Symposium: The Future of the ALP

Labour and democracy

Sean Scalmer, Macquarie University

Brett Evans The Life and Soul of the Party: A Portrait of Modern Labor Sydney: UNSW Press, 2001 (120 pp). ISBN 0-86840-738-0 (paperback) RRP $19.95.

Andrew Scott Running on Empty: ‘Modernising’ the British and Australian labour parties Sydney: Pluto Press, 2000 (330 pp). ISBN 1-86403-098-4 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

How do we make sense of labour’s career in politics? For those seeking to understand the Labor Party, ‘socialism’ has served as a guiding light for much of the past century. In the complex historiography of Australian Labor, the historian’s orientation to socialism has tended to shape their attitude to the Labor Party. Three versions of Labor Party history have competed:

  • Socialists who were also labourites argued that their Party had been socialist, should be socialist, but wasn’t socialist. The Party’s leaders were to blame.
  • Socialists who were not labourites argued that the ALP wasn’t socialist, wouldn’t be socialist, and, in fact, couldn’t be socialist. The capitalist parliamentary system and the nature of the Party’s organisation were to blame.
  • Labourites who were not socialists argued that the ALP wasn’t socialist, shouldn’t be socialist, and, indeed, that trouble-making socialists were at the root of all their Party’s problems and defeats.

These debates lingered on even after the collapse of Communist States in Eastern Europe and the retreat from anything even vaguely resembling socialism in the West. In the middle of the 1990s, political scientists were still brawling over the nature of the ‘labour tradition’, its connection with socialism, and the extent to which the Hawke and Keating Governments departed from it.

At long last, however, things seem to be moving on. In the recent history of Federal Caucus, True Believers, the Labor Party’s quest (and frequent failure) to represent the views of trade unions and party members guides most contributions. In Stuart Macintyre’s recent Overland lecture on the ALP, the need for democracy and debate, rather than the search for socialist purity guides his lucid critique. And, perhaps most encouragingly, it is in Brett Evan’s enthralling reportage, The Life and Soul of the Party, and in Andrew Scott’s ambitious contemporary history, Running on Empty, that ‘labour’ and ‘democracy’ are most fully brought together.

How does the Australian Labor Party measure up when evaluated in ‘democratic’ rather than ‘socialist’ terms? As both books agree, not particularly well. Evans emphasises Labor’s low party membership (p.28); the recent imbroglio over rorting (p.3); and “disciplined dullness”, whereby the task of policy formation and discussion is subordinated to the quest to maintain unity, present a small target to the conservative parties, and thus maximise the chances of electoral success (p.47; p.85). His incisive view of Labor’s Conference (officially the supreme policy-making arena of the Party) is one where the mass media are more welcome than the “ordinary punter”, and the jockeying of ambitious politicos provides the only spur to argument (p.21–2).

In the mid-1990s, political scientists were still brawling over the 'labour tradition' and its connection with socialism.

Andrew Scott is even more scathing. Australian Labor’s Conference is small and undemocratic when compared with its British equivalent (p.240). The Party’s intellectual life is weak and derivative (p.42–4). Its factions narrow power into the hands of a small number of chieftains (p.159). They are, moreover, based on personal ambition and animosity rather than on genuine ideological divisions (p.160–1; p.191–3). Even when this creaking machine forms Party policy, that policy is unlikely to be respected by politicians. Indeed, whether or not the Labor governments of the 1980s and 1990s represented the true face of the ‘labour tradition’, they clearly failed to represent the official output of the Party’s (would-be) democratic machinery (p.189–90).

If this view of the Labor Party is depressing, the analytical fruits of this new, ‘democratic’ approach to Labor remain impressive. Rather than moral lamentations about departure from tradition or knowing condemnations of Labor’s unchanging embrace of capitalism, Scott offers a more focused and detailed account. His discussions of the relationship between Party and class, and his analysis of long-term voting trends in Britain and Australia are illuminating. His attention to factional division and conflict is painstaking, innovative, and necessary. His long historical view provides a useful vantage from which to survey modern Labor. Indeed, both the contemporary call for Party change and a ‘New(er) Labour’ and the hailing of education as a panacea for all social ills are traced back at least forty years (p.55; p.66–7; p.89). In the process, the value of ‘modernisation’ as an ideology used by particular groups rather than as an inevitable adjustment to social and economic change is powerfully evoked. Scott’s critical history is well documented, strongly argued, and ultimately persuasive.

Similarly, Brett Evans’ less ambitious but equally impressive work of reportage also offers a cluster of insights. First, by focusing on ‘democracy’, Evans is able to offer an unorthodox commentary on recent debates about Labor (finding common ground between Andrew Scott and Michael Thompson, for example). Second, his interest in the dimensions of public debate combine with his own experience as a journalist to give Evans a keen insight into the damaging effects of the mass media on Labor’s democratic structures. Third, his enthusiasm for democracy underpins Evans’ affectionate portrait of a number of long-term Party activists—Bob Garrick, the former boilermaker from Balmain; Bill Wilson, the retired foreman of Gymea; Peggy Johnson, the life-member and master campaigner. Together, Evans’ rambling ventures to find the ‘life and soul’ of contemporary Labor constitute a diverting and thought-provoking read.

The call for a 'New(er) Labour' and hailing of education as panacea are traced back at least forty years.

But if the analytical benefits of this ‘democratic’ perspective on the ALP are clear, what kind of political purchase are these studies likely to have? The angered, socialist lament for the lost Party provided a useful rallying point for disaffected labourites; can the democratic critique offer similar political resources? In an obvious sense, the political purchase of this critique is likely to be strong. Unlike socialism, democracy is a normative yardstick that all Labor members can be expected to share. For this reason, the failure of the Labor Party to embody democracy should be a pressing political issue—for the Catholic trade unionist and the liberal feminist, for the lonely socialist and the ascendant free-marketeer. As Brett Evans notes, it should also concern those outside of the ALP:

For good or ill, political parties make Australia’s version of parliamentary democracy work. Therefore, we all have a stake in their commitment to internal democracy and rules-based decision-making (p.67).

In a deeper sense, however, the critical force of the ‘democratic’ approach to Labor can sometimes be disappointingly weak. Despite their trenchant analyses of modern Labor, the practical suggestions that both Evans and Scott put forward are surprisingly timid. Evans mildly suggests the reform of the ALP’s preselection procedures (p.103–6). Scott, after two hundred and fifty pages of coruscating argument, seems to offer only this:

The challenge for the ALP now is to enhance, rather than erode the 1998 platform; to follow it through rather than ignore it in drafting the party’s forthcoming election policies; and then to implement that platform if elected to government (p.257–8).

These disappointing conclusions do not simply reflect failures of nerve on the part of the authors; they also stem from the nature of the ‘democratic’ analysis. The plea for ‘democracy’ has a formal quality. This is inevitable, in some senses. (Indeed, it would be hypocritical to plead for increased democracy, and also to declare what the outcome of that democratic discussion would be).

A more democratic Labor Party is only part of the solution.

But if the good ship of democracy should not be used to smuggle illicit ideological cargo, it should not be left simply to drift, either. How should the democratic machinery of the Party be organised? What role should affiliated trade unions have? Should other social-movement organisations be given the opportunity to affiliate? What should be the object of democratic discussion? What will be the likely content of these democratic debates in the contemporary environment?

Neither Evans nor Scott show any willingness to pose or to answer such questions. Here, their democratic and historical vision falters. Historically, it is in the labour movement’s own public sphere that the intellectual resources for the ALP’s democratic discussions have been found. It was in the thriving labour press (city-based, regional, national, or union-based) that arguments for Labor’s future were tossed around; it was in labour education (the WEA, the Victorian Labor College, the Communist Party and the trade unions) that many workers learnt to make and weigh arguments in public, and to relate them to their experience. The labour movement has even managed to support its own researchers, on occasion (within the NSW Labor Council, in the 1930s, for example) and a slew of often short-lived publishers.

These institutions are now mostly gone, transformed, or greatly reduced. Without them, labour’s democracy is likely to be thin and shallow—to lack the arguments, the experiential resonance, the spaces for difference and discussion, or the practical policy measures that a lively democracy requires. In that sense, a more democratic Labor Party is only part of the solution. The labour movement’s problems are more thorough-going, and its historical democracy more utterly changed, than even Scott and Evans have been prepared to admit.

Where does this leave us? With a ‘democratic’ lament to replace the ‘socialistic’ one? A new tale of defeat and disintegration? Certainly, the historical degeneration of labour democracy and debate should not be denied, nor the difficult task of rebuilding it underestimated. However, there is some cause for hope as much as despair. Evans’ study of modern labour refers not only to branch-stacking and factional manipulation, but also to the drive to unionise workers in telephone call centres, and to encourage active participation. It also dwells on the plans of some to expand the ALP branches to take in adult education and practical community projects (p.73–8). Alongside these democratic resources we could add others: the vibrancy of the NSW Labor Council’s Workers Online electronic newspaper; the revival of the Trades Hall in Melbourne as a cultural centre; the growth of branch membership in the Australian Labour History Society; and so on. In such places, and in these two fine books, democrats committed to the labour movement might find the resources to keep on talking, arguing, writing, fighting, helping and hoping.


Faulkner, John and Stuart Macintyre (eds.). 2001. True Believers: The story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

Macintyre, Stuart. 2001. “‘Temper Democratic, Bias Australian’: One hundred years of the Australian Labor Party”, Overland, no. 162, Autumn, pp.4–12.

Sean Scalmer is a Research Fellow in the Department of Politics, Macquarie University. His Dissent Events: Protest, the Media and the Political Gimmick in Australia will be published by UNSW Press later this year.

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