Daniel Gerrard has been a Labor campaign manager in Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland and the ACT. He is currently working for Bec Cody, one of our ACT Labor MLAs, whilst doing a PhD in campaign methods.
Ask someone why they join the Labor Party today, and you’ll likely get an answer about beliefs, values, or ideology. Maybe fairness, maybe equality, or for the university educated, it may be a more or less complex discussion about social or economics, meaning more or less the same things. When you go out doorknocking, or hit the phones, and ask the same question of voters though, and you’ll often get a different answer: family heritage, tribalism, or an expression of their understanding of self.
When I was 16, and joining the Labor Party, my answer was that I believed in, multiculturalism, consumer protection, anti-privatisation, and a horror at what the Howard and Kennett Governments were doing at the time. I shudder to think how closely I followed, and mangled, the talking points I’d heard on the ABC Radio news. If I was 80 years older my answer would probably have included preventing Chinese Immigration, fighting against the imposition of national Industrial Relations laws, and standing by the British Empire (born into a Catholic family, I’d probably have had strong views on Conscription too).
Almost twenty years into activism in the Labor Party, the shallowness of each of those answers strikes me as convenient, but shallow. We’re a special party, and our uniqueness runs much deeper than our aspirations for a fairer society, or the way we blend the populists policies of the day with those aspirations.
If we look around the world at other parties of the left, one aspect of the ALP stands out: the binding caucus. Tell someone in the UK Labour Party, US Democrats, or German SDP about it, and they’ll declare you anti-democratic and recoil in horror. Make some of our own members relaxed and comfortable enough, and they’ll express doubt too, especially if they’ve come to politics with a higher education in politics informed by an international perspective.
The binding caucus is probably the most obvious example, but there are a number of other ways in which the ALP is defined not just by its goals/ideology, and its tribalism/class based support, but also by its organising methods. The ALP’s organising method is unique in Australia because of its blend of organising geographically through branches, and in the workplace through unions.
Often when we are discussing the future of our party, how it works, and how it should work, we under-rate the left heritage our structures give us. When we put someone into Parliament, despite their good intentions, we do make them a member of the ruling class. Beyond relying on their good conscious, our binding caucuses keep them accountable to a platform decided by community and union representatives. The daily grind they face of standing up to corporate lobbyists and vested interests is balanced by that accountability.
When we are formulating policy, and campaigning, it gives us a great advantage too. From Whitlam to Rudd, political communication was dominated by centralised national media outlets, and we responded, and won many elections with strong centralised messaging, quality polling, and by putting our leaders at the centre of our campaigns. As the system of mass media breaks down, our structure of strong connections in communities and workplaces is becoming more and more important.
Whilst those who still read newspapers have an endless supply of op-eds declaring we’ll all be ruined if newspapers are not saved from social media, Labor people should view this as an opportunity, rather than a threat. No longer will political discourse be dominated by a few super-wealthy media moguls, no longer will we need to pander to them, and no longer will the agenda be set by a super-elite. Instead, by organising in the community and in the workplace, our collective strength will become stronger. The decentralisation of communications power can put it in our hands, if we take advantage of it.
To do that we need to take full advantage of the head-start given to us by our predecessors, the left of a century ago, who also organised in an environment with low union density, decentralised media, and a super-wealthy who dominated a conservative government into passing laws that attacked working people. They set up the Labor Party made up of local branches and unions, that used a binding caucus to hold MPs accountable, and strove to deliver a worker’s paradise. The left wing tradition of our structures is just as important as the left wing tradition of our ideas.