In the wake of Bill Shorten’s defeat in the 2019 federal election, commentators speculated that the Australian Labor Party might be on the verge of its own “Miliband Moment.” Although a Corbyn-style left-wing takeover was not on the agenda, many still believed that the ALP was on the cusp of a leftward shift, and that the leadership of uninspiring machine men would soon be a thing of the past.
Nearly two years later, however, Labor has shifted to the right under the leadership of a seasoned apparatchik, Anthony Albanese.
Before rebranding himself as a cool dad MP for Sydney’s inner west electorate of Grayndler, Albanese cut his teeth in Labor’s ruthless New South Wales (NSW) Head Office. It’s a fairly typical origin story. But in one important respect, Albanese is different. Every federal ALP leader in living memory has been from the party’s right. By contrast, Albanese hails from what is referred to internally as the “hard” wing of the NSW Socialist Left faction.
But Albanese did not rise to the leadership following a rank-and-file rebellion. In fact, ordinary ALP members never got the chance to vote. Following his loss to Shorten in the 2013 leadership ballot, Albanese instead curried favor — both publicly and privately — with members of the parliamentary Right.
In the wake of Shorten’s 2019 loss, the other candidates withdrew, eliminating the need for a pre-selection contest in which party members would have half the vote. Instead, the Right simply appointed Albanese to the top job, continuing a long tradition of transactional politics that Albanese himself helped to pioneer.
Basket Weavers Against the Labor Right
Despite its name, collaborationism is embedded in the DNA of the Socialist Left. For three decades, it has been at the vanguard of a long-term power grab inside the Labor Party, helping to disempower members and preserve the power of the ruling Right faction.
The NSW Left was not always so invested in transactional politics. In the early 1980s, led by the future MP for Sydney, Peter Baldwin, rank-and-file members of the Left — at the time called the Steering Committee — waged branch warfare against the ruling right-wing machine.
Paul Keating, then the party’s president, intervened, warning of a Bennite revolt that could destroy the ALP. He described inner-city members as people who “believe in wider nature strips, more trees and [who want to] go back to making wicker baskets in Balmain.” Keating was also worried that the left current was quickly taking over from the ALP’s Catholic old guard.
The “Balmain Basket Weavers” were on the radical left. They were also highly organized — and throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, they were winning, taking over, and transforming inner-city party machines that had been right-wing for half a century.
Although this quiet revolt began earlier in Sydney’s suburbs, conflict escalated when it reached the Labor Party’s inner-city heartland. For example, at a meeting of the Balmain branch in 1977, the Right, realizing they had lost the meeting, turned off the lights and threw a fire extinguisher through a window. In the chaos that ensued, they stole the branch attendance book. The Left were nonplussed — they continued the meeting and took control of the branch.
The Right responded with escalating violence. This came to a head when gangsters bashed Baldwin to within an inch of his life in his Marrickville home. Tom Domican, a well-known Sydney figure who worked as a driver for Labor’s Marrickville mayor John Harrison, was accused of organizing the attack.
Even if that particular attack wasn’t ordered by the Right faction, everyone blamed them. Baldwin’s face, injured beyond recognition, appeared on the front page of Sydney newspapers. The ensuing public outcry saw the Right concede the inner city.
The following year, the Left scored its greatest triumph when Baldwin won a vote to deselect the right-aligned member for Sydney, Les McMahon, and took his place in federal parliament. Baldwin’s platform echoed that of Tony Benn in the British Labour Party. He promised to revive the “dead letter” of the ALP’s commitment to socializing the means of production by advocating for the nationalization of industry as part of the next Labor government’s program. He argued that industrial democracy would be crucial to this goal.
Once Baldwin opened the floodgates, members of the socialist caucus in Sydney’s inner west replaced every right-wing MP, one by one, until they had all been driven out. The Socialist Left crusade was victorious in NSW. The Baldwinites then set their sights on the party as a whole, and encouraged the Left to organize a grassroots-led democratic revolution in every state branch. Their goal was to transform the ALP, from below, into a socialist party.
Albanese’s Coup: the ”Hard Left”
These successes did not last. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and the NSW Steering Committee changed its name to the NSW Socialist Left. At the same time, Anthony Albanese, the driving force behind a now-dominant sub-faction known as the “Hard Left,” took over the Socialist Left as a whole, overthrowing the Baldwinites. The Hard Left has dominated the faction ever since. One of Albanese’s first acts as faction leader was to call a truce with the Right.
With the support of unions formerly associated with the Communist Party of Australia, Albanese’s “hard-left” moniker appeared to be legitimate. But in truth, the Hard Left was driven almost purely by personal rivalry, ambition, and outright contempt for the party’s rank-and-file.
The Hard Left was opposed by the rather less fortunately named Soft Left, as the Baldwinites were now dubbed. The real difference between the two sub-factions lay in their sources of power. The oppositional Soft Left was run from the bottom-up by a legion of suburban branch activists, while Albanese’s Hard Left cohered around an aristocracy of union secretaries, political staffers, lobbyists, and student politicians, mainly graduates from the elite University of Sydney.
The Hard Left consolidated their clique’s power at the expense of rank-and-file members. This marked the end of the Left’s strategy of contesting party positions and pre-selections by mobilizing the ALP membership. From that point on, the leadership of the Left collaborated with the Right, turning instead to a strategy of transactions.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Albanese and the Hard Left worked with the Terrigal sub-faction of the Right, associated with MPs like Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi, who were later exposed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption for their attempt to defraud the public to the tune of $60 million.
Albanese’s transactional approach required the use of central administrative mechanisms to deselect grassroots Left MPs. Popular left-wing candidates were purged all over New South Wales, especially in the Left’s heartlands, the suburbs of western Sydney, and the industrial cities of Newcastle and Wollongong.
The purge was carried out under the infamous “N40 rule,” which allowed the state administrative committee to suspend local preselection ballots “in extraordinary circumstances” (in other words, whenever they found it convenient.) When in force, the N40 rule gave power over pre-selections to an electoral college with equal representation from the administrative committee and the local electorate executive.
Because the Hard Left and the Terrigal Right comprised 85 percent of the administrative committee, their bloc vote meant that leftist candidates could be deselected, provided they could find one or two plants or defectors on party executives in local electorates. Aside from a few heroic episodes in which the rank-and-file held firm and defeated N40 deselection proceedings, local party democracy suffered a rout.
During the 2000s, grassroots Left ALP activists campaigned against N40 deselections, rendering the mechanism less effective. Consequently, the Right and the Hard Left resorted to an even less democratic deselection mechanism. They used the “plenary powers” granted to the ALP’s National Executive to simply impose candidates by top-down resolutions. They exercised this power with little regard for the health of the party on a local level.
The most notorious example came when the National Executive enforced the deselection of grassroots Left MP for Newcastle, Bryce Gaudry, in favor of the Right’s Jodi McKay. The Newcastle branches, previously the largest in New South Wales, imploded. Around a hundred thirty members resigned or were expelled. Unsurprisingly, by 2011 the ALP had lost the seat. For the first time since Australia’s federation in 1901, the Liberal Party won with McKay.
What crime had Gaudry committed that could justify such political carnage? He blew the whistle on the Labor government’s secret plans to privatize the state’s electricity system.
Rage Against the Machine
The three-decade-long push against left-wing ALP members continues today. And Anthony Albanese was — and is — a central protagonist in that struggle.
As leader of the federal ALP, Albanese’s record speaks for itself. He has affirmed Labor’s support for fracking, for subsidies to coal mining, and for detaining refugees in offshore prison camps. He has refused to commit to rolling back university fee hikes, or to maintaining the JobSeeker allowance at the full rate. Any pretense at being a socialist on Albanese’s part is long gone.
However, Albanese’s Hard Left credentials gave him a unique ability to quell rank-and-file resistance while at the same time making deals with the right of the parliamentary Labor Party. Even though he is the ultimate machine politician, he has carefully maintained the appearance of being a left populist who is out to fight that machine.
Albanese’s leadership is therefore especially dangerous for genuinely left-wing ALP members. Out of fear of attacking one of their own, what remains of the Socialist Left has become impotent in the face of the right wing of the parliamentary party, as it has consolidated total power. This is in line with the ALP’s modern faction system, which evolved to lock the Left out of power.
The difference now is that under Albanese’s leadership, the Socialist Left has turned itself into a guarantor of the factional forces that made the ALP one of the most right-wing social-democratic parties in the world.
Instead of opposing the Right, the Socialist Left now operates as a sort of mirror faction, adopting the Right’s organizational methods — and often its politics. Having suppressed membership participation and led the Left into its present state of acquiescence, Albanese bears more responsibility for this dismal reality than anyone.
Albanese built his career on transactions with the Right. In exchange, they were happy to hand him the leadership — just one more transaction within a wider structure that Albanese and the Socialist Left fought to create and sustain.
If genuine socialists in the ALP wish to transform the party, they must not remain passive in their stance toward Albanese’s leadership or the factional machine that keeps him there. As intervention into the Victorian branch looms, and as the party develops a national platform for the next election, the ALP’s genuine socialists should instead revive the strategy of grassroots resistance that Albanese helped to silence.