By Peter Boyle
MELBOURNE — The dominant Socialist Left faction in the Victorian Labor Party seems irrevocably split in the wake of the June 15-16 state ALP conference.
Two days before the conference, an SL general meeting expelled five people — including MLC Jean McLean and MLA Giovanni Sgro — from the faction. An angry McLean told Green Left Weekly that the SL was run by "reactionary apparatchiks" and that, as an inaugural member of the SL, she would refuse to recognise the expulsions.
SL faction discipline fell apart at the conference, and there was a free-for-all in elections for delegates to national conference, national executive and the state administrative committee.
The only "official" SL candidate for the national executive was defeated by Ted Murphy from the radical wing of the SL, who gained the support of the rebel Pledge Unions grouping and a section of the ALP right. Rebel SL members won 12 of the 17 delegates to national conference won by the faction, although more conservative SL members still dominate the administrative committee.
Murphy told Green Left Weekly that the conference proved to the "soft left" (which dominates the SL) that the "radical left" could not be ignored. He said the conference also indicated that the party's rank and file rejected the right-wing course of state and federal Labor governments.
The conference called for changing federal economic policy from "free market" economic rationalism to a more interventionist and job-creating policy. Motions opposing the privatisation of the Loyang B power station and extensions of Sunday trading — in direct opposition to the state government's decisions — were also passed.
However, Premier Joan Kirner publicly disavowed the decisions. "Many times there is a gap between what conference wants and what cabinet decides, and it is always resolved" — in cabinet's favour, she neglected to add.
The conference passed no motions on Kirner's promise to cut a further 10,000 jobs in the state public service and to increase charges for government services.
Some disillusioned members see the upsurge in factional battles as a cynical attempt to exploit the real dissent in the ALP's ranks to secure individual career paths in the party apparatus, government and parliament. However, Murphy says that a fundamental political divide is being opened in the ALP between those who still want to defend the interests of labour and the economic rationalists.
Lindsay Tanner, the secretary of the Victorian branch of the Federated Clerks Union, told Green Left that the ALP was beginning to divide between "rationalists" and "traditionalists". The former pole groups the Hawke Cabinet, ACTU officials, the Centre Left faction and the sections of the Left which favoured the economic rationalist course of federal government. They tended to be keen on the Accord process and union and industry restructuring.
The "traditionalists" drew support from sections of the old Left and Right who opposed privatisation, were in favor of greater government intervention in the economy and were suspicious of or opposed to the Accord.
Tanner placed himself between these poles, though probably closer to the "traditionalists" on questions of privatisation and the Accord. He said he was "anti-corporatist".
The ALP was moving into "uncharted waters" as we see the "end of Laborism". By this, he means that fewer workers see themselves as workers and identify in any meaningful way with the political interests of Labor.
Tanner has gathered considerable support in the Victorian ALP for a series of organisational reforms to give the party ranks greater control over Labor governments. However, he also insists that politicians cannot be loyal only to the party because they have a responsibility to their electorates.
While Murphy supports Tanner's organisational reforms, he says that no amount of organisational change can reverse the decline in Labor's membership and base if policy direction isn't altered. "Having more say in a preselection or in the election of the administrative committee is not going to bring people flocking back."
The immediate problem for the SL is that its members in cabinet ignore ALP and SL policy, he said.
The state conference decided to consider organisational reforms at a conference in October — after national conference decides on organisational changes at the national level.
Franz Timmerman, of the "Democratic Left" sub-faction in the SL (dubbed, by some in the ALP, the "Fitzroy Trots"), explained that the factional warfare began in earnest at last year's special conference on privatisation, when Brian Howe broke from the Victorian delegation's position on the issue. Howe was removed from the delegation, but now, as deputy PM, has an ex-officio position at national conferences.
Howe, Timmerman said, had led the charge by the conservative groupings of the SL to accept privatisation and the rest of Hawke government economic policy in return for being allowed to maintain the core of the trimmed-down welfare system. Howe was warned at the privatisation conference that this course would eventually split the SL.
After that conference, a group of left union leaderships came together and pledged to oppose privatisation — these have come to be known as the "Pledge unions". They include the Electrical Trades Union, the Plumbers Union, the Food Preservers' Union, the Australian Telecommunications Employees' Association, the Transport Workers' Union, the Seamen's Union, the Australian Workers' Union, the Hospital Employees' Federation, the Cold Storage Union, the Theatrical Employees' Association, the Liquor Trades Union and the Vehicle Builders Employees' Federation.
The Pledge unions have taken over the running against the conservatives in the SL from the so-called "Left Old Guard" once led by the since expelled Bill Hartley.
The SL conservatives comprise the "New Guard" (which under the leadership of Gerry Hand and Peter Batchelor deposed the Old Guard's leadership of the SL in the mid-1980s) and the "Socialist Forum", a group of ex-Communist Party officials around Bernie Taft. The New Guard is now led by Kim Carr, one of Kirner's advisers.
Carr tried to ignore the considerable weight of the radicals (estimated at 35% of the SL) but was undone during recent preselections for Victorian parliamentary seats when the Pledge Unions and sections of the right-wing Labor Unity faction combined to upset his plans.
Carr reacted by forcing the expulsions of McLean and the others. According to Timmerman, the vote was 173 to 130 although the radicals had not mobilised while the conservatives had. Timmerman, Murphy and Tanner all agree that this was a stupid move by Carr. It probably means that the split in the SL is now irreconcilable.
There are rumours that Carr might be seeking to align his conservatives with another section of the ALP right and
possibly some of the non-aligned. The ALP right has an interest in furthering divisions in the SL, but at the state conference it actually lost ground in the SL free-for-all, said Timmerman.
However, relatively little attention has gone towards formulating any detailed policy alternatives to those being followed by state and federal Labor governments.