Elect the leader as first step to vital Party reform

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To any reader of the 2010 National Review, the case for fundamentally reforming the ALP should be beyond argument. December’s National Conference however showed conservative elements in our Party were unwilling to dilute their power.

The conservatives successfully made the case that how Labor organises, and how its members and affiliates join and involve themselves in decision-making, are irrelevant to our policy direction and electoral prospects. This is misconceived and strikes at the very heart of our purpose as a movement for change. It’s something Labor must tackle head on.

National Conference: what went wrong?

The reform component of December’s National Conference came and went with barely a whimper. The passion and the purpose that characterised the Left’s engagement with advancing policy 
concerns – for marriage equality and the humane treatment of those seeking asylum – was lost in the complexities of a process manipulated by the Right to avoid a genuine debate about reform.

The comparison to the marriage equality campaign, and its clearly defined objective, is particularly instructive. Advocates of Party reform were not placed to tell a simple story about a single objective. We moved too quickly to the detail of implementation without having made the case for change at large. We stumbled towards a farcical ‘debate’ where those with an interest in shelving the National Review did just that.

Today’s ALP, much less tomorrow’s, does not belong to ‘faceless men’. We are, let’s not forget, the movement that stands for ‘redistribution of political and economic power so that all members of society have the opportunity to participate in the shaping and control of the institutions and relationships which determine their lives’.

This statement, the first element of Labor’s objectives in the National Constitution, also sets out the challenge for Party reform as I see it. If we can’t offer our members a real opportunity to shape the direction and actions of the ALP, we have failed as a social democratic organisation.

Electing the leader

One step we need to seriously consider is to give all ALP members a say in the parliamentary leadership of our Party.

In an increasingly presidential system of electoral politics, the choice of Party leader is now more important than ever before. The leadership debate at least focused attention on Labor politics and its consequences like nothing else in recent times. It’s a discussion that has gripped the movement, but – to date – only as passive observers. I am firmly of the view that members and affiliates deserve to be actors in this conversation – as is the case in the British Labour Party, where leadership candidates are required to present their agenda to the Party before assuming the mantle.

When Left members debated Party reform last year, there was great enthusiasm for opening up the process of selecting the Parliamentary leader. If we step back and compare our recent leadership changes with the steps leading to the election of Ed Miliband, the contrast is instructive. The Miliband ballot saw over 110,000 rank-and-file members of the Labour Party, and nearly 210,000 rank and file unionists, vote in that contest. In our own party’s National Presidential election, we saw the enthusiasm our members have for their voices to be heard on the questions that matter most to them: the responsibilities of national government.

The body of evidence supporting this change is much stronger than that underpinning the calls for primary trials in individual seats. Our starting point should be to build up the value of membership, not to dilute it – and to more closely connect the contributions of our members with the direction of the Party.

Let’s begin a dialogue around how we can build a system which gives members a direct say in the Labor leadership and what it means. The time has come to make the case for a process to elect a leader which is open, transparent and binds all of us more closely together.

Make membership meaningful

Of course, better engaging with Labor members and – critically – supporters is not just about an occasional vote for the Leader. The same principles that support democratic election of the Leader also hold true for stripping away the barriers that deny meaningful involvement at large.

Some in the Right have set out their vision for the future relationship between members and their parliamentary representatives, but it’s either smoke and mirrors or, in some cases, seeks to actively consign membership activism to the dustbin of history. For example the Right ensured that the only delegates with a mandate from the membership at large – the National Presidents – are also the only delegates without a vote at National Conference. Amendments passed in December to enable the establishment of ‘Labor Policy Action Caucuses’ seek to codify a patron-client approach to involvement that would make many a branch-stacker blush.

We must strip away the layers that obscure how power is exercised so that members and affiliates can participate more effectively in making decisions and holding parliamentarians to account. The fight to let branch members have a direct say in national decision-making is critical in itself, but it is also a means to the goal of redistributing influence from the backroom to open, contested forums.

Focusing clearly on such an approach offers Labor a better chance of getting it right.

Three-part challenge

The challenge Labor must embrace is to set out clearly and concisely how the Party should work. I believe we must consider three key elements:

  1. Building a truly national Party capable of engaging more readily with national concerns as a movement
  2. An equal partnership between affiliates and rank-and-file members, and
  3. Direct access for members to meaningful decision-making wherever possible.

These are important questions that go to the distribution of power in the Party. They will not be easily dealt with, but we must set the objective we mean to achieve.Our failure to do so would play into the hands of those opposed to more democracy and opposed to the work of Faulkner, Bracks and Carr.

In the short term we need a clear objective to get the debate back on track. This must speak to the wider purpose of enabling our members and affiliates to really shape our Party. In my view this ought to be opening up leadership elections to the membership.

If we want 8,000 new members to join Labor this year, let’s not just give them policy they can respond to, let’s give them all a real stake in our movement’s future. This might just be enough to turn a modest recruitment goal into something much more profound. The National Review remains a powerful statement of what members sought to have changed in their Party – it cannot be left gathering dust with the Hawke-Wran Review.

At the end of the day, there’s a big choice for Labor to make about how we choose to do politics. It’s between the conservative model that is all about manipulating institutional power, versus our progressive vision of the labour movement as a vehicle for mass engagement to drive enduring social change. For Labor, this is surely what our approach to politics is all about.

Author: Andrew Giles


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