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Apr 3, 2014

Why the union movement should divorce the ALP

The two organisations have had a long history, but the past few years of politics shows their union is no longer viable.

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In the United Kingdom, you could hardly say that Labour and its leader Ed Miliband are riding high. Having sat at no more than a 3% lead over the Tories for some months, they’ve now fallen to 1% — well within the margin of error. Nevertheless, even the 1% margin has been enough for the party to believe that it is on track for victory, for one simple reason — and its name is UKIP. The batty UK Independence Party, though lacking a single seat in the House of Commons, has managed to consistently poll 10%, most of it taken from the Tories, and making UKIP a valid fourth party. And in a first-past-the-post system, that could prove disastrous. Given that Miliband has moved the party to the Left from its New Labour nadir while keeping many of the shire votes it needs to win, that’s not nothing.

So there was considerable gnashing of teeth when Left filmmaker Ken Loach made a public call this week for a new Left party to replace Labour, arguing for Left Unity — one of two or three distinct groups floating around to offer this sort of positionality. There’s been no groundswell to turn these groups into parties, and splitting Labour (at the Right end last time) has spelt disaster before. So it would be in the UK — but in Australia, it’s exactly what should be considered. Not a new party, but something more modest, yet possibly more effective — separate candidacies by a progressive trade union list in key seats and the Senate. In this case, it is not the Left that is leaving the party, but the party that is leaving the Left.

The campaign to separate Labor from the unions is in full swing. There is no doubt that the relationship has to be revised, that the union-factions-party connection promotes sclerosis and contentless “microfactions” — really gangs — coalesced around a charismatic figure, or David Feeney. But that is not really the main impetus for the new push for separation, which is being run out of The Australian, in the space between its obsessive and grinding anti-18C and anti-ABC campaigns. The Labor-union separation push is coming from the party’s pro-market forces, who want to wind back such commitment as the Rudd/Gillard government had made, and present the party as little more than a steward of the markets, extending “opportunity” through further neoliberalisation — and caring little, it would seem, about the greater entrenching of every sort of inequality that such a process represents.

They’re a strange mob, Labor’s gung-ho marketistas. They’re led by some, such as Craig Emerson, who have compared Australia unfavourably to the United States, admiring the latter’s dynamism (and unruffled by its huge class of working poor, backwardness and public squalor), and by Michael Costa, who swapped a youthful obsessive Trotskyism for a midlife crisis obsessive Hayekism, both sought out for psychological reasons rather than for a real progressive politics. When Costa’s protege, Cassandra Wilkinson, announced she was signing on with the Centre for Independent Studies for a few months and detailed what a daring move this was, it was — well, as shocking as that time when Michael Stipe came out. Really? You’re joining a right-wing think tank? What a surprise. Next you’ll be saying Paul Howes might be seeking a position in the corporate world.

“The truth is, Labor’s marketeers are symptomatic of a deeper-run process …”

The truth is, Labor’s marketeers are symptomatic of a deeper-run process, whereby the separation of the culture/knowledge producer class from which Labor’s elite comes from the mass groups it purports to represent is now so total that no sympathy runs between them. The public remains far more collective, nationalist, protectionist, and statist than the head members of both major parties — who share a mutual sympathy at the stupidity of their own supporters in rejecting neoliberalism. Their support for market solutions is different from the application of it by Hawke/Keating — even though Keating remains a fetish object for them. They regard the neoliberal market not merely as an efficient form, but as a moralising and disciplinary force, to shape a public that would otherwise become lazy and undynamic, and, you know, want a life or something.

Progressive unions should recognise that this is happened, and that the party that was originally constituted as a Labour/Union Representation Committee has now become the opposite of that — the pro-market leadership projects such ideas onto Labor, with a barely concealed hostility for the values of solidarity and full humanity of the worker that the union movement represents. It has become anti-representation, for which union dues still foot the bill.

So key progressive unions should re-represent themselves, a more social democratic set of policies, and their members in the electoral sphere. Half a dozen unions — the CFMEU, the NTEU, ETU and others — could run a candidate in a dozen or so key seats across the country, where the Greens are competitive with Labor. Unlike the dire situation in the UK, the preferential system has been designed to make this a viable process. Such candidates may only get 5% or so — but they would only need 5% to play a key role, scare Labor shitless with a Labor/Greens preference split, or open ticket, or by supporting a high-profile independent in key seats.

The great advantage of such a move would be that it would cement a larger progressive electoral vote bloc than the Greens can currently manage, as it would finally draw away another tranche of Labor stalwarts who, for class and cultural reasons, can’t bring themselves to support the Greens. The Greens might get nervous about it — but since their class base is overwhelmingly in the culture/knowledge/policy class, they cannot fully represent the people that might be attracted by a union/labour list either. Above all, it would expose how threadbare is the support for Labor’s market fundamentalists, a tiny insider elite parasitic on a host party.

Likely? Not from any of the large core unions that continue to support, year in and out, pollies who want to marginalise their members and their world view. These things don’t happen and don’t happen and then they do, and everything changes. If the will is there, and a willingness to risk the margin of error.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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23 thoughts on “Why the union movement should divorce the ALP

  1. Exactly!

    I have been saying the same thing for years.

    The trouble is the union movement has been captured by the same careerists who infect the ALP. My mind goes back to the union amalgamation push lead by Hawke and Keating in the early 1990’s. Looking back, I cannot see what this achieved but to create large union bureaucracies alienated from their members, in the image of the ALP.

    These unions became career vehicles for non-radical union officials who used the networks to advance their non-radical careers in politics.

    This occurred at about the same time as the ALP offered stick to the Pilots and facilitated the legal assault on the BLF. Can anyone remember the ALP paying employers to withstand BLF strike action and sending the air force in to break the pilots strike, apart from me?

    A whole generation of these bureaucrats have come and gone through the union movement and the ALP and it is hard to tell a Craig Thompson from a Michael Williamson from a Martin Ferguson from a Sam Dastyari from a Paul Howes or any of them.

    While there is every reason for the unions running independent candidates at elections or disaffiliating from the ALP or funding the Greens, the alienation and bureaucratisation is so firmly entrenched I cannot see this happening.

    Or putting it the other way, the reason there has been no push for this to happen reflects the bureaucratisation and alienation of the union movement from its members and the movements capture by ALP hacks and right wingers.

    Perhaps it requires one brave union to come out swinging behind a celebrity Senate candidate like the Guy himself to start the ball rolling!

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