Members hold cards; activists transform the world

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Let's build the Labor Party anew.

The average strength of the Labor Party is its ability to endure. Through crises, both internal and external, the Party leadership and its band of true believers have been able to build the oldest political party in the nation, form progressive, left-wing governments, and fundamentally change Australian society.

For all of its history and the enduring instinct for survival, however, Labor is certainly facing its average crisis yet. The historical legacy of the past cannot be maintained without the active interest and resolute determination of the present Party faithful to forge a new path ahead. In the current debate, this new path forward can generally be characterised by the mantra of rebuild the Party, grow the membership, and engage with the community.

Rebuilding the old Labor project, however, is not the answer. The project that I want to be part of is building anew a Labor Party which is democratic, inclusive, and which fosters activism. This small semantic difference, pointed out to me by a fellow traveller on the path of reform, is of great importance to the current debate. The Bracks Faulkner Carr review made clear that for the Party to survive, then pressing reforms must be implemented to change the way we practice our politics. Rebuilding old structures cannot serve the needs of a political party in the twenty-first century; there must be greater internal democracy to give members real power and a real voice in the decisions on Party leadership and policy.

In the same way that we must not rebuild but build anew, recruiting members is not the answer, we need to recruit activists. To better understand our present plight, we must start with our understanding of what it means to be a member of the Australian Labor Party. We can't continue to confuse motions with actions. Members hold cards, but activists transform the world. Activists are organising communities by not only talking their politics, but acting on their politics. If we continue to use the language of membership we will be missing the opportunity to create a new political project which fundamentally realigns our comprehension of Labor people as activists, not members. 

With a strong army of activists, our “reaching out” and “engagement” with the community will give way to organising communities for change. In many ways, the language of “reaching out” to our communities presents us with a false dichotomy; it’s as if the Labor Party is one thing and the community is another. The Labor activists I know are passionate and genuine members of the community who have decided to commit part of their lives to the project of ALP. They are not people who, upon joining Labor, somehow lose all traction with the nebulous externality of their communities. Rather, they have joined Labor to serve their community and practice progressive, left-wing politics.

There is no silver bullet for the current ailments of the Party. We will be charting unknown waters for some time as we seek to breakdown the old cultures and institutions which put factional managerialism ahead of debate and dissent and which placed a hollow politics where the heart of conviction should have been. 

But there are green shoots of promise emerging across the nation from those who have been members for decades, and those who have been members for days. Labor was founded as a Party for people, ordinary working people, to have a voice in the decisions which governed their lives. As it was founded by its people, so it must return to its people. And, a special place must be held for the young activists who look to Labor as an organising body for change. The youth wing holds a special hand on the mandate for reform.

Those with the most to lose in this venture must form the vanguard for renewal. If young people do not agitate for the change which needs to occur to see a broad, diverse, and dynamic Party that encourages activism, debate, and at times dissent, then who will? The youth wing is compelled by both the urgency for reform and the opportunity to be part of an innovative political project to revitalise the activities of the Labor Party in NSW and throughout the nation. But it is failing to grasp the power of the special part it can play in this process and is slowly losing the opportunity to force real change.

The NSW Labor Conference in 2012 presents us with a special opportunity to change the future of our Party. The highly anticipated debate on the direct election of the Parliamentary leader by a ballot of the rank-and-file is exciting. I am hopeful that a resolution will be passed that opens up the path for the Party to directly elect its Parliamentary leader, but I also know that for Labor to truly become a potent force in the political landscape of NSW, we need to think about what we do in between election cycles. Direct election of the Parliamentary leader is but one part of the reform process; the greater reforms will need to be enacted by activists in the weeks and months after conference. 

A promise is a cloud; fulfillment is rain. The promise the NSW Labor Conference in 2012 holds for reform can only be fulfilled by grass-roots activism in the community. Labor must not be focused on rebuilding, but building anew, we need more activists and we need to develop them, and, importantly, we need to divest power away from a model of centralised, managerial politics to a grass-roots politics to organise communities for change.

In NSW, whilst the Party is well and truly at a crossroads, it can be renewed and emerge as a force for progressive, left-wing political change and hold the treasury benches once more. And, like many times of crisis, we must look to a new series of ideas and a new generation for the courage, inspiration, and creativity to overcome the challenges currently before us. 

Let’s build anew, let’s encourage activism, and let’s organise communities.

Author: Huw Phillips

Huw is the NSW Young Labor Assistant Secretary and Secretary of the Glebe branch


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