Changing The Members Means Changing Labor


With the attention assigned to Bill Shorten's "major campaign" of reform, it's easy to forget that for a number of voices within Australian Labor, party reform has been a case long argued. As early as 1993, Lindsay Tanner was describing its internal culture as "Masonic-Leninist", claiming that its organisation was characterised by “Byzantine structures, unfamiliar jargon, exclusionary attitudes and an atmosphere of secrecy”.

In the past two decades, that same argument has been articulated by a wave of parliamentarians including Mark Latham, Rodney Cavalier and John Faulkner. What then is most surprising about the responses to Bill Shorten’s party reforms is how curiously muted they’ve been.

While the dust is still settling after Shorten’s announcements, the union movement hasn’t staged a concerted, public push against the proposed changes.

Tony Sheldon, National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union, called them a “distraction” from the party’s real issues; Peter Simpson, Queensland State Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, suggested that they might threaten future electoral funding; and David Lockwood, a member of the National Tertiary Education Union, argued that Shorten should salvage the union-ALP link by democratising it.

But these voices remain relatively lone and uncoordinated. Ex-unionists within Parliament, like Richard Marles and Penny Wong, publicly back the plans. The changes don’t seem to have elicited any great urgency, or a sense that internal changes will affect the party’s fundamental political mission.

But the history of labour parties makes one thing clear: if you change the membership, you change the party.

A century ago, labour and social democratic parties were confronted with a similar decision. All across Europe, parties had to decide whether to allow the membership of citizens outside the industrial working class. Those that were influenced by Marx’s ideas of class struggle tended to believe that, by diluting the party’s class basis, socialists would undermine the very foundation of their politics.

As late as 1912, British Labour defeated a motion to allow in “managers, foremen and persons engaged in commercial purposes of their own account”. It wasn’t until 1918 that “workers by brain” were permitted to join. The Swedish Social Democrats only fully accepted class heterogeneity in 1920.

The impact of these changes may not have been immediately clear but they carried long-term repercussions. As the political scientist Adam Przeworski argues, by broadening the base of labour parties, they were, through electoral necessity, forced to dump their more radical demands. Instead of overthrowing capitalism by socialising the means of production, the parties were pushed towards social-democratic reformism and the welfare state.

In the post-war period, the Australian Labor Party faced another existential dilemma. With the gradual post-industrialisation of economic activity, electoral success depended on a coalition between middle-class progressives and blue-collar workers.

From 1960 to 1981, the percentage of the party’s membership in white collar professional, administrative and managerial roles doubled. At the same time, the percentage of its blue-collar membership halved.

It’s no coincidence that, in the Whitlam era, the party’s political mission also changed. Progressive causes were given greater emphasis than socialist ones: feminism, environmentalism and pacifism increasingly sat next to economic reforms in the party’s platform.

In both cases, changes to internal membership shaped not only its processes, but also its political bearings. The question is: how will Shorten’s reforms, like ending the requirement for union membership, shape the party?

One potential consequence is for the balance between its economic and social priorities. Throughout the ALP’s history, the union movement has been a force central to its attempts to regulate capitalism, pushing for economic outcomes to be as much influenced by democratic intervention as market demands. The historian Sheri Berman described this as the social-democratic “primacy of politics”.

And while, since the Hawke-Keating era, this mission might have eroded, it’s still the key point of differentiation between Labor and the Liberal Party. While Chris Bowen and Andrew Leigh might want the ALP to become the party of "liberalism", they still vocally endorse the Rudd government's interventionist GFC stimulus, their National Disability Insurance Scheme and the sanctity of penalty rates.

There is a chance that, by reducing union influence, the party will shift its centre-of-gravity away from these economic concerns and towards social liberalism. This would mean more open policies on feminism and gay rights, as well as more open economic policies. In other words, it could solidify the Keating legacy.

The other potential consequence is to push politics further away from representing groups of people (like “workers”) to representing groups of ideas (like “equality” and “compassion”). Australia could mirror American politics, where the Democrats are a liberal party, rather than a social democratic party, who find it difficult to win the support of working class voters.

Because of these repercussions, Bill Shorten must be aware that, by changing the party internally, he is also triggering changes to its long-term policy direction. It might not be immediately clear, but discussing one necessarily means discussing the other.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.