Factional nihilism is killing the Labor Party. But can it be reversed?

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Practically the first issue I ever read of the magazine Australian Left Review in the 1980s had an article in it by Socialist Left (SL) leader Lindsay Tanner, arguing for the abolition of the factional system — and the next issue had a reply by Robert Ray, behemoth of the Right, defending it, and arguing that, in any case, there was nothing you could do about them. The Australian Left Review is long gone from the public stage, as are Tanner and Ray. The factions march on.

State by state, the constellations vary. Victoria matters at the moment because the Stability Pact, the decade-long deal that its two major groupings managed to maintain, allowed an enormous amount of political energy to be directed outwards, towards the actual enemy: Labor New South W-, sorry, the Coalition.

That deal is now under threat, a product of SL leader Kim Carr’s alleged exclusion of one distinct group — what I’ll call the Brunswick Network, centred around departing state MLA Jane Garrett — from state and federal seats they believe they deserved. The Brunswick Network now calls itself the Industrial Left (IL), though some of them were part of a subfaction of that name, within the SL. Their detractors say they are making demands for representation far outside their numbers.

The simpler and easier way to talk about it, would be to call it the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) (Vic) Left, since that outfit is its largest component. But multiple sources from every part of this stoush have identified the motive energy and centre of the group as coming from a friend-and-partnership network centred on Garrett, drawing in the CFMEU (Vic), the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU), former Slater and Gordon partners from the industrial side.

On the side of the Right, it has sprung from a small network around the former SDA-aligned suburban branch baron Adem Somyurek. Removed from the Dan Andrews’ Victorian Labor ministry for alleged workplace bullying — the accusations came after Somyurek’s split with the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), and amounted to some inappropriate physical handling of a staffer, no more — Somyurek had every motive to take his small subfaction to war. And no alternative in realpolitik terms.

Starting with a couple of fellow SDA renegades (who would deny that the media-savvy Somyurek is the boss of them) and a takeover of three state seats hitherto controlled by the now-declining “Cons” around Stephen Conroy, Somyurek has now drawn in the unions that formed the core of Labour Unity (LU): the Shorten-aligned Australian Workers’ Union, and Conroy-aligned Transport Workers’ Union (TWU).

To build a link to the Brunswick Network (now styled the Industrial Left, or IL), Somyurek has been publicly flattering Jane Garrett to a degree that, had it a soundtrack, would be provided by Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. “He’s been laying it on all the way through 2017,” I said to one insider observer, who laughed and said “longer, much longer than that, I’d bet. Adem is very good at spotting talent.” Also mutual need, it would seem. The flattery has increased as Garrett’s political skills have become less apparent by the day.

The presence of relatively rational outfits like the AWU and TWU, would probably stabilise the arrangement. One would usually add the CFMEU (Vic) to the “rational” designation, but many people sympathetic to them believe they have lost their head in this process, misapplying notions of solidarity and ‘touch one, touch all’, to supporting whatever wacky decision the most erratic member of the crew makes next.

But beyond that, there is the Brunswick Network, plus Somyurek’s old-skool suburban Sopranos Moderates (aka Moda), and the Health Services Union network with Kimberley Kitching and Andrew Landeryou attached, Bill Shorten’s wetwork crew. It may be a factional realignment; but it also looks like a caper movie.

Factional politics has always relied to a degree on the ability of driven individuals to create a network from scratch (or take over a franchise). What’s distinctive about this one is the sheer number of players who are total chancers. The ultimate shakeout now depends on the SDA, which is currently remaining aloof. Were it to remain so, Victorian Labor would have three major camps again: the SL, with a few remnant associates in a shrunken pact; the CU-IL alliance; and the SDA (and NUW, another auld Groupere union standing apart). This would stand at the base of the national Labor Party overall.

Whatever its participants say, that is a recipe for continued guerrilla warfare, over half-a-dozen federal seats, the No. 1 and No. 2 Senate spots, and various committee positions. Labor has had that before, and personalities have played a big role. But for some grizzled veterans, this is something new: a factional war, where the uproar at the centre is all about personalities, some of them assessed as “non-stable”.

“I have never seen a fight like this,” one SL loyalist said, putting his head in hands at the bar of the Lincoln Hotel in Carlton, where back in the day, stalwarts from the plumbers’ union, and the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), would argue the merits of the Chinese and Albanian roads to socialism (now, it does a lovely gluten-free sausage; then, it had pies that were like sleeping bags filled with wet lint. Such days we have seen.) “One that’s actually about nothing!”

Factional wars have been going in the ALP since around 1920 (actually, probably about 1893, but let’s keep it recent). The party was an amalgam of “industrial groups”, and Catholic-aligned forces. By the ’20s, after the Bolshevik revolution, the industrial groups were advocating full socialism. For the Catholics, this was sin (literally, as set out by Pope Leo XIII); putting the state in the place of God. The alliance between the ALP’s left and Communist-headed unions in the ’50s led to the Split where some Catholic groups, though not all, departed the party for a generation. The Right split — between the ShortCons and the SDA — shadows those lines of division.

On the other side, the Socialist Left faction had been formed in Victoria in 1970, when the federal ALP had intervened to quash the branch’s left-wing policies. But in 1991, when Paul Keating pushed through a program of state asset privatisation — including the Commonwealth Bank — the SL split, opponents of the move calling themselves “The Pledge”. Based around hard-left industrial unions, the Pledge/SL split essentially followed a division between Marxists (most of them Maoists), and Social Democrats.

The “Maoist” designation may seem odd now, but with its emphasis on collective advancement (rather than the emerging left emphasis on “rights”), it was crucial to union and left thinking — and to taking building workers from being a shunned lumpenproletariat, excluded from a “trade” union-based movement, to being the highest-paid and best-conditioned construction workers in the world.

But the Maoist conception — with its focus on Unity, the “One” — was opposed to much of the new left strands: environmentalism, especially. That was partly responsible for the key event of the ’90s: a deal between Pledge and Labour Unity, against the Socialist Left. Both sides believed in a growth economy, heavy old-skool development, and the rest. It was an attitude that was at the base, for example, of the Tasmanian government of Jim Bacon, the Maoist-BLF organiser turned premier. Bacon’s government — no favourite of Greens, to put it mildly — was the last real programmatic government Australia has had (Rudd counts as a would-be programmatic government).

Bacon’s aim was to modernise Tasmania, use its “weakest link” in the Commonwealth chain as an advantage, and he bloody well succeeded. The place would be two B&Bs and an apple farm without that.

The Pledge-LU deal fell apart; but its legacy was the idea that a hard left — opportunistic right deal is the rule not the exception. In 2008-9, the CFMEU and SDA attempted to do a deal; the Stability Pact arose as a response to this, the centre against the edges. That may have served well, but the problem is that it has created a dissolution of even the minimal remnant of real politics, and political contestation. Into that vacuum has rushed personality, and the types of personalities rushing in are those formed in an era when much old left-right politics has been submerged, and individuality and image has become paramount.

This has been disastrous for the ALP, because it has turned the party into an incubator for delusional crackpots. The wider public got a glimpse of this with the jaw-dropping Four Corners episode featuring disgraced HSU secretary Kathy Jackson and her partner, Fair Work Commission vice-president Michael Lawler. What sort of fools, people wondered, showed their holiday videos, when one had been accused of rorting and theft on a grand scale? How did these two very average people sustain such a disturbingly grandiose vision of themselves?

The answer is that that such distorted self-perception is now not unusual in whole parts of the party. It’s the product, initially of the wave who came in, in the ’80s, as young people under Hawke/Keating, when Labor was forceful, dynamic, sexy, technocratic and elitist, and media-oriented. Who wouldn’t want that life? That generation may well have had some interest in bettering workers’ conditions; they had none in creating a mass party, or a democratic one. Their follies and falls have been of that type: machine men and women who got too clever by half.

But some of the generation who came after that are even worse. Selected early for their media-friendly style and demeanour, mentored, proteged and duchessed, they have had no defence against the disease of a media era, corrosive narcissism.

Forming networks, they have mirrored each other’s self-regard, and drawn less self-obsessed people along with them. The party’s internal defences and processes have become so weak as to lack all immunity to such. The parasite takes over the host and works its limbs, and that is something of what one is seeing now.

It is a tragedy for the party, but also for the people concerned, because they inevitably burn out. Their afterlife then becomes one running off the energy of bitterness, which is all that remains. Iago takes the stage, and they become not what they are. The examples, well … you know who they are. Political figures subject to a living deathwatch.

Could such an out-of-control process cost Labor the next election? Of course it could. If it does, then the consequences are extraordinary. If Labor can win this election, and hold for two terms, then it will have dominated the post-Howard era, and the Abbott/Turnbull period will register as an interregnum.

But if it can somehow conspire to lose to Malcolm Turnbull, or whoever, then we’re screwed. Somehow, eventually the pet-shop puppy-basket clusterfuck that is the Coalition will hit on a winning formula of centre-right social progressivism, and corporate-favouring capitalism, and at that point it will wipe away what remains of a social-democratic industrial framework.

It will preside over a nation creating a new type of Australian: with the same expectations of atomised, individual work existence as many Americans have, with little notion of an enabling state, dominated by the classical liberal conception that the state is inherently parasitic. Perhaps such a disaster would produce a revival of real left politics. But perhaps it would be the end of an Australia many off us hold dear.

In his ALR essay, Robert Ray argued that empyrean talk of abolishing factions was almost always a way of hiding the advantages one had gained from them; something the young firebrand Lindsay Tanner might have rejected, but to which the ageing fund manager of the same name might be more sympathetic. It may be true enough. Mass parties will, must, have factions.

In an era when the politics that formed them has collapsed, those “factions” will become personal/geographic/ethnic groupuscules. Perhaps one answer for Labor is not the fantasy of a mass citizen party in a post-social era — with the nightmare prospect that branch-level primaries for candidate selection would make the micro-factional wars ceaseless, chaotic and draining — but a process whereby leaders of stable factions rebuild a dynamic process of open debate, ideas production and policy development at the centre of the party, while the factions persist.

Such a turn would recognise past successes of this approach. The Hawke-Keating years are held up as the triumph of non-intellectual pragmatism. In fact, they were prepared for from the left, by the intense work of Laurie Carmichael and others, who came from Communist traditions, and had the ability to take the party (and movement’s) given politics and reconstruct them for a new era. Much of that was one-dimensional and misguided*, but it was less so than no such process would have been.

The paradox, of course, is that it took commanding people to do it, and their commitment to such had been driven by the left-right battle of the century, including World War II. Kevin Rudd had the desire to revive that; but he was, to a degree, an early victim of the media-image culture he sought to pull the party out of. There are ideas floating around Labor; but they come from the outside, from the Fabians, the Lowy, the Australia Institute. They are picked up, piecemeal, as tactical feints.

The party that once produced Labor Essays year on year, where social democrats, Marxists — in and out of the party — debated and proposed, is a distant memory. The return of an ideas process to the centre — but, ah, who would do it? — would, in turn, create a process and a focus that would be a place to challenge factional nihilism from (there’s a lot of it about; one has been trying to convince the Greens to produce a volume of Greens Essays for several years now. It appears no closer).

At some point, all of this stuff turns on a party, and it becomes subject to a “Hillary” effect: footsoldiers are asked to swallow so much entitlement, privilege and arrogance in the name of a less-worse option that, at some point, the body-politic simply upchucks in refusal. That happened to Labor in Northcote, and as goes Northcote so may go much of the nation.

One of the key factors in the rise of the Greens has been that, for all one’s frustration with sections of them, they can still become a vessel for the receipt of one’s total political energy when the crunch comes, without feeling, as you do with the ALP, that you’ve woken up alone in a strange motel with your wallet missing. You would have hoped that the sensible factional leaders could have excluded the worst elements from within their own groupings.

Instead, there seems a positive effort to put the most venal, discredited and erratic people at the centre of the action — people it is simply impossible to support. That is what has changed in the last 100 years. What once produced discipline is now creating its opposite.

It’s clear that Labor is hoping to eke out a 2019 (or 2018) win despite the roiling chaos going on beneath the leadership. Those who grit their teeth and work for it will do so in the rueful knowledge that one must fight for victory, even if the only thing that would make genuine renewal possible would be another defeat. We can’t go on, we go on, and so it goes and so it goes.


*(as we argued in Arena; 30 years later, the Marxist left are catching up to our critique of the time)