We’ve only officially seen part of the report to Labor from John Faulkner, Steve Bracks and Bob Carr, on Labor’s membership; the analysis of the Rudd era and the grand debacle of the 2010 election remain to be leaked out in dribs and drabs in coming months.

The conclusions about November 2007-August 2010 are far more interesting but not, ultimately, the most important part of the review. Kevin Rudd’s Downfall­-in-Powerpoint management style, Labor’s lack of policy guts, the disastrous campaign by Karl Bitar (or, as Mark Arbib sees it, NSW Labor’s triumphal march), Real Julia and her Citizen’s Assembly — all make for colourful copy but are at most only the handiwork of individuals reacting to and operating within a party with deep, deep problems.

Such problems can be overstated. Any major political party that loses an election faces apocalyptic warnings about its continued existence, but there are few problems in political parties that aren’t fixed by winning an election. Federal Labor, though, is the first party to endure such a fate even when it has won, albeit by the closest of margins.

Part of Labor’s problems are peculiar to Labor — the loss of identity, the lack of a clear direction since the end of the Hawke-Keating era, the psychological damage wreaked by John Howard in 2001 and 2004. Other problems are shared with the Liberals and political parties in other western countries – the decline in party numbers, the need to re-engage grassroots membership, the over-emphasis on unity, how best to use new media. They’re mainly what the report focuses on.

The trio conclude it’s no use talking about greater party democracy within Labor if the party stays at its current  low membership base, which in some states is at “groundwater” levels, and there must be a concerted effort to grow the party’s membership and recruit younger members. Labor’s membership is declining and ageing. In that, it’s just like the Liberals’. Despite perceptions, the Greens’ membership isn’t significantly younger than the major parties, either.

This is a fight against a global historical trend. Volunteerism is declining in Australia and has been doing so for at least two decades, particularly in the community sector and organisations like unions but also in areas like fire-fighting. And it’s a trend apparent in other developed countries as well.

The slow decline in volunteering is worse than it looks because one of the fastest-growing age-groups, over-55s, is the peak volunteering demographic – when people leave full-time work but haven’t hit the health problems associated with old age. And it’s happening across western countries.

The grim reality is that even halting the decline in political party membership will be an impressive achievement, let along reversing it. This is swimming against the historical tide.

Faulkner, Bracks, and Carr – no relation to Crosby, Stills and Nash – realised this wasn’t merely a question of making Labor membership more attractive by giving grassroots members greater say in policy development and preselections — to which many of the recommendations relate — but that the process of doing so needed to be made more user-friendly.

As the review notes, the Hawke-Wran Review of a decade ago addressed similar issues when it proposed  an online Labor branch. But the review recommends in effect another tier between “supporters” and “member” through a progressive organisation similar to GetUp (without, one hopes, GetUp’s propensity to claim responsibility for anything and everything) and greater use of online engagement tools like Labor Connect.

A word of warning, though. Both major parties use highly-detailed databases on voters, filled with as much publicly-available information as parties can obtain, and supplemented with their own research and information gleaned from doorknocking, letters to MPs and so on. Labor’s is called Electrac, and like the Liberals’ Feedback, it is exempt from the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

Any sort of connection between non-member progressive voters and Labor’s electronic systems – say, the membership list of a new GetUp-style progressive organisation – would be plugged straight into Electrac to improve it, particularly in marginal seats. So would non-member participants in Labor primaries.

The task of re-empowering the Labor grassroots will be further complicated by the simple fact that there is no financial incentive for it. This isn’t just about the easy tabloid story of union “influence” over Labor (ask the CFMEU how much influence it has), but about financial basics. As Anna Bligh noted in 2009 when she temporarily embarked on a transparency crusade in the face of constant allegations of improper links between Labor and lobbyists, you can’t run a modern election campaign on party BBQs and trivia nights.

Parties rely heavily on public funding and donations for their capacity to be competitive at elections, and in Labor’s case that includes the millions it gets from union affiliation fees. Anything that threatens the flow of money without replacing it with an alternative source is not going to fly with Labor, and that means an awful lot of new members would have to be attracted to more grassroots-based party.

There’s also another complicating factor. The union movement has something that Labor itself desperately lacks, a strong ideology and a commitment to core values. No one’s confused about what unions stand for, even if it’s the self-interest of their members. Like the Parliamentary Party itself, unions have empire-builders and officials obsessed with power for its own sake. But many also have a coherent, integrated set of policies for their industries, the wider economy and on issues social justice.

In the party of the Hawke-Keating years, that didn’t matter so much — if anything unions had to play catch-up with the reformist agenda of the Parliamentary Party via forward-looking leaders like Bill Kelty. In the modern Labor party, it’s about the only source of intellectual coherence around.

Labor desperately needs to reinvigorate its grassroots, but it literally can’t afford to alienate the trade union movement – either financially or ideologically.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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