In an extraordinary move by a national political party with its roots in the inner city, the Head Office of the NSW ALP has forbidden the party's branches from contesting the upcoming by-election in the seat of Sydney. The timing is striking.
Barry O'Farrell's Government has declared war on both public and private education in New South Wales, and children and parents from across the social spectrum are looking to Labor to step up and fight for them.
At the federal level, for the first time since the last election, the Labor vote has jumped to place the party in a winnable position.
Locally, after an historically successful primary, Sydney Labor branches turned out in force to run a grassroots campaign for the local council and increased the Labor vote in the area from the disastrous 2011 election. This ensured the ALP was able to step in to stabilise the progressive vote as the Greens support halved and Clover Moore's independents went backward and lost a councillor.
Could there be more propitious circumstances in which to launch an ALP campaign for the state seat of Sydney after the Liberals anti-Clover legislation had deprived the electorate of its independent representative?
Local Labor activists — those who knock on the doors, leaflet the train stations and put on the trivia nights — did not think a better chance would come, and were primed to go. With several strong candidates showing interest, including civil libertarian Cameron Murphy who had gathered major support through his grassroots campaign in the community pre-selection, it would only have been a matter of formality for the local election groups to swing in to action.
When it was rumoured that Sam Dastyari, the party's General Secretary in Sussex Street, was considering not fielding a candidate in the by-election, many dismissed it as propaganda against Head Office put about by some disgruntled factional opponent. But as the day drew nearer to the nomination deadline without action from the party's headquarters, and as it emerged that the Left's John Graham was having to argue the case in earnest for the ALP to contest the election, branch members began to worry.
There were a number of reasons reported for Dastyari's position. One was that, because of the party's low polling in the seat in the disastrous 2011 state election, Labor could draw a similarly bad result this year. This would be embarrassing for the hardheads in the Sussex Street Right. They want to focus on their recent achievements: the election of Ron Hoenig with a substantial majority in adjoining Heffron, and the major decline in support for the O'Farrell Government with the subsequent boost in primary support for Labor to over 30 per cent.
Another strategic reason for the decision was said to be the fear that an ALP candidate would dilute the progressive vote in the area, adding another competitor to the Greens and Clover's heir, Alex Greenwich, in trying to beat the Liberals for the seat. While it is possible for voters to direct their preferences to other progressive candidates, the Head Office honchos operated under the assumption that the majority of voters would refuse to do so; a Labor candidate would split the progressive vote and help the Liberals.
Against these arguments, however, Sydney Labor reasoned that Sacha Blumen's 2011 campaign should not be used as the basis for the by-election decision. In September's local government election Labor had improved on these results, and the massive changes in the Greens vote showed how variable an election in this area could be.
Added to this was a much greater factor: Clover Moore, a dominant figure in the locality, has been forced to retire after decades in the seat. How this will effect the vote is unpredictable. Whether she could pass on her electoral support to an anointed heir is unknown, as is the extent to which her personal vote masks underlying support for other parties, including the ALP. Without contesting the seat, the potential for a Labor candidate to mobilise these significant sources of support will be lost.
Sussex Street also relied on the idea that Greenwich would be the dominant progressive candidate because Clover could bequeath him her decades of support. But this depends on an assumption which has been disproved countless times: that independent candidates, particularly those like Clover with a significant personal following based on image and personality, can simply direct voters to support their successor. Independents who follow other independents often fail to get elected. And even if there is a good possibility for Greenwich to succeed, there is no reason why, in the electorate of Sydney with one of the most politically informed populations in Australia, Labor voters could not be urged to direct their preferences to another progressive candidate.
There are other, more powerful reasons why Labor should be contesting Sydney.
The Faulkner-Bracks review envisaged the transformation of the party from a mere election-winning machine to, a real Labor movement. This involves connecting with communities and mobilising working people — and as such, electoral victory becomes secondary to the aims of building campaigns and effecting change. Under that model, the key concerns of the election become fighting O'Farrell's cuts and standing up for local people. This is what inspires branch members, as was the case in the City of Sydney campaign, even if Labor's Linda Scott did not achieve the impossible and defeat Clover for the Mayoralty.
Electors deserve the chance to express their opposition to the conservatives' actions in the NSW Government and vote for Labor, as well as voicing their support for local and federal issues. One of the ALP's most popular ministers, Tanya Plibersek, shares much of her electorate with the state seat of Sydney, and it is concerning that the party is losing an opportunity to build support for her before the fight against Tony Abbott. Local Labor activists are energised, invigorated, and keen to wage a big campaign — if only Head Office would let them.
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