Why socialists should run for parliament

August 16, 2018
Steve O'Brien (left) and Sam Ashby campaigning for the Socialist Alliance in the Newcastle local elections last year.

Last September, while campaigning for the position of Lord Mayor of Newcastle and a ward councillor, I bumped into an NSW Labor Party officer at a coffee shop.

“Comrade”, he said, “You’ve got some great policies”. “Feel free to borrow any of them,” I relied cheekily. “Our housing policy, for example, is based on Socialist Alliance councillor Sue Bolton's work in Moreland, Victoria.”

The next day the local papers reported that ALP candidates were talking up “affordable housing”. Up until then, only the socialist candidates had been talking about gentrification and the need for affordable housing.

This is a good example of why Socialist Alliance contests elections: to raise class awareness and put forward solutions. Sometimes we are elected: Socialist Alliance councillors have now been re-elected in Moreland and Fremantle, Western Australia.

Steve Jolly, from a different socialist group and now running in the state elections as lead candidate for the Victorian Socialists, in which Socialist Alliance is involved, has been a long-standing socialist in the Yarra Council.

Last year in Newcastle, Socialist Alliance won 4% of the vote in the ward we contested and gained 2% for Lord Mayor. That's not huge, but there were specific areas where our vote was as high as 10%. We sought to work with other socialist comrades and progressive networks, and raised our profile as activists and trade unionists.

A trip to the neighbourhood shop now takes a little longer, as people often stop me to talk about things of concern.

The socialist vote here remains weak compared to the support being shown for the socialism of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and United States Senator Bernie Sanders. But their open identification with socialism represents a big challenge to the neoliberal orthodoxy which has reigned supreme for 40 years under Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

In Australia, Labor governments, including those of Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard ran their own brand of neoliberalism — attacking trade unions and the working class — with cuts to services and Accord-style politics.

The Greens have been the main beneficiaries of Labor's shift to the right. However, the emergence of a stronger, independent, progressive and Green vote has not yet led to a strong anti-capitalist political alternative.

Despite its limitations, voting is important. Winning the right to vote, particularly for women, was a victory. It is being undermined in different ways for example, by attempts to discourage young people from even enrolling to vote.

For us, running in elections is about trying to reach people on the issues they are most concerned about: cuts to community services, including transport, privatisations and job security.

We want to encourage people to question corporate power and to get more active in building the movements. It is less about advancing abstract revolutionary slogans, as putting forward some concrete anti-capitalist solutions.

The Bolshevik Party experience in pre-revolutionary Russia is interesting to study. In the fourth parliament (Duma) of 1912-14, the six Bolshevik deputies were workers, closely linked to other factory workers.

Until the Duma was dissolved at the outbreak of the World War I in 1914, the Bolshevik parliamentarians led struggles both inside and outside of parliament. In 1917, when the Russian Revolution broke out, workers remembered their efforts and the Bolshevik Party grew rapidly and won a majority.

Here, the pro-capitalist Labor Party, both then and now, tells workers: “We’ll fix it. Don’t struggle, just vote for us at election time”.

There is one politician I really admire. In 1995, I attended a conference in El Salvador where I interviewed a former army officer from Venezuela, who had just been released from prison.

He spoke about returning to Venezuela to start a movement among the workers and peasants which, he said, in alliance with progressive military forces, would change Venezuela.

I was a little sceptical.

However, Hugo Chavez did everything he said he would, and more.

Australia does have some good socialist election experiences to learn from. I remember ads on Broken Hill TV in 1969 calling for a vote for “your Communist candidates, Bill Flynn and Bill Wiley”.

The Communist duo were consistently elected to the City Council and Flynn polled as many as 1645 votes, or around 40%, in his ward.

They published a community newsletter, The Plod, which raised demands such as for a second high school and to nationalise the mines.

For four years in the late 1940s, the Shire of Kersley in the Hunter Valley had a majority of Communist councillors and a Communist mayor. There were a number of Communist councillors elsewhere too, before socialists started to get elected again in the 2000s.

Socialists have also been elected to state parliaments: Percy Brookfield, an Industrial Socialist, represented Broken Hill in the NSW parliament until he was assassinated in 1921 and Fred Paterson was twice elected the Communist Party of Australia Member for Bowen in Queensland.

Socialists and communists have a proud tradition of doing effective anti-capitalist work in capitalist parliaments — by shaking things up and resisting the powerful pull to conform.

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