The trouble with Labor

Wednesday, December 11, 1991

John Hancock and the Rise of Victorian Labor
By Jim Claven
Australian Fabian Society and Pluto Press, 1991. 40 pp. $6.95
Labor's Troubled Times

Edited by David Burchell and Race Mathews
Australian Left Review, the Australian Fabian Society and Pluto Press. 79 pp. $6.95
Reviewed by Steve Painter

John Hancock was a printing industry union leader who became the first Labor Party member of parliament in Victoria when he was elected to represent the seat of Collingwood in 1891.

Jim Claven's brief pamphlet on Hancock is useful in filling in some of the personal dimension of the already well-known broad historical outlines of the early years of Australian unionism and the Labor Party.

Hancock was certainly no red revolutionary, nor was he even as politically conscious as his European counterparts who were building mass Social Democratic parties around this time. As president of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council in 1890, he told a gathering of the Chamber of Commerce that "what we want in this country is not socialism but capital and stability".

While his views later evolved leftward, he and others like him stopped short of challenging the framework of capitalist politics. "They were able to give practical expression to their socialist convictions in the realm of the legislature, something they could not have done in the framework of their union", wrote one commentator cited by Claven.

Thus, present weaknesses in the union movement and the Labor Party can be traced back to the very beginnings of the movement.

Labor's Troubled Times is a collection of essays dealing with the present-day ALP. For those with strong stomachs, Robert Ray and Bob Hogg outline mainstream Labor thinking, and the search for an explanation of Labor's decline in membership need go no farther than these contributions.

Lindsay Tanner's two essays make some pertinent criticisms of the Labor machine and suggestions for reform.

Marian Simms provides some useful analysis of Labor's failure to attract women despite a gross stupidity in the opening paragraph: "Solidarity — also known as mateship — has always worked to marginalise women and others who are not part of the Anglo-Celtic mainstream."

The Victorian nurses, the migrant steelworker unionists of Wollongong, the New York women garment workers whose 1908 strike is celebrated around the world each year at May Day, might all have something to say about that. Certainly, the neglect of women and migrants is a serious failing of the union movement, but surely we're entitled to a little more precision of thought than a complete dismissal of useful traditions — and the women and migrant unionists who helped to create them.

Some of the other essayists thrash about the bush excessively to no her demonstration of the bankruptcy of much soft left thought, but the pamphlet is still worth a read for those who think there's some point in knowing what's going on in the Labor Party.

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