Who should the Socialist Alliance gives its preferences to?



The discussion around the issue of the Socialist Alliance's preference policy at its founding conference revealed differences within the alliance over its orientation toward the Labor Party and the Greens which will undoubtedly be revisited in the discussion of preference policy at the alliance's state conferences and in its local electorate branches.

The alliance's founding conference voted by a more than a two-thirds majority to recommend to the local groups and state conferences to allocate preferences in the next federal election to pro-working class Green and/or progressive candidates then to Labor before the Coalition parties, with One Nation candidates to be put last. The final allocation of the alliance's preferences will be decided seat by seat, and state by state for the Senate.

The compulsory preferential voting system used in federal elections in Australia is a mixed blessing for parties seeking to break the hegemony of the traditional parties of capitalist government, the Liberal-National Coalition and the ALP. It allows left-wing voters to vote for the party whose policies they most agree with, but also compels them to decide which of the two big pro-capitalist parties they prefer to have in government.

Almost everyone on the left agrees that when it comes down to this final choice we'd prefer the ALP over the Coalition. But the danger is that in overstating our "support" for the ALP we can undercut the political dynamic of an escalating destruction of illusions among working people in the ALP, a dynamic that has made the Socialist Alliance possible.

One of the posters put out by the Socialist Alliance in the last British general election featured mug-shots of Labour PM Tony Blair and then Tory leader William Haig accompanied by the statement: "A vote for them is a vote for privatisation". That's the sort of sharp political message against both the Coalition and Labor that the Socialist Alliance in Australia needs to send out. We should not allow our preference for a Labor over a Coalition government to get in the way of this message.

For well over a decade there has been a huge "reluctant Labor vote" as well as a growing vote for minor parties. The process of disaffection with the ALP is far advanced but the emergence of a credible left political alternative has not kept pace.

Creating such an alternative is the challenge that faces the Socialist Alliance. If we seriously want to do this, then our election campaigning must be overwhelmingly against the pro-corporate policies of both the Coalition and the ALP. A one-sided "anti-Liberal" campaign won't do the job.

The Socialist Alliance will not win a serious hearing among the radical activists in the anti-corporate movement or even among the reluctant Labor voters if it presents itself as a ginger group to the ALP.

Historically frozen analysis

The conference discussion revealed that some of the smaller left groups in the Socialist Alliance were clinging on to a false characterisation of the Labor Party based on a historically frozen analysis. It goes like this: the ALP was formed by the trade unions and the trade unions have institutional weight at its conferences, therefore the ALP is a working-class party. But if we want to look at ALP history we also have to note that since its formation, ALP governments have overwhelmingly used this connection with the unions to con the working class into supporting capitalist Labor governments.

This is why we in the Democratic Socialist Party think that Lenin's 1920 characterisation of the British Labour Party as "an organisation of the bourgeoisie that exists to systematically dupe the workers" applies equally to the ALP.

Another false argument is that a party's class character should be judged by what class most of its supporters belong to. Hence, argued some delegates at the Socialist Alliance conference, the ALP is a working-class party because of its "working-class base". But there is very poor logic here as history is full of examples of capitalist parties which have had the support of the majority of workers, and even the formal allegiance of most of the unions in a particular country.

Every political party is a voluntary organisation that seeks governmental power in order to implement a range of policies that, whether its members are conscious of it or not, advance the interests of a particular class. The class character of a party is therefore determined by the class interests the party promotes. If a party — like the ALP — systematically promotes the interest of the capitalist class then it is best described as a capitalist party.

Today the ALP remains the party that most workers will vote for, albeit increasingly reluctantly, but our challenge is to build a credible left alternative and win the allegiance of those workers away from the ALP.

Preference policy and the Greens

Another issue in the discussion at the conference was how we should treat the Greens in the Socialist Alliance's preference policy. The general rule recommended, of preferencing pro-working class Green and left candidates before the ALP, is sound.

Hopefully, the local discussion around concrete preference options will focus all Socialist Alliance members' minds on the main objective behind our preference tactics, i.e., getting the best hearing from the leftward moving layers of the population. Regardless of whether these layers are intending to vote for the Greens or not, it makes more sense for our preferences to be ranked on the basis of the degree to which the actual policy of these left and Green candidates advance "working class interests" in the broadest sense. The Greens' own preference policy is only one aspect of their overall policy.

Dogmatically preferencing an allegedly "working-class" ALP ahead of the Greens, as was advocated at the conference by Workers Power, would be a mistake. Making the alliance's preference for the Greens ahead of Labor absolutely contingent on the Greens directing their preferences to the ALP ahead of the Coalition parties, as the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) and Workers Liberty advocated, would also have been counterproductive: it would accentuate our support for the election of a Labor government over and above our appeal for people to help us build an alternative to Labor.

We can visualise situations where it could be good to use our preference policy to highlight our differences with the Greens: for instance, if the Greens were to repeat their politically expensive mistake of preferencing Coalition candidates over the ALP, as they did in Queensland in 1995.

But we should also remember that we criticise the Greens for supporting pro-capitalist, social-democratic governments. In fact, it has been when the Greens have participated in unprincipled alliances with Labor or social-democratic governments — for example, Tasmania in 1990 and today in Germany — that their political weaknesses have been most clearly demonstrated.

Criticising the Greens for helping elect a Coalition government is one thing, but making alliance's preference policy contingent on the Greens' refusal to allocate preferences or to split preferences between the two major capitalist parties would be a tactical mistake. It would weaken the alliance's ability to win a hearing for the alliance's criticism of the Greens electoral opportunism from many of the existing left-leaning Green supporters.

Many radical activists and former traditional Labor voters don't want to give any votes to any of the parties which have consistently implemented the neo-liberal attacks over two decades. We should identify strongly with this healthy gut response, even though the Socialist Alliance chooses to exercise the secondary tactic of preferencing Labor over the Coalition.

David Glanz of the ISO argued that the preference policy which was eventually adopted by the majority of delegates would give a "blank cheque to the Greens". But the greater danger to our primary objective of building a socialist alternative in Australia today is in being seen to give a blank cheque to the ALP.

[Peter Boyle is a member of the national executive of the Democratic Socialist Party and was a delegate to the inaugural Socialist Alliance conference.]

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