Saturday 23 March 2013

Australian Labor in Crisis – go back to where it all began.

With the unravelling of the Left in the ALP in the 1980s.

This case study of the “making and unmaking” of the Labor Left in Leichhardt Municipality in the 1970s and 1980s presents insights into the changes in social democracy in Australia during this period – part of the global changes related to the post-Keynesian capitalist economy, the rise of the ecology and other social movements and the onset of the post-Cold War (and new Hot War) world.

In Australian Labor, the opportunity to build a vibrant diverse and combative Left within the party during these two decades, drawing on the energy of the new social and union movements, failed. The Left, particularly in the dominant NSW branch, chose to fight the Right on their own terms, becoming co-opted into branch-stacking, rulemongering, parliamentarism and the creation of an inward-looking, authoritarian, factionalism. This was to become dominated by the emergence of a party political caste of full-time political professionals and union bureaucrats.

Much of this was played out in the febrile politics of inner Sydney, where this case study is based.

In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of people sought membership of the ALP branches of the inner-Sydney municipality of Leichhardt. These were people whose politics had been shaped by the social movements of the times and by the hopes and disappointments associated with the Whitlam Government. The political clashes between this Left-leaning new membership and the conservative working class, and working-class-made-good, patriarchs of the local Labor Right have become legendary. Yet as the fruits of victory were in reach, the Left began to fall apart in often bitter conflict. By the beginning of the 1990s many of these participants, in what has sometimes been called the ‘middle-classing’ of Labor, had deserted the branches and switched their political allegiance to independents, Democrats and the Greens. This is the story of this turbulent transition told from the point of view of the members at the branch level, and the ALP political life they sought to construct. As the Australian Labor Party struggles with its identity and purpose at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Basket Weavers and True Believers provides a timely case study of the recent making, and unmaking, of the Labor Left. 

Basket Weavers and True Believers, is based on my PhD and my own party activism, and is freely available on Google Books or in hard copy from Gould’s Book Arcade, Sydney (some may also be still available through Gleebooks, Sydney).

A curious historical footnote: One of the episodes in the book is the preselection contest, which resulted in the Left’s Peter Baldwin replacing the Right’s Les MccMahon for the federal seat of Sydney in 1980. I was one of the three Left candidates – the minor one on the far Left campaigning as a “Socialist for Sydney”. Our preferences along with those of the other Steering Committee Left candidate Ann Catling were essential to getting Baldwin elected but my own vote was quite small (around 35 out of over 600). One thing I didn’t mention in the book was that one of those votes came from an activist in Young Labor at the time: Anthony Albanese.

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