on Andrews’ watch. The number of people incarcerated has also increased dramatically, fuelled partly by draconian new bail arrangements. According to Corrections Victoria, “there were 7,666 prisoners in the Victorian prison system on 30 June 2018. This represents an increase of 81.5 percent on the 30 June 2008 figure of 4,223”.[14] Labor’s strategy has been to capitulate to law and order hysteria in order to avoid being perceived as soft. In the process, they have helped to legitimise the core talking points of the Liberals and dragged society to the right on these issues.

In 2019, the Andrews government announced $1.8 billion in extra funding to expand the prison system, including building a new maximum security prison in Lara, which will be Victoria’s largest prison. To underscore the authoritarian qualities of the Andrews Labor government, children have been imprisoned in solitary confinement in adult prisons, with the government resisting all calls from advocacy groups to end this draconian punishment of young people. The Victorian Socialists campaigned against the divisive law and order agenda. Far from “keeping Victorians safe”, the government has trampled on our civil liberties, in a pattern that has become typical of neoliberal governments that have precious little positive to offer.

The state election campaign

The first hurdle for the campaign was to register the party with the Victorian Electoral Commission. To be registered, a party must sign up 500 members, who also need to return a confirmation letter by post. Victorian Socialists were able to do this on our first attempt. During the registration period, the party hosted a number of public events, including a launch party which attracted about 600 people and a number of volunteer training sessions to prepare people for campaigning. It was clear from early on that there was serious interest in the party that went beyond the organised left.

To coordinate the ground campaign, volunteers were divided into 11 lower house district groups. Each group took responsibility for letterboxing their district, doorknocking, early morning train station leafleting, postering and attending community-organised candidate forums. Victorian Socialists contingents were organised for a variety of trade union and social justice protests and all-in door knocking events involving about 120 people were held each weekend for eight weeks.

Almost the entire Northern Metro region was letterboxed, and some areas multiple times, with letters from our candidates, general propaganda and notices of upcoming protests and events. More than 95,000 doors were knocked and in excess of 300 hundred corflutes erected in front yards across the electorate. The campaign also spent money on professionally printed and distributed posters.

Victorian Socialists material reached people and neighbourhoods that have long been ignored not only by Labor but also by the Greens, who focus almost entirely on the gentrifying inner city areas. The Greens stand candidates in the outer northern suburbs but put next to no resources into campaigning there. We lost count of the number of residents in places like Broadmeadows who told us they had never had their doors knocked on by a political candidate in the decades they had lived in the area.

The reception Victorian Socialists got in these areas was encouraging. It was common for volunteers to return from doorknocking with accounts of meeting old trade union militants keen to regale them about this or that struggle, migrants who had not forgotten their more radical traditions from their country of origin, or even young workers who responded with immediate enthusiasm when we told them our candidate was a construction worker who would only take a skilled worker’s wage. These were by no means the majority of experiences, but they indicated there was a constituency to connect with. Of course, gaining a sympathetic hearing and winning the vote are different matters. For many left wing working class voters, Victorian Socialists at this stage lack credibility. They are obviously too weak to deliver reforms, and do not have established roots in the communities. But the fact that the message connects indicates that it is a matter of organisational strength, not the inadequacy of the political message, that is the major problem facing the left today.

Many of these discussions were had during the two weeks of early voting before the election on 24 November. More than 30 percent of Victorians cast their vote before election day, many in early voting centres. All day, every day, Victorian Socialists staffed these centres, at times having more campaigners out than any other party. On election day, 750 people handed out Victorian Socialists how-to-vote cards, at least two-thirds of these people from neither organised socialist group. It was the collective effort of hundreds of people, on a scale not seen for a number of decades in Australia, that secured Victorian Socialists’ impressive result across the electorate.

The state election results

The Victorian Socialists vote in the state elections was strongest in the inner city suburbs, not just in Richmond but also in Northcote and Brunswick. However, it also scored a respectable vote in Preston and Pascoe Vale, gentrifying suburbs characterised by a mix of working class, migrant and increasingly middle class residents. The Victorian Socialists were weakest in Bundoora, an area with a higher Liberal party vote, and also struggled in outer suburban growth areas like Yuroke, where the campaign was relatively weak on the ground. Everywhere the vote was strongest on the day of the election, reflecting the younger, more sympathetic demographic who vote on election day.

Legislative Council

District VS % of total vote VS % of early vote VS % of ordinary vote*
Broadmeadows 4.59% 3.87% 5.48%
Brunswick 5.77% 5.74% 6.32%
Bundoora 1.92% 1.54% 2.46%
Melbourne 3.66% 3.36% 4.38%
Mill Park 2.70% 2.91% 2.93%
Northcote 6.43% 6.53% 7.26%
Pascoe Vale 3.31% 2.89% 3.53%
Preston 4.00% 3.91% 4.27%
Richmond 8.12% 7.61% 9.89%
Thomastown 2.87% 2.52% 3.28%
Yuroke 2.17% 2.00% 2.47%
Total 4.20% 3.90% 4.82%

* Ordinary vote is the vote cast on election day.

Legislative Assembly

District VS % of total vote
Broadmeadows 7.15%
Bundoora 2.29%
Mill Park 3.91%
Pascoe Vale 3.03%
Preston 3.89%
Thomastown 2.79%
Yuroke 3.36%

The Northern Metro elected two representatives from Labor, a Green and a Liberal. The final fifth spot went to Fiona Patten from the Reason Party, a liberal progressive party connected to the sex industry. Fiona Patten’s Reason Party is largely the rebranding of the Sex Party, the party she led when she was elected to parliament in 2014 off the back of a preference deal struck by Glenn Druery. This involves micro parties paying Druery, an infamous wheeler and dealer, cash in return for helping them to harvest preferences from other micro parties irrespective of the dubious and right wing politics of the parties involved. Patten’s preferencing in 2014 not only secured her a spot in parliament, they also helped elect a number of right wing politicians, including Shooters and Fishers and the Liberal-aligned Vote 1 Local Jobs. The Victorian Socialists refused to engage in this unprincipled practice, preferencing instead only progressive parties.

In parliament, Patten has developed a strong relationship with the Labor government by voting frequently for its agenda. This relationship paid off. During the election campaign the Labor party directed some trade union members to don Reason t-shirts to hand out how-to-votes for Patten, although this was driven more by their attempt to use Reason to divert progressive voters from supporting the Greens in hotly contested inner city electorates. When it looked like she was going to lose her seat, the Andrews government offered her a job. Patten didn’t deal with Druery in 2018. But her preferencing still involved swapping preferences with right wing parties. Despite receiving 3,355 fewer first preference votes than the Victorian Socialists, preferences helped Patten to leapfrog over Jolly to win the final spot.

In the Western Victoria region the result was disappointing, with Victorian Socialists winning only 0.72 percent.[15] The Animal Justice Party instead took out the final spot with 2.71 percent. There are a number of factors that contributed to the low vote. The demographic composition of the electorate, with large swathes being politically conservative farming communities, is an important part of the picture. But a central issue was the small numbers involved in the ground campaign in the lead up to the election, especially for the size of the electorate. It starkly revealed that decent funding and a good, relatively high profile candidate alone is insufficient for making a mark on the electorate. The numbers of doors knocked on, letters distributed, corflute/yard signs erected, posters plastered on street poles and so on is absolutely decisive in being able to connect up with the left wing sentiment and discontent with the major parties that does exist among layers of people in Victoria. In Western Victoria, the Victorian Socialists bit off more than they could chew.

This was also highlighted more clearly with the vote obtained for the Victorian Socialists in the Western Metro region. In the western suburbs the demographics are similar to the Northern Metro, with high levels of support for the ALP and a growth in support for the Greens in the inner city areas. It is far from being a Liberal party stronghold. Here the Victorian Socialists appeared on the ballot but conducted no ground campaign. In return they received a paltry 0.57 percent, showing once again there’s no automatic constituency for socialist politics without a campaign.

The federal election campaign

The Victorian Socialists founding members’ conference in February 2019 resolved to keep the project going.[16] Despite failing to elect Jolly, most were encouraged by the serious campaign and strong results.

To build on the work undertaken in 2018 and to continue to build the profile and identification of left wing voters with the Victorian Socialists, the party stood candidates in three electorates in the northern suburbs in the 2019 federal election. In Wills, which includes the area that makes up the state seats of Brunswick and Pascoe Vale, the Victorian Socialists stood Moreland councillor and Socialist Alliance member Sue Bolton. In Cooper (formerly Batman), which includes parts of the state seats of Richmond, Northcote and Preston, they stood Kath Larkin, a delegate and former women’s officer with the Rail, Tram and Bus Union and member of Socialist Alternative. In Calwell, which includes Broadmeadows, Yuroke and parts of the Western Metro, they stood Jerome Small.

The short time frame of the campaign, so soon after the state election, was a challenge. The Victorian Socialists still managed to knock on around 55,000 doors and letterbox the entirety of the three electorates. Over 200 corflutes were erected and over $42,000 was raised from individuals and events. Only $700 was contributed this time by trade unions. Without our ticket being fronted by Jolly, and probably more importantly, without a realistic chance of winning, the unions were much less enthusiastic. On the day of the election the Victorian Socialists mobilised around 500 people to hand out how-to-vote cards.

Federal election 2019

Lower house district VS % of total vote VS raw vote VS % of early vote VS % of ordinary vote
Calwell 4.57% 4003 4.17% 5.25%
Cooper 4.23% 4129 4.30% 4.79%
Wills 4.52% 4345 4.25% 4.79%

A few things of note about the federal campaign. The first is the crisis in the Victorian Greens, which lost a third of its members over the past year. The crisis was most striking in the seat of Cooper, where the Greens only narrowly lost in 2016. They had won the primary vote but lost narrowly once preferences were distributed. Their candidate had been Alex Bhathal, a widely known and popular local figure with a reputation for campaigning for refugee rights.

During the March 2018 by-election there was a nasty smear campaign, led by right wing sections of her own local branch, accusing Bhathal of bullying. These were leaked to the Murdoch press, sabotaging her chance of success against a new ALP candidate, Ged Kearney, the former ACTU president. In the bitter aftermath, and with the smear campaign continuing, Bhathal quit the party. The electoral consequences for the Greens were obvious. In the 2019 federal election, the party suffered a negative swing of 13.38 percent in Cooper. This crisis in the Greens presented important openings for the Victorian Socialists to win, over time, left wing voters to our side.

Second, the Victorian Socialists got their best result in Calwell, the most heavily migrant and working class electorate, repeating the success of the Broadmeadows campaign in 2018. This is highly significant, given we were up against a crowded field and once again had fewer resources available compared to the inner city. In 2018, there were only four candidates standing in Broadmeadows, leaving few options for voters to cast a protest vote. In 2019, there were eight candidates in the seat of Calwell, mostly a disturbing proliferation of far right and right wing parties, including the Citizens Electoral Council, Fraser Anning’s Conservative Party and the United Australia Party, all clearly hoping to tap into the deep alienation. The Victorian Socialists beat all parties of the right bar the Liberals. The party enjoyed strong results not only in Broadmeadows, with 10.13 percent in Campbellfield, 9.57 percent in Meadow Heights and 9.15 percent in Coolaroo, but also in parts of Craigieburn, with 8.94 percent in Craigieburn West and 6.53 percent in Craigieburn South.

The terrible toxic fires were once again a central issue. An explosion at Bradbury Industrial Services, a toxic chemical warehouse in Campbellfield found recently by the Environmental Protection Authority to be storing an illegal amount of waste, blasted the northern suburbs once again with poison. This was the third serious fire in two years. Victorian Socialists members confronted the authorities and the media at a community information briefing and press conference, serving up difficult questions and expressing outrage at the failure to protect the health of working class communities. Behind the headlines are the chronic asthma attacks and the ill health from the long term toxic load, as well as the fear and resignation of so many given the sheer number of industrial fires and inaction on the part of the authorities.

Jerome Small and a number of Tamil and Sri Lankan Victorian Socialists members organised a meeting with the workers at the Bradbury site, most of whom were Tamil refugees on temporary protection visas, publishing their accounts of the conditions at work and their attempts to organise a union. Workers at the site were completely ignored by the mainstream press for weeks after the blast. A snap protest was also organised by Small and a team of locals outside the Hume City Council, involving dozens of people. This protest was picked up by local newspapers and mainstream nightly news, which did several live crosses. The quick response, oriented to organising collective action and placing the authorities under pressure, was a small example of what a more deeply rooted socialist force in the area could accomplish. Although modest, hopefully the small campaign went some way to challenging the sense of resignation and built a sense amongst local residents that they deserve better and that together we can fight to challenge the powers that be.

Conclusion

The Victorian Socialists have worked hard over the past year and a half to establish the beginnings of a serious left wing challenge to the Labor party and the Greens. The scale of both campaigns has been unprecedented for the Australian left when compared with socialist electoral efforts over the last couple of decades. Thousands of people have helped the party in myriad ways, from spruiking on doorsteps to stuffing letterboxes with campaign material or donating hard-earned cash to the cause. The party has not managed an electoral breakthrough, but the respectable results in the state and federal campaigns have shown that there are tens of thousands of people who are willing to vote for an openly socialist ticket. This is a solid basis to continue to press forward towards its key strategic goal, to shake up Victorian politics by electing a socialist rabble-rouser to parliament.

[1] Andrew Tillet and Phillip Coorey, “Albanese lays blame on attacking ‘rich’”, Australian Financial Review, 30 May 2019.

[2] See Ben Hillier, “A Marxist critique of the Greens”, Marxist Left Review, 1, 2010, Spring.

[3] Paul Karp, “‘Lee Rhiannon is as much Corbyn as I am Santa Claus’: Bob Brown lashes Greens senator”, The Guardian, 14 August 2017.

[4] Anne Davies, “Lee Rhiannon loses Greens’ top NSW senate spot to Mehreen Faruqi”, The Guardian, 25 November 2017.

[5] Victorian Electoral Commission, “State Election 2018: Northern Metropolitan Region” https://www.vec.vic.gov.au/Results/State2018/NorthernMetropolitanRegion.html.

[6] Daniel Taylor, “What do Marxists say about parliamentary elections”, Red Flag, 7 May 2019.

[7] “Socialist Party set to stand in Richmond”, The Socialist, 1 April 2010.

[8] Adam Carey, “Socialists hope union donation will secure jolly good election result”, The Age, 3 May 2018.

[9] Victorian Socialists, “Manifesto”, https://www.victoriansocialists.org.au/manifesto.

[10] Steph Price and Jerome Small, “Union protests Vic Labor’s NDIS privatisation”, Red Flag, 22 May 2017.

[11] Bernard Keane, “Victoria’s public housing investment is bleak and getting worse”, Crikey, 27 May 2019. https://www.crikey.com.au/2019/05/27/victorias-public-housing-investment-bleak-getting-worse/.

[12] VEC, “ State Election 2018: Broadmeadows District”. https://www.vec.vic.gov.au/Results/State2018/BroadmeadowsDistrict.html.

[13] Richard Willingham and Benjamin Preiss, “Andrews warns gangs: ‘We are coming after you and you will feel the full force of the law’”, The Age, 14 March 2016.

[14] Corrections, Prisons & Parole, “Correction statistics: quick reference”, 30 June 2018. https://www.corrections.vic.gov.au/prison/corrections-statistics-quick-reference.

[15] VEC, “State Election 2018: Western Victoria Region”. https://www.vec.vic.gov.au/Results/State2018/WesternVictoriaRegion.html.

[16] During 2018, the Victorian Socialists were run by an interim executive body. The founding members’ conference in February 2019 elected a new leadership, adopted a constitution and a code of conduct for members.