Labor’s Values and Objective

At the 2014 NSW Conference, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen moved an urgency motion that called for Labor to write a new objective for the party. The Conference, shamefully, was first informed of the motion through the pages of The Australian on the Saturday morning of Conference.

After a preamble which noted ongoing reform, argued debate on party renewal needed to extend beyond rules and asserted that the existing party objective “does not clearly or accurately explain Labor’s values, principles, traditions, goals or approach to government”, the motion itself read:

Conference calls for the NSW Policy Forum in consultation with the membership to develop a new Labor Objective, for the NSW Branch of the Australian Labor Party to put forward for adoption at the 2015 National Conference.

But party members should not have been surprised by the move. In his slim volume purporting to be a blueprint for modern Labor, Hearts & Minds, Bowen devoted a section to discussion of the objective of the party.

The current party objective in the National Platform starts:

The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.

In the National Platform these words only form the first of two sections that form the objective. The second, much longer section, contains 23 separate items the party “stands for” in pursuit of its objective.

The New South Wales rules include the national objective as part of the “basic principles”, though it concatenates the two sub-sections and lists only 22 items the party stands for (items (s) and (t) in the national objective being replaced with item (19) in the NSW version). In the rules themselves (A.2) the socialist objective is joined with an additional objective “the pursuit of social justice and equality in all areas of human endeavour.” This is a contraction of item (11) from the list of items the party stands for.

The NSW membership pledge includes both the socialist objective and the additional objective as part of a pledge to actively support the Constitution, Platform and Principles of the Party. ”

The party adopted the socialist objective in essentially its current form in 1921, though the second clause was originally part of a second resolution incorporated in the “Blackburn Amendment” at the same conference. The revised version that brings them together was adopted in 1955, and the addition of the clauses of what the party stands for occurred in 1981.

The short form is a very long way from a socialist objective, though it is well described as a social democratic platform. Labor has always struggled with the use of the word "socialist", and it's implications that the party is opposed to private property, individual rights to choose and the nationalisation of all industry.

But in practice Labor has been a social democratic party, guided by the limitation expressed in  the Blackburn amendment . The word “socialisation” in the objective simply means to “make social.” It is often assumed this is limited to a process of making industry and individual enterprises social by nationalisation. The methods statement adopted at the 1921 conference shows that ideas were not limited to nationalisation. referred to “nationalisation” of banking and “all principal industries”, but it also called for the “municipalisation” of such services as can best be operated in limited areas. It also called for direct worker and community representation on the Boards of nationalised industries.

In Government, Labor has not pursued wholesale nationalisation of industries (the post war nationalisation of international communications was actually implementation of an empire wide agreement entered into by the UAP in 1941).

The only significant attempt was the attempt to nationalise the banks, but concern with the “money power” was shared by all early Labor members - socialist and non-socialist alike. And the attempt nationalisation of the banks was triggered by a High Court challenge to much more modest legislation.

But in his book Chris Bowen wants to move on from the description of the party as social democratic, preferring instead the term “social liberal”. I did not hear all of his speech to Conference, but I did hear him recently address the NSW Fabians in May at which he still indicated that preference.

But while the accepted view is that the Labor Party has never been a socialist party, it has equally never been a liberal party. Its origins did not lie in socialist agitation, but in the political activity of trade unionists and their middle class allies.

James Jupp (in Party Politics; Australia 1966-1981) described the motivating force of the early party as “labourism”, the basic premises were:

…that trade unionism was the best means of advancing the cause of the working man, that it needed free conditions under which to operate and benevolent neutrality from the state. Apart from ‘removing obstacles’ to unionism, the major function of the state was to protect the poor, whether as workers, dependents, the sick or the aged. The state was also required to protect workers and consumers by regulating industry and, if necessary, by operating industry itself where private ownership was deemed to have failed. Laborism was concerned with the improvement of life rather than with the ownership of the means of production, although unlike liberalism it saw nothing inherently wrong in the state’s owning or managing productive industries. Laborism was also concerned with the ‘money power’ in wishing to control banking and other financial institutions that were held to be exploiting the small home-owner or businessman.

Laborism and liberalism in this depiction parted company on state ownership, the role of trade unions and the appropriateness of the power of the state being used to disrupt trade unions. They shared however a commitment to parliamentary rule, to state welfare, and to the achievement of social harmony through state regulation and the elimination of gross disparities of wealth or income.

To reject the social democratic description in favour of social liberalism would be to jettison the party’s labourist heritage.

The core of the argument being put for reconsidering the party objective is that it is not reflective of the current agenda of the party. The particular point tends to be the use of the word “socialism” and the related proposition usually advanced from outside the party that it needs to renew itself as a “modern progressive party.”

In speaking against the motion, Doug Cameron noted that he had heard the word socialism more times at conference in the debate than he had in the ten years previously. While intended as a reason why we should not fear the use of the word, it is was leapt upon by the proponents as proof that the objective does not reflect the current party.

It raises the question of exactly how the claim that the party is a “democratic socialist” one should be interpreted.

Though the term ‘socialism’ was coined in France in the early 1800s, it was purloined by Marx. From that point the varieties of socialism were seen to be about the means, democratic or revolutionary, rather than the ends. However, a wider reading of its history can accommodate a significant difference about ends; it need not mean nationalisation of industry.

Terry Irving, in his essay in Bruce O'Meagher's The Socialist Objective, takes a historical approach and asserts "socialism is more than a system of values: it is a theory of history."  He identifies two separate strands of working-class mobilisation in the nineteenth century.

In the cities, this occurred through the formation of trade unions and controlling the local environment through co-operation in the community. Primary production was the major source of wealth and contained the highest concentration of capital. The workers in mining, pastoralism and transport industries faced greater resistance and hence were more militant.

The undercurrent to all these movements is the development of what Marxists would identify as "class consciousness." The Australian labour movement would identify this as the awareness of workers that there are others like them, that there is an alternative world model in which the interests of workers get fair recognition and that collective action can make a difference.

The significance of developing class consciousness is that while the overwhelming majority of the population in the 1890s were clearly workers, the ALP could not garner majority support. Today many people vote against their class interests on the naive basis that the Liberals is the party of the bosses, and the bosses know how to run things.

I suspect that changing class consciousness lies behind some of the desire to revisit the party objective, and indeed to refer to the ALP as a centre-left party rather than as a left of centre party. I think it is also a misguided response to the way Australian voters perceive themselves.

In a fringe event at NSW Conference, Geekapalooza 2 (the SQL), an exercise was conducted on whether four hypothetical individuals were working class. They were all working class under the Engels definition - “that class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live” (Engels note to the 1888 English edition of Manifesto of the Communist Party).

However, the proportion of people identifying themselves as working class has declined significantly over recent years. The Australian Electoral Survey records that the proportion self-identifying as working class has declined from 51% to 42% over the last quarter century.


The issue for Labor is not how to describe ourselves in a way to seem relevant to more people who self-identify as “middle class.” The mission is to explain to this middle-class that in the face of large corporations and a few extremely wealthy individuals that they too are powerless.

Ultimately Labor’s objective needs to reflect Labor’s values. Bill Shorten in his ‘Towards a Modern Labor Party’ speech in January 2014 identified the need to revise the Party Platform. In concluding that section he said “But everyone needs to have a say in this process – and we should start with Chapter One. Chapter One contains Labor’s enduring values. We need a new Chapter One, a democratically-drafted statement that captures what modern Labor stands for.”

Unfortunately every chapter of the National Platform includes its own list of values - refining them is no easy task.

Labor still seeks to represent the interests of those who make their living by what they do, not by what they own. But the variety of circumstances of such people has grown - it not only includes traditional blue and white collar workers. It includes many self-employed individuals and owners of small businesses. It includes those studying and those seeking employment. It includes those who worked all their lives and have saved from that income for their retirement.

And what Labor wants to do for the people it represents is to ensure their physical, economic and social security. It seeks to empower the powerless. It promotes economic and social progress as ways to ensure that the society of tomorrow is more equal than the society of today.

Unfortunately the Bowen motion focussed on the objective and not the values - worse the actual drafting of the motion called for a “new objective” rather than a restatement of the objective.

Earlier in the conference, the Centre Unity delegates, who (eventually) voted in support of Bowen, had been clear that Labor is still a social democratic party.  As part of debate on the Faulkner motion, impassioned claims were made that social democratic parties that have lost direct union participation have lost their way. These speakers, including the General Secretary, were not suggesting the party should no longer be a social democratic one.

In case people think I am making too much of the wording of the motion, I note that Bowen (and Burke and Husic) when speaking against the Ayers/McAllister urgency motion opposed it by saying we should not be “targeting a tax to GDP ratio.” Yet this was no part of the actual motion. The ratios were mentioned by illustration - the motion itself merely called for a recognition that the achievement of our policy objectives may require increased taxation.

That the chair fumbled the ballot on the Bowen motion - first calling it lost on the voices and recommitting it to another vote on the voices which then required a show of hands - shows just how uncomfortable Conference was with a clumsily worded and argued motion.

That said we now have before us an obligation to act on the motion, and hopefully go further and take up the challenge of the Federal Leader to inject some actual proposals that assume the purpose is to be able to more clearly explain our values and our objective.

In a piece I provided to the Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter, I concluded with a philosophy for Labor:

The ALP seeks to represent the interests of people who make their income by what they do, not what they own.

The ALP believes that we are all created equal, with an equal right to be able to choose our own future and an equal right to be protected from illegitimate forms of authority.

The ALP believes Government has a central role in providing economic security, social security, personal security and national security.

The ALP believes that as people we are better when we work together co-operatively and will actively support all collective action, including the collective action of nations.

The ALP believes that economic and social progress provides the opportunity for greater prosperity and greater fairness in our society. Consequently, Labor embraces change and seeks to harness its benefits for the greatest good.

From this philosophy, a rewrite of the long form of the objective, in terms that are more modern, can be achieved (the first part of this was developed on my blog). This version attempts to give more substance to the things the party stands for (which are basically principles for action):

The Australian Labor Party is a social democratic party and has the objective of Government management of the economy to achieve the political and social values of equality, democracy, liberty and social cooperation.

To promote economic security the Australian Labor Party stands for:

(a) 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

(b) the restoration and maintenance of full employment

(c) maintenance of and support for a competitive non-monopolistic private sector and the right to own private property

(d) establishment and development of public enterprises in appropriate sectors of the economy, especially natural monopolies and those delivering critical social services

(e) the conservation and management of Australian natural resources and environment for the benefit of all Australians both now and into the future

(f) the achievement of greater equality in the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity and the abolition of poverty

(g) recognition and encouragement of the right of labour to organise for the protection and advancement of its interests

To promote social security the Australian Labor Party stands for:

(a) social justice and equality for individuals, the family and all social units, and the elimination of exploitation in the home

(b) equal access and rights to employment, education, information, technology, housing, health and welfare services, cultural and leisure activities and the law

(c) the development of a democratic communications system, as an integral part of a free society, to which all citizens have opportunities for access

To promote personal security the Australian Labor Party stands for

(a) elimination of discrimination and exploitation on the grounds of class, race, sex, sexuality, religion, political affiliation, national origin, citizenship, age, disability, regional location, economic or household status

(b) recognition and encouragement of diversity of cultural expression and lifestyle within the Australian community

To promote national security the Australian Labor Party stands for

(a) maintenance of world peace; an independent Australian position in world affairs; the recognition of the right of all nations to self determination and independence; regional and international agreement for arms control and disarmament; the provision of economic and social aid to developing nations; a commitment to resolve international conflicts through the UN; and a recognition of the inalienable right of all people to liberty, equality, democracy and social justice

To promote democratic principles the Australian Labor Party stands for

(a) reform of the Australian Constitution and other political institutions to ensure that they reflect the will of the majority of Australian citizens and the existence of Australia as an independent republic

(b) recognition of the prior ownership of Australian land by Aborigines and Islanders; recognition of their special and essential relationship with the land as the basis of their culture; and a commitment to the return of established traditional lands to the ownership of Aboriginal and Islander communities

(c) recognition and protection of fundamental political and civil rights, including freedom of expression, the press, assembly, association, conscience and religion; the right to privacy; the protection of the individual from oppression by the state; and democratic reform of the Australian legal system

(d) recognition of the right of citizens to work for progressive changes consistent with the broad principles of democratic socialism.

This is a contribution to a discussion the Party is having. To reach 2015 and having simply no change is an untenable position - not because Labor’s objectives have changed since 1921, but because the way they need to be explained to the community has. And any attempt to restate the Party’s objective needs to incorporate the full objective, not just the short form of it.

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  • commented 2016-05-08 07:07:04 +1000
  • commented 2015-04-27 11:03:29 +1000
    I’m for social ownership of the collective product of labour under democratic management. If the ALP were to reject all reference to ‘socialism’ and adopt an official position rejecting it in favour of ‘social liberalism’, I would, with great sadness, leave the party.
  • commented 2015-04-02 18:34:19 +1100
    Thanks for this well argued contribution. It resonates in light of the NSW election and the blurring of what should be clear distinction between Labor and the greens.
    I am interested in the idea of appealing to the so called “ABNers”, a group which includes shearers, cleaners and other traditional wage earners. Coupled with the increasing casualisation of the service sector, we are seeing both an increasing focus on individuals and thinning of the fabic of collective aspirations of the traditional working class.
    I am attracted to the values you have described.
    Thanks comrade.