Without a Mass Membership, Australia’s Labor Party Is on the Road to Nowhere

The Australian Labor Party has been bleeding support for years, and it won't recover without active members who can engage with working-class communities. Undemocratic right-wing cliques are standing in the way of renewal, but ACT Labor shows that a different way of doing politics is viable.

Leader of the Australian Labor Party Anthony Albanese addresses the media at a press conference, 2019. (Brook Mitchell / Getty Images)

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) hasn’t won a general election in over eleven years. In New South Wales (NSW), where Labor has been out of power for a decade, defeat has almost become a part of the party’s identity.

In the lead up to the federal 2019 election, Labor anticipated gaining marginal seats in the western parts of Sydney and in other regional electorates based around towns and small cities away from metropolitan capitals. Despite the party’s high hopes entering the election, it wasn’t able to improve upon its 2016 results nationwide.

Over the same eleven years, Labor has had significantly more success in state elections. Between 2009 and 2020, state ALP parties won elections in Queensland, Western Australia, Victoria, Northern Territory, and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). The party’s weakness has been disproportionately concentrated in NSW. Labor’s rare victories in the state, like a modest gain of three seats in Sydney in the 2019 federal election, have done little to reverse the tide.

With new state and federal elections on the horizon, we need to understand the causes of the political crisis facing the NSW Labor party and discuss potential remedies. If NSW Labor can’t increase its vote share, Labor will struggle to form a national government. There’s no superficial fix available. Only a democratic party with an empowered mass membership can rebuild support for Labor in working-class constituencies.

“Like Us on Facebook but Leave Us Alone.”

In recent years, NSW Labor has become a byword for political corruption. This has coincided with a dwindling of support for the party: recent polls had its primary vote at a historic low of 23.9 percent.

There are many reasons for NSW Labor’s poor health, including the Party’s gerrymandered, oligarchical apparatus and its dogged commitment to neoliberal economic doctrines. But we can’t overlook the core structural problem it faces: a shrinking, aging, and almost completely disempowered membership. The crippling effects of Labor’s membership loss are particularly noticeable in the regional centers like Newcastle and rural areas such as the state’s south east.

In a bid to shore up its declining base, NSW Labor has adopted several strategies. One is to plead for support as the lesser of two evils instead of offering a positive agenda. The second is to invest heavily in advertising. The third is to hire full-time political staffers and union organizers, and mobilize them in target seats to compensate for their lack of an activist base. None of this has worked.

Former NSW Labor senator John Faulkner has criticized the ALP’s turn away from political mobilization. He sums up its current approach as one that involves asking voters to “like us on Facebook but leave us alone.” That’s clearly not enough to win over a younger generation of voters who are increasingly alienated from mainstream politics, or to convince older supporters who feel betrayed that they should trust NSW Labor again.

Regional NSW

In every election, NSW Labor has to rely on interstate branches and unions to send campaigners to regional areas, since it lacks a membership of its own that can perform basic tasks. On election day, the ALP has to leave some polling stations unmanned and staff others with a skeleton crew of aging volunteers. Younger volunteers tend to come from other states or the ranks of union organizers.

The potential audience should be there for a left-wing political program in NSW’s regional and rural areas outside of Sydney. The inhabitants of the regions have to cope with a lower quality of public services than in the cities. Their average levels of health and education are inferior too. As in the rest of Australia, NSW’s non-metropolitan population also suffers from higher levels of unemployment, inequality, and poverty.

For example, household income in NSW South Coastal regions is $641 per week, well below the national average of $877. In the Central West region, just 35.5 percent of the population have completed the equivalent of a high school education, compared to 60.9 percent in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta.

These disparities have fostered a sense of resentment toward metropolitan areas. To compound the problem, metropolitan dominance is readily apparent within NSW Labor itself. Staffers from the cities run most regional NSW Labor events and activities, with little or no local engagement.

The Federal MP for Eden-Monaro, Kristy McBain, may seem like an exception to the rule, since she actually represents the rural community from which she comes. But McBain was not a Labor member before her selection as a candidate, which speaks volumes about the shortage of ALP activists in such areas. A small number of aging stalwarts with time on their hands keep the few remaining subbranches in Eden-Monaro together. This activist pool is much too shallow to produce a local candidate.

If the Eden-Monaro subbranches had tried to muster their own candidate, the ALP’s Administrative Committee, which is appointed at Labor’s notoriously undemocratic conference, would still most likely have overruled them. McBain’s 2020 candidature was only possible because Labor officials waived the rules to facilitate her. Candidates normally have to be ALP members for a year before nomination and must also belong to the relevant trade union in their line of work.

It’s not just the lack of members that is the problem. The whole bureaucratic structure of the ALP stifles party democracy and makes it very difficult for local activists to build their branches. For example, regional branches often have to advertise events using posters they stick up by hand, because NSW Labor’s head office in Sydney needs to approve all social media posts before they go out.

ACT Labor Leads the Way

Labor’s ACT branch is one of the few that has successfully reversed its fortunes in recent years, forming back-to-back governments in 2016 and 2020. On both occasions, ACT Labor defied the expectations of pundits by outperforming the Liberals, and went on to form a coalition government with the Greens.

This strong performance came after a series of sweeping democratic reforms that the ACT Labor Party pushed through in a bid to increase its membership. These steps included making monthly membership dues traceable in order to root out fake members. A reform of voting procedures allowed members who had been in the party for at least a year to vote in pre-selections for all ALP positions. The fact that this was necessary speaks volumes about the ALP’s undemocratic internal culture.

The ACT branch also lifted restrictions on members publicizing ALP activities themselves without permission from above. It started announcing subbranch and committee meeting events on the ACT Labor website so that a clique of insiders would not be able to dominate proceedings.

According to the state branch’s annual review, between 2013 and July 2019, ACT Labor’s membership more than doubled, going from 1,002 to 2,300. The boost enabled Labor to mobilize hundreds of activists during election campaigns. In 2016, there were enough ACT Labor volunteers to hold nine hundred thousand conversations with voters, including four hundred thousand house calls. In 2020, turnout in the ACT election was 306,000, so this works out as an average of three conversations per voter.

NSW Labor’s membership is proportionately much smaller. The population of the state is almost nineteen times greater than ACT’s, but NSW Labor’s official membership is approximately fifteen thousand — about six times greater than its sister branch in ACT. However, that figure is likely to be an overestimate because the NSW party lacks any real transparency. One thing we do know for sure that the ALP’s membership in NSW is declining.

As well as being smaller, NSW Labor’s is much less active, and it suffers from a lack of volunteers. During the 2016 ACT elections, the ALP had to take ACT Labor members away from campaigning in their own state, and send them to towns in NSW hours away to staff phone banks, run stalls, knock doors, and distribute how-to-vote cards.

Members Win Elections

The long-term decline in regional support for the ALP has created a vacuum that can be filled by the populist right. In NSW, the National Party and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party are gaining support in regional cities and towns.

It’s not just a problem for NSW, either. Multiple reviews examining the ALP’s failings at a national level have recommended empowering members. Yet the majority of state branches have clung on to their antidemocratic organizational culture. Labor is still riddled with small cliques that care more about retaining their own positions of dominance than they do about winning.

Of course, Labor’s organizational problems are just one part of the equation. The party’s stubborn commitment to neoliberalism is just as damaging, preventing it from offering a real alternative to the Liberals that voters will find engaging. But these dual problems, organizational and ideological, are really two sides of the same coin. The lack of internal democracy that keeps the ALP membership small and disempowered also stops Labor from coming up with a new political vision.

Without a mass membership that can meet voters face-to-face, Labor won’t be able to recover its lost supporters. The ALP needs local activists who are part of their community, visible outside of election campaigns, and capable of organizing local campaigns that address the needs of residents. The example of ACT Labor has shown that this is possible. Now, it’s up to Labor members around the country to learn the right lessons and put them into practice.