The Australian Labor Party’s Left Faction Is Just Propping up the Right

In order to challenge the ALP leadership’s right-wing policy agenda, we first need to democratize the party’s rotten internal structures. The party’s Left faction should be leading this fight; instead, they’re helping perpetuate a system that keeps left-wing politics locked out.

The Australian Labor Party's historically antagonistic Left and Right factions have forged a cozy relationship — and undermined party democracy in the process. (Kelvin Tsuei)

You might expect the Right and Left factions of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) to be at loggerheads. After all, we’ve recently seen intense factional disputes in countries like Britain and the United States, as supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders challenged right-wing hegemony in the Labour and Democratic parties. But the ALP is a different story: its historically antagonistic factions have forged a cozy relationship and undermined party democracy in the process.

To understand how it works, we need only look at the New South Wales (NSW) Labor Party. In New South Wales, the Right faction has a stranglehold over the party machinery. In theory, it could use this influence to crush the Left, but it chooses not to, recognizing that a compliant “official opposition” will help contain pressure from ALP activists who want a real change of direction for the party.

For its part, the would-be left-wing leadership, known as the Head Office Left, has bitterly opposed reforms that would democratize party structures. Its leading figure, George Simon, relies on the same gerrymandered delegate system that maintains the Right faction’s dominance to control his own tendency.

The details of what happens inside the ALP aren’t just a matter of concern for party members. Unless Australia’s long-standing two-party system comes to an end, the Labor Party is the only alternative party of government to the conservative, corporate-backed Liberal-National Coalition. The sweetheart deals between Right and Left factions that block any transformation of Labor are a problem for us all.

Factions and Fractions

Officially, the NSW branch claims to have around 11,000 members. Adjusted for population, this would be about one-sixth of the size of the British Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn greatly expanded its membership. However, the 11,000 figure is still grossly inflated. If you discount branches stacked with friends and relatives of party officials, and subtract unconfirmable members whose fees are paid in cash and who all seem to live at the same PO box, the true membership is much smaller.

The party leadership doesn’t really care what the real figure is, because ordinary members don’t matter in NSW Labor. In its rare rank-and-file ballots, about two-thirds of members support Left candidates, with the remainder supporting the Right. But that doesn’t translate into influence where it counts.

The party is hyper-factionalized and undemocratic. Almost every person in a position of even nominal power, from MPs to union secretaries, all the way down to individual conference delegates, is a member of not just a faction but a subfaction. While the myriad subgroups have their own websites, publications, and separate policy platforms, most are geared toward patronage rather than mobilization around ideological differences. Factional backing is essential for anyone who wants to achieve a position of power.

NSW Labor is more like a collection of special interest groups than a cohesive party. The NSW Labor rules set out a complex relationship between the party’s Head Office secretariat and its members, mediated by endless labyrinthine structures. In practice, control of Labor’s state conference — the only body that really matters — ultimately depends on two kinds of delegate, both of which have little to do with the ALP membership.

The first consists of delegates from affiliated unions, making up 50 percent of all conference delegates. There’s a “one member, one vote” system for choosing these delegates: the union secretary is the member, and he (or occasionally she) has the vote, with union members given no say in the matter. Union delegates vote as a bloc under instruction from their secretary, who can replace any dissenters at a moment’s notice — although that’s usually unnecessary, since the delegates are veteran factional apparatchiks who would never dream of going on a solo run.

The other half of the conference delegates are supposed to represent ALP branches. Around 15 percent of these branch delegates are appointed by moribund, factionalized policy caucuses and forums, whose members were selected at the previous conference and typically meet only for this purpose. The remaining 35 percent are chosen indirectly. Local branches elect electorate council delegates, who then elect conference delegates.

Rotten Boroughs

This interlocking system of rotten boroughs may be fiendishly complicated, but the political outcome it delivers is perfectly clear. According to the forms submitted by the Labor factions to accredit their delegates, the Right controls two-thirds of each of these party bodies, even though the party membership tilts left.

In a party with healthy, active branches, you might expect members to protest against the lack of representation for their views. However, most Labor branches are equally undemocratic and run by a single faction. Often branches exist only on paper or else conduct the bare minimum of two uncontested meetings each year. The ALP deems a meeting valid if it has just seven attendees — five if the branch is in a regional area — yet most branches barely manage to clear this low bar.

It’s a major achievement if a local branch can field as many as eight members for canvassing. It would certainly be unthinkable for the ALP to mobilize tens of thousands of members and volunteers, as the movements behind Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders did. But this is the way the Right faction likes it. After all, an active membership might insist on having a say in how the party is run.

Ironically, the pandemic has disrupted this system of control to some extent by making it impossible to hold branch meetings in person. Online meetings are much more accessible for people who work long hours or for parents with caring commitments. But NSW Labor clearly finds the idea of greater public engagement terrifying.

Until recently, the Right insisted that voting must still take place at in-person meetings, disenfranchising the elderly and vulnerable, and forcing members to risk their lives for basic voting entitlements. In response, Left activists held their own online mass meeting, attended by hundreds of ALP members. The meeting voted by a 98 percent margin to recognize online branches.

How the Left Could Win

Each faction, Right and Left, has a relatively straightforward path toward defeating its rival, if it wants to. The Right faction’s control over the conference gives it a total stranglehold over the party’s machinery, and with it, the membership lists and campaign funds. The Right could use the Internal Appeals Tribunal to expel left-wing troublemakers, who would have no legal recourse.

The Left’s path to victory would be to mobilize party members in a struggle to break open the party’s rotten edifice. There are clear historical precedents for such an approach. In the 1980s, Peter Baldwin went door to door in the historic inner-city fortresses of the NSW Right, recruiting members to support the left-wing current and exposing the Right’s organizational skullduggery. These activists won control of inner-city Sydney from the Right, and the area remains a Left stronghold to this day.

Instead of making deals with the Right, the Left could appeal directly to members. Empowering the membership through democratic reforms to the ALP’s structures would open the way to challenge the party’s ideological consensus on a range of issues, such as the inhumane indefinite detention of refugees in offshore prison camps that Labor currently supports or its failure to advocate a Green New Deal.

Of course, the factions that are currently in charge of the ALP aren’t going to make changes like that of their own volition. There’s clearly a hunger for more democracy in Labor. Highly respected former ALP senator John Faulkner has led a push for “one member, one vote” (OMOV) elections that’s attracted wide support. When Head Office refused to hold a free and democratic election for Young Labor president, activists from the Left’s youth wing ran one themselves, braving the threat of expulsion for their efforts.

However, the Labor Left’s leading figures have been unwilling to bring these efforts together into a real push for democratization of the ALP. George Simon and the Head Office group are in fact actively complicit in their own subordination to the Right, entering into shabby deals with their nominal opponents, stitching up preselections and disenfranchising local members. One such deal guarantees the preselection of right-wing Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon, who uses his perch in parliament to defend multinational coal companies.

When Left activists pressed for the expulsion of the Right’s disgraced general secretary Kaila Murnain for her role in covering up illegal donations, her faction tried to delay the expulsion proceedings indefinitely. George Simon seconded its motion. Worst of all, the Left faction’s senator, Tim Ayres, spearheaded opposition to Faulkner’s push for OMOV. His delegation joined forces with the Right to defeat the change.

Labor Left is led by a clique happy to perpetuate the system that denies it control of the party as a whole because it leaves it in charge of its own factional fiefdom. This undemocratic structure is part of the Left faction’s DNA. It reproduces the same practices on a smaller scale: rotten borough branches, union bloc voting, and delegations stacked with apparatchiks.

OMOV would threaten the Head Office clique as well as the Right faction. In order to democratize and transform the ALP as a whole, we would first need to democratize and transform the party’s organized left wing.

Playing Second Fiddle While the Planet Burns

For some in Labor Left, a role playing second fiddle is more than enough to keep it happy. If your main ambition in life is to keep a backbench seat in the upper house warm, voting for the Right’s policy agenda is a small price to pay. If you want to keep your base fired up just enough to guarantee your preselection, all you need to do is bring forward the same conference motions year after year, only to see them crushed by the ALP’s undemocratic structures.

As long as that remains the case, the Right has no reason to crush the Left altogether. Even the late Labor Right leader Johno Johnson — an ultraconservative figure who was a papal knight — accepted that the two factions had a mutually beneficial relation. A “loyal opposition” preserves the illusion of party democracy, keeps grassroots activism bottled up, and encourages people to enlist as members and volunteer for Labor in the hope that, one day, the party can be reformed.

We can’t afford to indulge this charade any longer. If the current leaders of the Left faction are content to twiddle their thumbs indefinitely, they should make way for people with a greater sense of urgency about the issues that are crying out for effective political action. And if they won’t make way voluntarily, they’ll have to be put out to pasture.