The ALP: what class of party?

by Ben Hillier • Published 12 March 2011

The Labor Party is in crisis. Its branch structures continue to fracture, its active membership continues to shrink, its working class vote continues to decline and year after year the party shifts further to the right. Can it in any sense still be regarded as some form of workers’ party? This article will argue that the answer is a qualified “yes”; the key to understanding the character and practice of the party remains its structural connection to the working class – albeit indirectly – via the trade union bureaucracy. It will then briefly discuss a couple of the practical ramifications stemming from Labor’s decline and of designating it a capitalist workers’ party.

The ALP is the only workers’ party to gain mass support in Australia. From the very beginning, however, its political character was contradictory. On one hand, while there were members of the middle classes, particularly in rural areas, involved in the establishment of the party, it was mostly union officials and worker activists who set up the urban party machine – an extra-parliamentary organisation whose purpose was to secure the election of workers’ representatives to parliament.[1] The party built up an apparatus of hundreds of branches, which enabled tens of thousands of worker members to have a say over who would contest parliamentary elections. It commanded the loyalty of millions of working class voters, who viewed their vote as a vote for the class. Unions representing hundreds of thousands of workers affiliated to the party. Union officials played a prominent role on executive bodies and at party conferences.

The founding of Labor was an acknowledgment that workers as a social class have interests which are in some way opposed to or different from those of the capitalist class. Workers saw that their struggle was not confined to the workplace but had to deal with broader structures of capitalist power. It was recognition of the need for political independence, a rejection of reliance on the good favour of establishment politicians. The ALP machine had the power to expel a prime minister or premier from the party for not standing up for workers’ interests (as happened in 1916 and 1931) in the way a straight out liberal capitalist party would not. It was this structural connection to the working class movement, which Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn refer to as the party’s “material constitution”, that originally gave Labor the character of a workers’ party.[2]

On the other hand, while this conscious recognition of a need for working class political independence was a step forward, the result was the partial co-option of the class into the institutions of the system.[3] The political context of the formation of Labor was one of major industrial defeat – the maritime and shearers’ strikes. A bitter lesson of these defeats was that industrial struggle on its own was not enough to guarantee victories for the class; the turn to politics signalled a retreat to relying on parliament and the state to guarantee workers’ rights within the system of capitalist exploitation, rather than an orientation to overthrowing the system entirely.[4]

This orientation bound the party to the logic of capitalism. Just as a boss insists on higher profits as a precondition for higher wages, the Labor leaders who accepted the parameters of capitalism maintained that economic growth was a precondition for wealth redistributing reforms.[5] When the economy faltered – where growth, investment and profits declined, and unemployment increased – time and again it has been so much the worse for the working class: the property rights of the rich have been left unchallenged and policy focus directed to restoring favourable returns for business. Even during those times of economic growth when wealth redistributing reforms have been on the agenda, the ALP leadership, whose ultimate aim is to win office, could find a tension between its aim “to obtain majority support [of voters] while at the same time giving a privileged place in its organisation to a particular interest group [unions]”.[6]

The ALP leadership always attempted to resolve this constituency contradiction by winning over the “middle ground” – the least class-conscious workers, the middle classes, sections of capital – and the advanced sections of the working class to a nationalist program. The party provided a narrative of national unity for a society riven by class conflict and division. In so doing it did not eliminate the source of conflict. Rather, it often acted against the interests of its core working class constituency, on the side of hostile class forces. The habit of betraying the aspirations of its working class base in the task of providing the best conditions for capital accumulation has been a central feature of Labor in government since its earliest days. This gave it the character of a capitalist party.[7]

Labor therefore had a dual nature: it was a capitalist party in its program and leadership, a workers’ party through its material constitution. It was a capitalist workers’ party. Is this still the case today? The party has changed significantly over the last 120 years. The organisation has shifted so far to the right that at the last federal election leading figures were promoting Labor as the party that stood for lower corporate taxation and less generous paid maternity for workers than did the Liberals. At the same time it is no secret that the party apparatus has suffered significant degeneration over decades. What happened? There is a broad current of thought that the 1980s marked a qualitative transformation. The evaluation is not confined to one side of the political spectrum. On the right, former federal leader Mark Latham claims that all aspects of the party’s organisation became subsumed under “a political oligarchy under the control of a handful of powerbrokers” at this time.[8] On the left, the Socialist Party[9] describe the process from the mid 1980s as:

[A] counter-revolution…paralleled internationally inside other social democratic parties, against both left wing policies and internal democracy… By the early 1990s it was clear that the social democratic parties and Labor Parties of the world had undergone a qualitative transformation from being bourgeois workers’ parties into being bourgeois parties.[10]

Before judging the accuracy of these assessments, it is worth going over the decline of the party in a number of areas – the level of branch activity and democracy within the party, the class composition of the membership and leadership and the embrace of neoliberalism – to see just how significant it is.

Disintegration of the branch apparatus

Branch meetings are a great way to connect with like-minded people in your own local community. Full of vibrant discourse, your local branch meeting can provide an avenue for stimulating policy discussion.

Australian Labor Party website[11]

What incentives could one offer a prospective ALP branch member…? Influence policy? Help choose MPs? Interesting branch meetings? Making a difference? (One would need a black sense of humour to even suggest it).

Barry Jones, former ALP National President

Face the facts: Labor is stuffed. Its branches are rorted and its membership base is a joke… Despair on all fronts. Party democracy, policy debates and knock-around types – we are bankrupt at every turn. Time to call in the receivers.

Mark Latham, former federal ALP leader

Key figures in the party have attested, in the most stinging fashion, to the decimation of the party’s branches. Former federal parliamentary leader Mark Latham has described the party’s branch structure as “an empty shell”.[14] His sorry tale of attending a meeting of the Hichinbrook branch (western Sydney) in 2004 illustrates the depth of the problem: the leader of the federal party arrived to find only six members of a branch allegedly hundreds strong. Those gathered had to ring around in an attempt to make quorum.[15] Rodney Cavalier, a former education minister in the Wran and Unsworth governments in NSW, today writes of a situation direr than even Latham observed six years ago: the closure of 101 branches in NSW alone over the decade to 2009. In Victoria, the party seems to have fared better, but profound problems exist: in 1984 there were 350 registered branches, today that number has been reduced to 226 – a decline of more than one third.[16] It is hard to say precisely how things are nationally, but on releasing the party’s 2010 National Review, former federal senate leader John Faulkner admitted, “Our local branches are closing across the country on a monthly basis”.[17] Party estimates show somewhere in the order of 1,000 branches nationwide, but this figure should be taken with a large grain of salt (see appendix). Cavalier claims that of those branches in existence, many “are phantoms or paper frauds”.[18]

It appears to be the case that the recent branch closures are underpinned by what is a serious collapse in the party’s active membership. Former Hawke government minister John Button and former federal senator Robert Ray have both attested to once healthy branches across the country now attracting only handfuls of members.[19] In 2005, 39,000 ballot papers were distributed to party members for the election of the national president. Only 19,000 were subsequently returned.[20] The previous year, Latham declared ALP rank-and-file forums moribund and made a rough estimate of 7,500 “real members” (those who spend at least two hours per week attending to party matters) around the country.[21] According to Cavalier, fewer than 1,000 are in any way active in NSW;[22] of those, possibly half are “devoted in the way that was characteristic from the 1890s until about the 1980s”; and of those 200-300 are on the payroll of the party, leaving several hundred seriously committed rank and file activists in Australia’s largest state.[23] The National Review was just as frank, painting a picture of an active party membership that bears no resemblance to the official membership figures:

Today, the Labor Party struggles to staff polling booths, even in held seats. The 2010 election saw many important polling booths around Australia unstaffed or understaffed for the first time in living memory.[24]

ALP membership decline is not simply a recent phenomenon – the numbers never recovered from the right wing Democratic Labor Party (DLP) split in 1954-57. Nationally, party membership peaked at around 75,000 in the early 1950s, after which it dropped to less than 45,000.[25] In 1929 the NSW branch claimed 24,361 branch members. Eighty years later NSW party membership is 15,385.[26] In Victoria, figures show a total membership of 24,104 in 1948. By 1978 urban membership had declined by about one third and rural membership by around three quarters.[27] In 1992, Victorian party membership stood at just 8,000.[28] While national membership has been stable in absolute terms over the last 50 years, proportionally the party has lost significant ground as the total population has more than doubled. The decline in the NSW branch from 1929 to 2009 has been of the order of nearly two-fifths over a period where the state’s population grew nearly threefold.

The class composition of the party has also changed. In terms of the leadership, at the time of federation 63 per cent of Labor parliamentarians came from a blue-collar working class background. By 1941 it was about 40 per cent. Today professionals from the party and union apparatus, the vast majority of whom have not known life as a worker, dominate the party.[29] At the same time, the membership is composed of a seemingly invisible majority of pensioners, unemployed and students – representing 60 per cent of members in NSW and 71 per cent in Victoria.[30] Evidence suggests that many of these are stacks. In the state seat of Broadmeadows in Victoria for example, Socialist Left faction secretary Andrew Giles recently sent to faction members an email in which he noted that “98 per cent of the membership is concession or level 2, and…stacking has effectively killed local activism”. Membership records show only 28 of 506 financial members earn over $32,000 a year.[31] Further to this there has been a trend decline in Labor’s working class vote since the 1980s.[32]

The party thus described would be unrecognisable to those who founded and built it. Contrast the current situation with the activity surrounding the first elected Labor candidate in Melbourne, John Hancock, in the 1891 Collingwood by-election:

Every boot factory in Collingwood was turned into a Hancock Committee room, and hundreds of men, with lanterns and rolls, went from door to door, appealing to the working folk, whether unionists or not, to lay aside for once all other considerations and go as one man for the Labor candidate.[33]

In the 1950s some workers still joined “because it was the right thing to do”.[34] Even into the 1970s people were joining out of a sense that the party could or would change things. There would be very few young workers today who would join the party for these reasons.

A programmatic crisis and the collapse of the left

Different explanations are given for the party’s decline. Broad social changes such as the spread of urban suburbs across tens of kilometres, the fragmentation of working class communities and the individualisation and atomisation of society as a whole has had an impact.[35] So has the introduction of public funding for political parties (1984), which has affected political organisations around the world, increasing the concentration of power within parties, increasing their reliance on the state and making less relevant other sources of income, such as membership fees.[36] Race Mathews, a former member of both the Whitlam and Cain governments, has argued that these sorts of organisational problems – specifically the seeming transformation into an American-style professional party with little use for or involvement from the rank and file – lie at the heart of the problem of modern Labor.[37]

However, many of the changes – both social and party specific – are not only causes but also consequences of political developments and decisions, something the ALP leadership seems incapable of understanding.[38] The atomisation of society is not simply a function of the increase in technologies that cater to individual entertainment and the growth in wealth that allows the indulgence in such technologies, but also a function of the erosion of the union movement’s strength, the ascendency of neoliberal politics (see below) and planning strategies that promote home ownership in far flung under-serviced suburbs. Similarly the ALP’s increasing reliance on the capitalist media to promote itself, and on the capitalist state for funding, are not simply organisational questions. The party’s integration into Australian capitalism – its success at proving itself to the rich and powerful – means that it has become better able to draw favourable coverage from the capitalist media. On the other hand, the experience of Labor in government has had a negative impact on the party’s base, which is taken for granted time and again by a leadership intent on ruling in the interests of capital. The very process of ruling for the rich has meant that fewer from the party’s base are prepared to “get the message out”. This in turn increases the reliance of the party on the mainstream press for publicity, and the state apparatus and business world for financial support.

So there has been a political degeneration that has come side by side with the organisational degeneration of the party. Arguably, it was connected to world developments more so than simply domestic ones. The end of the long post-war economic boom occurred just as Labor regained office federally after being in opposition for 23 years. During that time, a model of state-regulated capitalism had delivered low unemployment, strong growth and rising living standards in both Australia and much of the industrialised world. In the mid-1970s this model of regulated capitalism fell into crisis; so too did the political model that based itself on it.[39] The subsequent period was characterised by higher unemployment, lower rates of growth and lower rates of profit than existed in the 25 years after World War II. This put a dampener on the project of social democracy the world over. In the eyes of party leaders, progressive reform was predicated on growth; lower growth meant lower expectations. Reviving the capitalist economy from the 1970s stagflation and more frequent crises meant attacking the working class relentlessly. In the 1980s, Labor forcefully brought neoliberalism and worship of the market to Australian politics, began actively dismantling the Australian post-war settlement, undermining the award system and promoting productivity deals and enterprise bargaining.[40] The era of reformism without reforms, which began at the end of Whitlam’s term in office, was in full swing.

The collapse of the Soviet Bloc proved a blow at the ideological level. With totalitarian Stalinist regimes disintegrating in Eastern Europe the forces calling for unrestrained free-market capitalism – their hand already strengthened by the failure of Keynesian-style state intervention in the 1970s – grew stronger still. As Tony Judt remarked in 2010, social democracy was stripped of its ideological narrative and left “something of an orphan”.[41] The political degeneration is not captured simply by the shifting of the party to the right and the emergence of a crisis of identity, but by the collapse of the party’s left. In the mid-1980s Kim Carr, a leading figure from the Victorian Socialist Left faction, defined the ALP left as “a group that finds itself organisationally most at ease in a position somewhere between the parliamentarians and the communists, although perhaps closer to the latter than to the former”.[42] In fact, their political outlook was almost identical. The Socialist Left faction of the party was as disoriented by the events of 1989 as the crumbling Communist Party. The faction, at least in Victoria, still has rules that commit it to “the socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange” and opposing “any drift away from the ALP’s natural and historical constituency, namely the working class”.[43] Yet while there were still alternative programs (like the alternative economic strategy) put up by sections of the left in the mid-1980s, the left existed in name only by the 1990s. In 2005, Barry Jones noted that there were no significant public policy debates at any national conference from 1991 onwards.[44] Cavalier is more forthright, arguing that

No force describable as a “left” has engaged in active contest within the ALP over ideas, policies or a framework to respond to unfolding issues, since the mid-1980s. On objective criteria Robert Gordon Menzies was well to the left of any minister in contemporary Labor governments. Menzies believed in high rates of tax for high income earners…centralised wage fixing, legislated protection of union rights and the right to bargain collectively.[45]

That former PM Paul Keating could address the NSW ALP state conference in October 1999 and declare without challenge, “We brought a new word in to the Labor lexicon – competition. Competition is our word, not their [the Liberals’] word”, illustrates the absence of any fighting opposition.[46] In fact, leading members of the left – Brian Howe, Gerry Hand, Jenny Macklin, Julia Gillard – became the ones presiding over some of the worst attacks on working class living conditions when in government.

Is the transformation qualitative or quantitative?

The above snapshot indicates that Labor’s crisis is today profound; serious questions about the party’s ability to revive are now being asked. But is the degeneration so advanced as to have totally undermined its character as a form of workers’ party? A party’s class character will be constituted in various ways: the composition of its membership, leadership and voter base; its organisational connections to the various classes; its platform and program; and its practice. The problem is how to prioritise these factors. Is there some hierarchy in which one factor is more important than the others in determining the precise nature of a party? If so, which factor or factors take precedence? Which aspect, if any, of Labor’s degeneration provides proof of a qualitative change in the nature of the party?

First, let’s look at the ideological and programmatic question. Although the ALP’s federal platform was for a long period formally committed to socialism, the parliamentary leadership have never drawn up or fought for an anti-capitalist program.[47] The adoption of neo-liberalism was certainly a shift to the right by the party. It was an embrace of a hard neoclassical economic philosophy the principles of which (that society is constituted by individuals alone, that the pursuit of individual self-interest is a moral good, hostility to collectivism etc.) were directly at odds with those of the labour movement. Keynesianism, dominant in the party’s thinking since the 1940s, seemed fundamentally different from neoliberalism because it fitted with the broader Laborist program of civilising capitalism. As Rick Kuhn has argued, it “held out the prospect of a domesticated capitalism, without the need for class conflict”.[48] Neoliberalism by contrast represented a move by the ruling class to assert their domination and increase corporate profitability as the boom years came to an end. But neoliberalism was no definitive break from Labor tradition – Keynesianism was not “left wing” economics; it was an orientation that was best suited to providing a favourable environment for capital accumulation in a particular historical period. As such, it was an economic philosophy central to the program of the Liberals as well. Today people note with disdain the consensus between Labor and the Liberals as though it is a definitively new development. But a broad consensus existed throughout the post-war period; it was just that during a period of long economic boom, the ruling class was not demanding the sort of attacks on the working class as were called for from the late 1970s. As Mark Davis has written:

Both [Labor and the Liberals] shared a broad commitment to…the maintenance of protectionism, the underwriting of state-owned public broadcasting, the provision of universal education and health services, and a “welfare state” expedited via the principles of Keynesian economics…[49]

If we were to accept the arguments put forward by reformist socialists that Labor’s move to privatisation and deregulation do represent a fundamental break with “Labor values”, we are still left with the reality that Labor has always shown itself just as capable – sometimes more so – of attacking workers: Fisher promising to support the Empire to the “last man and last shilling” in World War I; Scullin presiding over the Premiers’ Plan austerity program during the Great Depression; Curtin introducing wage-pegging during World War II to cut living standards; and Chifley sending in the army against striking coalminers in 1949 are the more notable examples, but there are many more.[50] As noted above, having a pro-capitalist program gave Labor the character of a capitalist party, but this did not definitively override the party’s structural linkage to the working class movement.

What of the changing class background of the leadership? It signifies a weakening of the party’s connection to its base, as Rodney Cavalier laments:

We used to be able to draw [parliamentary candidates] from all the factories in Australia and all the mines and the railways and the ships and the trucks, the waterfront, the gangs working in the open air. And then you supplemented that gene pool with a growing army in the 1960s and 70s of adherents in the liberal arts, teaching, the law and other professions… And then we had the ranks of union officials who came exclusively from those who work for a living. So they had worked on the wharves, and they had worked as shearers… But each of those sources of supply has dried up, and I mean totally dried up.[51]

Cavalier overstates here but even so, is the ALP less of a workers’ party because it now has apparatchiks instead of former train drivers presiding over the attacks on workers and the poor? The decline of Labor’s working class vote is also significant, and is another indicator of the growing distance between the party and the class. However, it is still the case that around 63 per cent of unionists vote Labor.[52]

The decline in the party’s active membership is more important. Yet crisis after crisis indicates that the problems are not simply recent phenomena, but have been recurrent for over a century. In the period after the First World War the party “seemed simply to be stagnating. Its inactivity and lack of spirit showed…”[53] A NSW executive report in 1927-28 “admitted that the affairs of many of the 500 branches, which the party now claimed, were in chaos”.[54] Cavalier’s own study of three Sydney branches covering the 1950s to the 1970s found that attendance at monthly branch meetings was generally only 25-50 per cent of members.[55] In 1965, an internal document outlining recommendations of the general secretary for party reorganisation noted that individual party membership was “appalling” and that some electorates contained only “a pitiful handful of devoted stalwarts to keep the party alive”.[56] The following year Race Mathews wrote of the state of the Victorian branch that it was an ageing and shrinking organisation suffering a collapse of membership “encompassing more or less equally numbers and morale”.[57] Just over a decade later, after a period of growth and decline in the Whitlam era, the ALP held a National Committee of Inquiry into the state of the organisation. The final report to the ALP national executive noted that branches had a seemingly non-existent impact in the community and were failing to recruit people.[58]

This doesn’t mean that the crisis this time is neatly comparable to those of the past. The reality, by almost all accounts, is that the current crisis is the worst in the ALP’s history. With key preselections either won through stacking or imposed by the national leadership, and with the parliamentarians asserting their autonomy from the branches in the policy realm, the undermining of democracy within the party has further undermined its connection to the class. However, neither this crisis nor those that preceded it should be that surprising. As Stuart Macintyre has noted, Labor was never a mass party on the same scale as the European social democratic parties and has always had a smaller number of branch activists.[59] At its height the party had a membership of around 75,000 members. The British, German and Swedish parties all claimed more than 1 million; Austria and Italy were not far behind.[60] Further, branch control over the party would not necessarily lead to a pro-worker program. Kim Carr has painted a picture of seemingly healthy left wing branch apparatus in the late 1920s:

The Socialist Sunday Schools, the lecture programmes, the study circles, the co-operatives, the newspapers, pamphlets and debating teams… Within Melbourne, the Victorian Socialist Party, through the Australian Labor Party branches and unions, provided a focal point for both social (such as weddings, picnics and the like) and political action for the left.[61]

Yet the branches were often on the right of the party – the situation in Victoria prior to the DLP split being a case in point. When the factional struggles in the union movement culminated in the 1955 expulsion of Bob Santamaria’s parliamentary supporters, scores of branches subsequently closed (as noted above), their lists heavily laden with anti-communists who would prefer to preference the party of the ruling class over a left wing Labor Party. Even in the 1970s the left could be hostile to the branches, seeing them as controlled by middle class elements, as opposed to the unions, which were more highly regarded as the party’s true link to the class. In any case the branches never held genuine power over the party program and the ALP’s connection to the class has never been forged solely or even primarily through its branch structure.

The trade union leadership is still central

The decline of the branches, along with the other changes noted above, signifies a weakening of Labor’s connection to the class. If there were no way that workers could assert their interests against the leadership, then we would have to conclude that it does not in any sense have the character of a workers’ party. However, the role of the trade union leadership in the party apparatus is still the key to understanding the contradictory nature of the ALP. Union officials are neither workers nor capitalists, but they provide a special link to the working class. The union officials have a particular social role: mediators between capital and labour. On the one hand they are elected representatives of the working class; they can within limits be responsive to their base, attempting to solve class grievances in the workers’ favour. On the other they are removed from the shop floor and look for negotiated settlements that keep their own position as mediators viable. Both their social position and their world view are given by and in accord with the realities of the capitalist system. Caught between labour and capital they mostly preach harmony, their existence defined by doing a deal. In this way they serve the interests of the capitalist class by holding back working class struggle at decisive moments: once the deal has been done they have to ensure that the working class does not exercise its collective strength, which for the union officials is not the means through which society can be transformed and class domination ended, but is a means to get a deal enshrining class domination, albeit on somewhat more favourable grounds for the union. The union bureaucracy maintains the ALP’s character as reformist, both against leftist elements that wish for a more radical approach (such as those associated with the Socialisation Units in the 1930s) and against the more radical right (like the Groupers in the 1950s). Caution has to be exercised in navigating these connections between the party, the union leadership and the class. Jim Percy warned a quarter of a century ago that:

The ALP’s relationship to the ranks of the union movement is very indirect. If you don’t recognise that and if you overemphasise the question of the trade union base of the Labor Party, you can miss the fact that the ALP represents the trade union bureaucracy, not the working class. That’s a step towards the view that the Labor Party is some sort of genuine workers’ party, albeit a flawed one. That, in turn, can lead to a slide away from the view that the fundamental attitude of revolutionaries towards the ALP is one of opposition.[62]

However Percy maintained a one-sided analysis of the union bureaucracy, which led him and the (Australian) Socialist Workers’ Party (precursor to the Democratic Socialist Party/Perspective and today’s Socialist Alliance) to the erroneous position that the material constitution of the party was irrelevant to its class character. So they concluded that “The ALP has never been a working-class party…it always has been a liberal bourgeois party.”[63]

It is important to see that while the union leadership and the parliamentarians who lead the ALP constitute a social layer that is pro-capitalist, the union leadership is also elected by and, on some level, accountable to the rank and file of the workers’ movement and therefore subject to pressure from it. The pressure brought to bear by the class on the union leadership is different from the pressure that can be put on parliamentarians. All parties are subject to the general external pressures that the labour movement can muster through exercising their industrial muscle, through protest action more generally and even through effective lobbying efforts. But the ALP, unlike the Liberal Party, is subject to significant internal pressures and ruptures precisely because union officials inhabit the ranks of the party and have a significant vote via union affiliations.

Despite the union leadership in many respects and many instances being disconnected from its membership, despite the fact that union leaders often do not come from the ranks of the class, despite the fact that Labor’s parliamentary leadership is today more confident to ignore the wishes of the union leaders, and despite the fact that relations between the unions and the party are at a low ebb, the union leadership still plays an important role in the ALP. The affiliation of unions is one aspect of it, limiting the absolute autonomy of the parliamentary leadership both organisationally and ideologically. The latter constraint is today very weak, but probably best expressed in the ongoing Labor commitment, at least rhetorically, to a cooperative or collaborative industrial relations regime. For example, even when neoliberalism was being unleashed in the 1980s, the commitment to arbitration and awards remained; the government had “a reforming zeal for deregulating financial markets but a stalled caution about deregulating the labour market”.[64] Organisationally, the union officials’ control of the numbers at state conferences gives them significant power in the party. As Cavalier notes:

Control of the floor translates into control of the conference agenda, control of the proceedings and control of the atmospherics. The group which controls conference will win the positions elected by conference, most importantly the officers of the party, the ruling executive and the delegates to national conference. Control at conference delivers control of the party between conferences and a dominating position at the conference that follows.[65]

Cavalier reckons that because the unionised workforce represents only 20 per cent of the total workforce, the argument that the union leadership today provides some organic link to the class is “sophistry worthy of belief in a flat earth”.[66] Yet at the time of the formation of the ALP, union density was 21.5 per cent in NSW and 23.2 per cent in Victoria; Australia-wide it only reached 31 per cent in 1912.[67] It is true that the context of long term union decline makes the situation different today. Working class militancy collapsed from the early 1980s as the union leadership cooperated with the Labor government in implementing its Prices and Incomes Accord. From the post-war highs of the 1970s, industrial struggle continually declined, reaching historic lows in the last decade. Union membership suffered its first absolute decline in at least 50 years in the 1990s. Density has dropped from over 50 per cent in the 1980s to around 20 per cent today.[68] With the labour movement in retreat the parliamentarians, under less pressure both from workers themselves and from the union leadership within the party, have much more scope to simply ignore the wishes of union leaders. In part, it was this decline in struggle and the abject failure of the union leadership to stand up for their members’ interests that were two of the enablers for the mess that has led to the conclusion that the ALP has been transformed: Hawke and Keating shifting to the right, running roughshod over any opposition and ignoring the wishes of the rank and file.

But the contemporary relevance of the union movement and the ability of the union leadership to respond to the needs of the membership – whose needs by and large coincide with the needs of the rest of the class, unionised or not – should not be underestimated. Union membership in Australia is close to 2 million. There is no greater network of voluntary organisations of any type, let alone ones designed specifically to defend and promote the interests of the working class. When industrial militancy is low, the union leadership can still move to protect their base when push comes to shove. Even in the most cynical sense (maintaining the numbers for ALP conference delegate spots), there can be some opportunistic compulsion to look out for the membership. Leaked US embassy cables actually paint a vivid picture of the relationship between the union leadership and the party. The embassy’s observations include that the ACTU uses Labor parliamentary secretary Richard Marles’s office in Canberra when Parliament is sitting; their evaluation that unions “hold disproportionate political influence in federal and Victorian politics”; and that the officials “continue to play a significant role in the formulation of national policies that can impact the United States”.[69]

There are different ways this influence plays out. Most obvious is the question of preselections. For example in South Australia you generally will not get Labor preselection without the endorsement of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union (LHMU) or the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA); in Queensland, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) calls the shots. More important is the way the unions, when they choose, can discipline the parliamentary leadership. That this is still the case today is illustrated by the crisis provoked by the NSW ALP’s attempt to privatise the state-owned electricity sector in 2008. When the parliamentary party tried to ride roughshod over a state conference decision opposing privatisation, there was a union-led rebellion that effectively forced the parliamentary leadership out. Whatever the underlying motives of those involved, the party machine was (temporarily it turns out) acting in the interests of the class. Nothing resembling this could happen in the Liberal Party, the leadership of which, lacking connections with the labour movement, faces no comparable internal obstacles to putting forward anti-worker policy.

It is because of this vital link that the characterisation of the ALP as a capitalist workers’ party is still valid today.

Does it matter?

The daily experience of workers is one of exploitation, and this has an ambiguous impact on their consciousness. Exploitation and continued subordination to the boss can inculcate feelings of powerlessness, submission, adaptation to capitalist norms and a belief in the apparent imperatives of the system. But they can also breed a basic sense of class identification… This class identification…has drawn workers together for the purposes of mutual defence and has distinguished the working class from other classes, most especially the capitalist class, in a relationship of mutual antagonism.

– Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn[70]

There are a number of practical ramifications that flow from the preceding argument. Recognising that the ALP is a capitalist workers’ party allows us to see that the party is a vehicle that, in a limited and contradictory way, expresses workers’ consciousness of themselves as a class, but which at the same time is a key obstacle to the further development of that consciousness. The ALP remains the organised expression of reformism in the working class even in an era of neoliberal counter-reform. The decline of the ALP needs to be seen in this context, as it has both positive and negative aspects. One major positive is that the increasing distance between Labor and its base – the loosening of the party’s grip on the class – means that in any future revival of working class militancy it will be much easier to win broad layers of workers to revolutionary politics. There is also less of an obstacle – in the form of an organised layer of shop stewards supporting the ALP within workplaces – to winning over that audience. The negative is that the party’s decline has been part of a broader retreat of the labour movement, and a general depoliticisation of society in more recent times.

Over the last 40 years the proportion of people who have voted for the same major party over their lifetime has dropped from almost 70 per cent to less than 50 per cent. Over the period from the 1950s to the 1980s the major parties’ first preference vote averaged about 92 per cent; from 1990 to the present, it has dropped to an average of 84 per cent.[71] With the space to the left of the ALP widening since the 1980s but with the two parties suffocating genuinely left wing electoral alternatives through their domination of the political system, this fraying of the two-party system has generally been seen as a positive development by sections of the left. The reasoning is that any other force that manages to find air can potentially breathe life into the political world. So in the wake of the hung parliament resulting from the 2010 federal election, left wing activist and academic Tim Anderson argued that:

Disillusionment with the two right-wing parties has created an outcome where a few populist MPs and the Greens will have a chance to demand some institutional change. That is not enough, but it is important… [T]here is room for a range of new voices…including all those of us who have been disillusioned with conventional politics.[72]

The opening of this space represents, according to Anderson, “a great opportunity for social change”. In certain situations, breaking open the two-party system would be a step forward. In the US, for example, two openly capitalist parties dominate the system. The electoral system is such that left electoral alternatives are seen to take votes from the Democrats. All the pressure on the US left is to both capitulate to the Democrats at election time (several months every two years for mid-term elections and up to six months every four years for presidential elections) and to not build any left wing electoral alternative. Those who don’t fall into line are accused of assisting the right.[73] In the US context, the slogan “break with the two-party system” is part of a specific argument about breaking (to the left) from the liberal establishment. In Australia, the slogan can be appealing at a time when the political mainstream is so right wing. Yet it doesn’t take into account the fact that here, the fraying of the two-party system is in part a reflection of the general depoliticisation and low level of class struggle. The positive (Labor’s decline opening a space to the left) is accentuated to a degree that downplays the negatives: firstly that the decline of the ALP today does not represent either a decline of reformist consciousness or an increase in class consciousness; secondly that none of the alternatives that have arisen (independents, the Democrats, the Greens) have either an orientation to the working class, a strategy for rebuilding the labour movement, or even a basic hostility to class domination. In this context the argument is a capitulation to liberal pluralism as it is just a celebration of, as Anderson writes, “a range of new voices”.

Building a pro-working class alternative to the ALP is the most pressing of political tasks. It requires not simply political space, but a positive vision. There is obviously much disagreement not only about the vision, but also the path to get there. Those associated with the Socialist Alliance have long called for the trade unions to disaffiliate from Labor “and throw their weight behind the construction of a new political party genuinely dedicated to defending working class interests”.[74] The Socialist Party similarly calls for unions to break with the ALP and form a new workers’ party.[75] These calls glide over a dilemma. The social character of the party leadership in a party based on the unions is intrinsic to the party’s makeup. In Graham Hudson’s words, unions are the “battalions of the party”; the union officials comprise “something of an officer corps” within it.[76] That is, the ALP is structurally based on the union bureaucracy. A new party built by the union leadership would not be fundamentally different from the ALP. It would have similar characteristics, a similar material constitution and a similar program in office.

To recognise this is not to repudiate the idea – or dismiss the reality if it were to occur – of a new workers’ party. It would clearly be a step forward if a section of union officials broke to the left and formed a new party that could galvanise and organise all those wanting to fight; the building of a genuine left alternative to the ALP will likely result from such a development. But it is one thing to understand the reality, quite another to grasp the limitations. The ALP shows us that the problem of bureaucracy is not simply ideological but material. The party again and again betrays its working class base not because the party ties the union leadership in a pro-capitalist straightjacket, but because the union leadership’s social role as mediators means that they are inherently pro-capitalist. No doubt the ALP intervenes in the labour movement at times to “pull the unions into line”, but it is the union leadership that is the key organised promoter of reformism (i.e. pro-capitalist ideas) in the working class – that’s why parties based on it are the organised expression of reformism. The union leaders are, to use an old fashioned Marxist phrase, the labour lieutenants of capital. The ramifications of this are that a revolutionary party could be born as a result of a split from a party controlled by union officials, but not through its transformation: the union leadership cannot simply be displaced from within without the party apparatus being ripped to pieces.[77]

Further to this theoretical consideration, there is a tactical one. Those who declare that there is no qualitative difference between Labor and the Liberals overstate the space on the left of Labor. As Murray Smith, who has written that social democratic parties like the ALP are “finished” as working class parties, argues:

The task before us is precisely to build new socialist parties with the aim of “occupying the whole political territory”… For many years reformism was completely dominant and revolutionary organisations existed as a minority. The possibility of building mass parties to the left of the reformist parties did not exist, so long as workers followed those parties. It exists now.[78]

Clearly there is more space to the left of social democracy than previously. But the idea that, because the leaderships of the reformist parties have steered them to the right and because neoliberalism is now ascendant, the entire space formerly inhabited by parties like the ALP is completely open terrain, is a wild exaggeration. In various countries, despite differing strategies adopted by the far left, the bulk of workers have continued to stick with social democracy in one form or another.

The final thing to say relates to voting and elections – the sphere of mass politics the working class most frequently engages with. The world is not fundamentally changed through parliament. But the majority of workers still in part believe that it is. Revolutionaries need to relate to these people – in particular to the most class-conscious workers. It is true that workers rarely vote Labor out of enthusiasm today. Anecdotal reports from workplace after workplace suggest that pretty much no one will go in to bat for them. In fact a significant minority of the party’s voting base now vote for the Greens.[79]

But it remains the case that those workers who habitually vote Labor do so out of a residual loyalty based on class identification: any worker with an ounce of consciousness will simply not countenance the idea of voting Liberal, no matter how squalid Labor has become. The party’s heartlands are still working class suburbs and a large majority of unionists vote Labor because they see that it is different from, and believe that it should be better than, the Liberals. It is not simply workers who identify the difference. The ruling class overwhelmingly votes Tory, with primary votes over 80 per cent for the Liberals in exclusive suburbs like Vaucluse and Dover Heights in Sydney and over 70 per cent in Melbourne’s Toorak.[80] Clearly a distinction can be made between Labor voters and Liberal voters. That difference is not accidental, but reflects the material differences between the parties. That real difference means that it is not unprincipled to preference or call for a vote for Labor.

None of this is an argument to campaign for Labor, to be soft on the party or to congratulate people for voting ALP. But it does bring to the fore the entire strategic approach of the united front, the method “of winning the masses in action”.[81] The purpose of trying to relate to class-conscious workers is to break them from reformism. However to break people from reformism, it has to be understood not only that reformist consciousness has a material basis in the lived experience of the working class[82] but in addition that illusions in the ALP also stem from the party’s real connections to the class. Smith argues that “we can ‘skip over’ the traditional parties of the working class, which means that the united front is not posed today in the form that it was in 1922, and indeed much later…because first of all they have themselves very little ability to mobilise and secondly they are not capable of using their authority as in the past to block workers’ struggles, to demobilise.”[83] This is another exaggeration, but contains an element of truth, particularly in Australia where Labor is leading no one in action.

In the electoral sphere, however, the majority of workers follow Labor. That can’t simply be ignored. Further, Labor’s organic connection to the working class via the union bureaucracy means that developments in the labour movement will necessarily be felt within the party. The conclusion that we can “skip over” doesn’t take into consideration the possible reinvigoration of parties like the ALP, or at least the reconstitution of something resembling a left within them, that may accompany an upsurge in industrial struggle. This will particularly be the case if the ALP is in opposition. Even without such a revival, the party can be a pole of attraction in opposition when the conservatives, as in Britain, are on the attack. For all these reasons, it would be – it is – a mistake to completely write Labor off.

In reality, those organisations, such as the Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Party, that say there is no qualitative difference between the ALP and the Liberals actually end up trying to have two bob each way. On the one hand they say the ALP and the Liberals are both out and out capitalist parties; on the other they call for Labor to be voted for over the Liberals. Yet if the left is prepared to call for a vote for one openly capitalist party, on what basis can they rule out the possibility of voting for the other (the Liberals) at some point in time? While being ultra-critical of Labor will hardly cut you off from the working class today in the way it might have decades ago, holding a position that they are actually no different from the Liberals will undermine your ability to relate sensibly to some of the best in the class.


The decline of the ALP has significantly altered the political landscape in Australia. The party cannot reverse many of its historic transformations, some of which reflect genuine changes in the makeup of Australian capitalism, others the more thorough integration of the party and the unions into the running of the system. Yet Labor maintains the character of a form of workers’ party – a capitalist workers’ party – through its indirect connection to the working class via the trade union bureaucracy. Class-conscious workers still have a residual identification with Labor, which revolutionaries need to relate to if we are to build a mass party to successfully challenge Labor’s betrayals.

Appendix: The frustrations of trying to be accurate

As ALP membership figures are seldom made public, and because the figures come from different sources – many of them party insiders with political agendas – it is almost impossible to know their reliability. The party itself doesn’t seem to actually know how many members it has, with the 2010 Review giving conflicting national membership figures of 45,000 on one page and somewhere in the order of 38,000 on another.[84] Similarly the decline over the last eight years in the total number of branches is reportedly not as large as the decline in NSW alone over the last 10 years.[85] Despite what seems to be the futility of being definitive about member numbers, I have – foolishly perhaps – put together a membership table using various sources. I have also included the membership chart from the Review, which provides figures that conflict with the last two columns of the table.

Table 1: Reported ALP membership

Pre 1955*






























































































* Pre-1955 NSW = 1929, Victoria = 1948, national = 1954; 1990/94 is given because of conflicting reports as to when the Victorian branch reached 16,000 members; 2002/05, 2002 = state figures, 2005 = national figure.

** Barry Jones also gave the figure of 36,000 in 2005, see Jones, “Labor can win if it tackles cultural and structural problems”, p.4.

Sources: Ian Ward, “The changing organisational nature of Australia’s political parties”, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 29 (2), 1991, table 2, p.157 (pp.153-174); Scott, Fading loyalties, p.30; Abjorensen, “The parties’ democratic deficit”; Bramble and Kuhn, Labor’s conflict, p.177; Dean Jaensch, Peter Brent and Brett Bowden, “Australian Political Parties in the Spotlight”, report no. 4 prepared for the Democratic Audit of Australia, Australian National University, table 4.3, p.55.

[1] D.W. Rawson, The organisation of the Australian Labor Party 1916-1941, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Melbourne, 1954, p.2.

[2] For a more detailed exposition of this and the following, see Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn, Labor’s conflict: big business, workers and the politics of class, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2010.

[3] Raymond Markey, The making of the Labor Party in New South Wales, 1880-1900, New South Wales University Press, 1988, p.190.

[4] This is not to say that there have not been challenges to this program. There have (the One Big Union movement, the Socialisation Units, the attempts of the socialist currents in the party to have socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange put in the party’s program, rather than an objective in its platform, the victory of the Trades Hall Reds over the Australian Workers Union in the executive elections in NSW in 1923, for example); but the party has never come under the definitive leadership of an anti-capitalist grouping.

[5] Kim Carr, Left wing factional mobilisation: the ideological traits and methods of operation of the left within the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party, 1929-1932, unpublished Masters thesis, University of Melbourne, August 1984, pp.15 and 27.

[6] Rawson, The organisation of the Australian Labor Party, p.386.

[7] For a thorough exposition see Bramble and Kuhn, Labor’s conflict.

[8] Mark Latham, The Latham diaries, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2005.

[9] The Australian section of the Committee for a Workers’ International. Most of the sections of the CWI were previously actively involved as members of social democratic and left parties around the world.

[10] Stephen Jolly, The case for a new workers’ party, Socialist Party, Melbourne, 2006, pp.19-20.

[11] Australian Labor Party, “How We Work”,, accessed 24 November 2010.

[12] Barry Jones, “Labor can win if it tackles cultural and structural problems”, speech to unspecified ALP forum, 2005, p.4, 0504%20Barry%20Jones.pdf, accessed 24 November 2010.

[13] Latham, The Latham diaries, p.104.

[14] Latham, The Latham diaries, p.40.

[15] Latham, The Latham diaries, p.370.

[16] Graham Hudson, Political party organisation, management and factions: a study of the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Melbourne, October 1999, p.200; Victorian ALP, “Branches”,, accessed 24 December 2010.

[17] Sid Maher and Ewin Hannan, “Unions get say on ALP candidates”, The Australian, 19 February 2011.

[18] Rodney Cavalier, Power crisis: the self-destruction of a state Labor party, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2010, pp.47 and 49.

[19] Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn, “The transformation of the Australian Labor Party”, joint social sciences public lecture, Australian National University, 8 June 2007, pp.4-5, 20Kuhn%20Transformation%20of%20the%20ALP%20web.pdf, accessed 30 December 2010.

[20] Norman Abjorensen, “The parties’ democratic deficit”, Inside Story, 10 February 2010,, accessed 29 December 2010.

[21] Latham, The Latham diaries, pp.185 and 398.

[22] Cavalier, Power crisis, pp.47 and 189.

[23] Cavalier interviewed by James Carleton, “Labor in Crisis”, Background Briefing, 5 February 2006,, accessed 30 December 2010.

[24] Steve Bracks, John Faulkner and Bob Carr, “2010 National Review: report to the ALP National Executive”, Australian Labor Party, February 2011, p.12,, accessed 19 February 2011.

[25] Andrew Scott, Fading loyalties: the Australian Labor Party and the working class, Pluto Press, Leichhardt, 1991, p.30.

[26] Rawson, The organisation of the Australian Labor Party, p.93; Cavalier, Power crisis, pp.189-190.

[27] P.R. Hay, “Labor vacates the bush: the eclipse of working class values in Victoria’s western district”, Labour History, No 54, May 1988, table 2, p.71.

[28] Hudson, Political party organisation, p.170.

[29] Dean Jaensch, The Hawke-Keating hijack, Allen and Unwin, North Sydney, 1989, table 3.1, p.51; Bramble and Kuhn, “The transformation of the Australian Labor Party”, table 1, p.6.

[30] Scott, Fading loyalties, pp.24-50; Cavalier, Power crisis, p.47; Bramble and Kuhn, Labor’s conflict, p.177.

[31] Richard Willingham, “Branch-stacking claims in prize seat”, The Age, 25 January 2011.

[32] Bramble and Kuhn, Labor’s conflict, figure 1, p.179 and figure 2, p.181.

[33] Collingwood Observer, 23 April 1891, passage cited in Frank Bongiorno, The People’s Party: Victorian Labor and the Radical Tradition 1875-1914, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1996, p.34.

[34] Bob Garrick, ALP life member, quoted in Brett Evans, The life and soul of the party: a portrait of modern Labor, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2001, p.25.

[35] Leighton James and Raymond Markey, “Class and Labour: The British Labour Party and the Australian Labor Party compared”, Labour History, No 90, May 2006, p.29.

[36] Ingrid van Biezen, “Political Parties as Public Utilities”, Party Politics, 10 (6), 2004, pp.701-722.

[37] Race Matthews, “Labor’s malaise and what to do about it: mending the ALP”, paper presented at the ALP Kooyong Federal Electorate Assembly Workshop, 6 March, 2005, p.1, Dr%20Race%20Mathews.pdf, accessed 24 November 2010.

[38] So the party refuses to acknowledge that Labor is seen as a party of betrayal, instead reassuring itself: “[T]he problems faced by Australian Labor are not unique. They are common to most traditional political parties in western societies in the postindustrial era…our party is facing historic challenges because of social and cultural changes.” See Bracks, Faulkner and Carr, “2010 National Review” pp.11 and 13. This view of inevitable organisational decline cannot account, however, for developments such as the British Labour Party’s massive growth between 1994 and 1997 from 265,000 to 407,000 members as expectations of a Labour government grew after almost two decades of Tory rule. See Charlie Kimber, “Labour’s organic crisis”, International Socialism Journal 106, London, April 2005.

[39] Donald Sassoon, One hundred years of socialism: the West European left in the twentieth century, I.B.Tauris, London, 2010, p.446.

[40] Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training, Australia at work: just managing?, Prentice Hall, Sydney, 1999, pp.12-26.

[41] Tony Judt, Ill fares the land, Penguin, New York, 2010, p.150.

[42] Carr, Left wing factional mobilisation, pp.37-38.

[43] The Socialist Left Structure, mimeo n.d. [The Rules], reads: “[T]he Socialist Left believes that the 1921 objective of ‘the socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange’ should be the guiding philosophy on which the ALP bases its struggle. Further that the Socialist Left contribution to ALP policy and strategies must: 1) Represent the needs and oppose any drift away from the ALP’s natural and historical constituency, namely the working class; 2) Oppose opportunistic processes and strategies; 3) Develop class-consciousness in the Australian community; 4) Oppose imperialistic war and the causes of war; and 5) Be maximised in reality by a clear commitment to setting up procedures which ensure the actual implementation of our policies.” Quoted in Hudson, Political party organisation, pp.118-119.

[44] Jones, “Labor can win if it tackles cultural and structural problems”.

[45] Cavalier, Power crisis, p.40.

[46] Paul Keating quoted in Evans, The life and soul of the party, p.14.

[47] Following the ALP I make here a formal distinction between the platform, which is the set of principles and aspirations and which is endorsed by the party conference, and the program, which draws on the platform but is prepared by the parliamentarians and given for each three years of a Labor government. See, for example, Australian Labor Party, Australian Labor Party platform, constitution and rules, approved by the 36th National Conference, R.F. McMullan, Canberra, 1984, p.iii.

[48] Rick Kuhn, Paradise on the instalment plan: the economic thought of the labour movement between the depression and the long boom, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sydney, August 1985, p.247.

[49] Mark Davis, The land of plenty, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2008, p.19.

[50] See Bramble and Kuhn, Labor’s conflict.

[51] Cavalier, interviewed by Carleton, “Labor in Crisis”.

[52] See Andrew Leigh, “How Do Unionists Vote? Estimating the Causal Impact of Union Membership on Voting Behaviour from 1966 to 2004”, Centre for Economic Policy Research, discussion paper No 516, March 2006, pdf/DP516.pdf, accessed 26 January 2011.

[53] Rawson, The organisation of the Australian Labor Party, p.43.

[54] Rawson, The organisation of the Australian Labor Party, p.131.

[55] Bramble and Kuhn, Labor’s conflict, p.80.

[56] Cyril Wyndham, “Australian Labor Party Re-organisation: recommendations of the general secretary”, ALP internal document, 1965, p.16, http://www.laborfirst., accessed 2 January 2011.

[57] Race Mathews, “What is to be done”, document circulated to ALP members, 1966,, accessed 2 January 2011.

[58] ALP National Committee of Inquiry, “Report and Recommendations to the National Executive”, Australian Labor Party, March 1979, pp.33-34,, accessed 24 November 2010.

[59] Stuart Macintyre, “Decline and fall?”, in David Burchell and Race Mathews (eds.), Labor’s troubled times, Pluto Press, Leichhardt, 1991, pp.20-21; note also Raymond Markey writing of the NSW Labor Party in the 1890s: “The picture which emerges is one of a skeleton branch structure with a strong and active executive”, Markey, The making of the Labor Party in New South Wales, p.191.

[60] John Callaghan, The retreat of social democracy, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000, table 8.1, pp.90-91.

[61] Carr, Left wing factional mobilisation, p.36.

[62] Jim Percy, “The ALP, the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the 1984 elections”, document based on a report to a September 1984 plenum of the national committee of the Socialist Workers Party,, accessed 26 January 2011.

[63] See Steve Painter, “Labor and the Fight for Socialism”, Socialist Workers Party, 1988,, accessed 26 January 2011; Percy, “The ALP, the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the 1984 elections”.

[64] Paraphrasing Paul Kelly, Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training, Australia at work, p.21.

[65] Cavalier, Power crisis, p.31.

[66] Cavalier, Power crisis, p.31.

[67] Raymond Markey, “Explaining Union Mobilisation in the 1880s and Early 1900s”, Faculty of Commerce – Papers, University of Wollongong, 2002,, accessed 30 January 2011.

[68] Tom Bramble, Trade Unionism in Australia: a History from Flood to Ebb Tide, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2008, figure 1.1, p.7, figure 1.2, p.8, figure 1.3, p.9, figure 7.7, p.202.

[69] Philip Dorling and Nick McKenzie, “Unions’ power closely watched”, The Age, 9 December 2010.

[70] Bramble and Kuhn, Labor’s conflict, p.12.

[71] Mark Rodrigues and Scott Brenton, “The age of independence? Independents in Australian Parliaments”, Parliamentary Library Research Paper, No 4, 2010-11, 21 September 2010, pp.1 and 10.

[72] Tim Anderson, “Creating the democracy we don’t yet have”, Green Left Weekly, 23 August 2010.

[73] See, for example, Barry C. Burden, “Ralph Nader’s campaign strategy in the 2000 US presidential election”, American Politics Research, 33 (5), September 2005, pp.672-699.

[74] Steve Painter, “Labor and the Fight for Socialism”.

[75] Jolly, The case for a new workers’ party, pp.19-20.

[76] Graham Hudson, Political party organisation, pp.69-70.

[77] Bramble and Kuhn, Labor’s conflict, p.53.

[78] Murray Smith, “The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front: A reply to John Rees”, International Socialism Journal 100, London, October 2004.

[79] Mainly the white collar sector but still a relatively small portion of blue collar workers. For example, among the Victorian branch of the ETU (which, during the 2010 federal election gave the greatest backing to the Greens of any union in the history of the party), internal union polling had 10 per cent of members voting Green – still less than the national average for the whole population, but not insignificant – while 50 per cent were Labor voting. See Ben Schneiders, “Angry blue-collar union considers spurning ALP”, The Age, 14 May 2010.

[80] Mick Armstrong, “Is there a difference between Labor and the Liberals?” Socialist Alternative, No. 160, October 2010, p.16.

[81] Leon Trotsky, “The question of the united front”, February 1922,, accessed 20 February 2011.

[82] Tony Cliff, “Economic roots of reformism”, Socialist Review, 6 (9), June 1957,, accessed 31 December 2010.

[83] Murray Smith, “The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front: A reply to John Rees”.

[84] Bracks, Faulkner and Carr, “2010 National Review”, p.13 and figure 1, p.10.

[85] Bracks, Faulkner and Carr, “2010 National Review”, p.9 and figure 2, p.10.

Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?

Tom Bramble, drawing on decades of research and active involvement in the labour movement, argues that 35 years of passivity and class collaboration rather than an emphasis on militant, class struggle unionism is the core reason our unions are in crisis.

Left populism versus revolutionary Marxism: Debating economic strategy in Australia

Rick Kuhn critically reviews the economic strategies promoted by the left in Australia, in particular the left nationalist ideas popular in the 1970s and ’80s. He argues that such reformist strategies offer no threat to capitalism and no way forward for the working class.

The making of Labor

Mick Armstrong reviews The Making of the Labor Party in New South Wales 1880-1900 , a text which challenges the standard assumptions of most labour historians about the origins of the ALP.