Dick Nichols was elected national coordinator of the Socialist Alliance (SA) at its 5th national conference held in Geelong at the end of October. Green Left Weekly interviewed him about the challenges and opportunities for the SA in the year ahead.
Australia is in its 15th year of boom, the country has never been wealthier and even 40% of wage-earners now own shares. Not a very favourable scenario for the socialist message, surely?
Quite the reverse. The growing costs of this boom have increased the audience for the socialist message. This boom has been built on increased insecurity at work, expanding household debt, zillions more for the already rich and crumbs for the rest, bashing those on welfare and Indigenous people and tremendous pillage of our environment. And all this in the poisonous atmosphere of the "war on terror".
It's the reality that has created the popular saying: "If the economy's doing so well, why do I feel so bad?"
But how is it reflected in gains for the socialist message and the alliance?
To mention just a few: without the SA's contribution to the fight against Work Choices, it would have been even more narrowly a campaign to re-elect the ALP; the protests against Israel's criminal invasion of Lebanon would have been smaller; and the ongoing fight against Indigenous deaths in custody would have been more isolated.
Our experience is that the socialist movement can grow — especially if it can overcome tendencies to narrow propagandism, hair-splitting and navel-gazing. We're finding that wherever our local SA groups can consolidate themselves, more and more people attend our events, and use them to discuss their concerns.
That reflects the search for an alternative to neoliberal capitalism combined with the fact that, among thoughtful people, there's zero revival of belief in the ALP and suspiciousness towards the Greens' inconsistencies.
The alliance is also increasingly a door where people knock when they "want something done" about some environmental outrage or some cockroach boss who is forcing his staff onto AWAs. That's especially true in rural and regional Australia where SA is rebuilding a socialist presence after decades of absence.
The vote for socialist candidates is creeping up from a low base, but already, as in the case of Steve Jolly on Yarra City Council, shows that persistent championing of the needs of working class communities will be reflected in a bigger vote.
So socialist ideas can get a broader hearing today if we can build the platforms for meaningful political conversation.
But surely the Alliance can't be happy with a vote that hardly ever exceeds 2%?
In general, the vote for socialism can't grow faster than the growth of real movements of social resistance that open the door to broader anti-capitalist consciousness. Despite rising discontent, this constituency is still small.
It was clear from our recent conference that the alliance's main job is to carry on building the struggles for social justice and environmental sustainability, and to feed their demands into our election campaigns — both as pressure for change but also as arguments for socialism. In this way we strive to draw more people into activity, as well as articulating socialist solutions.
This work needs to be done and we're confident it will harvest us a bigger electoral impact down the track.
That leaves unanswered the question of whether the Socialist Alliance can ever get past the Greens. Can it?
That question implies a slightly sectarian approach to the Greens: it's not a foregone conclusion that the Greens in government will simply side with the interests of big capital. Certainly, there are strong tendencies to opportunism and "practical politics" in the Greens, but whether these win out will be decided by the forces in motion, inside and outside the Greens.
SA itself is one of those. We want to collaborate with the Greens as an organisation, as well as with individuals. Where our platforms are close we will even propose joint election campaigns to the Greens: we look to build whatever unity is possible among all forces struggling for social justice and against environmental degradation. The point, therefore, is not to "get past" the Greens, but to advance the anti-capitalist struggles on the ground.
Surely it's daydreaming to be talking about joint election campaigns with the Greens when the socialist movement itself still remains small and fragmented?
Of course, broad red-green anti-capitalist unity is not an immediate prospect. Let's not, however, minimise the assets that the left as a whole has built up, and can bring to bear in the struggle for such unity.
SA sympathisers and members have leadership positions in a few militant trade unions which have succeeded in putting some backbone into the fight over Work Choices. Valuable gains have also been made in strengthening links with the Indigenous struggle and its leaders.
The same applies to the positions in the student movement that Socialist Alternative and Resistance have managed to win and hold on to during the difficult fight against voluntary student unionism on campuses. Jolly's work in Richmond, and on the council, represents another valuable part of the left's support base.
In reality, an unplanned division of labour has developed between Australia's left organisations. This poses the question of strengthening our overall impact through greater unity. The alliance is a step along that road, but we are under no illusion that SA represents "the unity of the left". In fact, our conference resolution specifically reaffirmed our "core objective of promoting left unity and regroupment".
Advancing unity on the left is a practical challenge that we must take seriously. We should all be prepared to consider whatever forms of organisation, coordination and names which can advance it.