“So, how come the left is so divided?”, we get asked routinely. After a conversation in which we try to put 150 years of struggle into its historical context, they inevitably respond with: “Yes, but don’t you think you’d be able to fight the right better if you were bigger and stronger?”
The answer is yes!
The February 5 announcement in Melbourne’s Herald Sun that the Victorian Socialists — an alliance of socialist groups and individuals — will contest the Northern Metropolitan Regional upper house seat in the Victorian elections in November flags a new, exciting opening for the left and progressive movements.
There have been unity projects before: Socialist Alliance itself was born from one such effort in 2001. Now, we are aiming to get a socialist elected to Victoria’s parliament and the move is being supported by two socialist organisations, some unions and many left activists.
This has not happened since the Communist Party of Australian member, Fred Patterson, won a state seat in north Queensland in 1944, after several years of being a councillor.
If the momentum on the Victorian Socialists Facebook page is anything to go by — 1000 people were following it within 2 days — it is not an exaggeration to say that this initiative has captured people’s imaginations. It is exciting to think about how effective this campaign could become.
It is not just that Steve Jolly, the lead candidate, has a strong track record as a fighter and socialist activist. Jolly has been a long-time Yarra councillor, one of the local government areas included in the Northern Metropolitan seat. He played a critical role in saving Richmond Secondary College in the 1990s from closure. He played a key role in the community-led campaign to stop the East West Tunnel and, more recently, supporting the Carlton and United Brewery strikers.
Sue Bolton, Victoria’s only other socialist councillor, is number 2 on the ticket. Bolton, a founder of Socialist Alliance, is a community leader on the Moreland Council. She was also instrumental in stopping the East West Link and has initiated fightbacks around local environmental issues, including the toxic dump in Fawkner. By running as the number two candidate, Bolton can harness the support from anti-racist, Islamic, First Nations and disability activists.
Colleen Bolger, a lawyer and activist from Socialist Alternative, is the third candidate on the ticket. This brings together two of Australia’s most significant socialist forces, a broad range of left activists and, hopefully, some unions. It allows us to build unity by working together on a campaign.
A broader left is an urgent necessity right now. Without a much stronger opposition, the racist backlash that the Trump era is trying to normalise appears to be gaining ground.
How else could the PM Malcolm Turnbull get away with his disgraceful attack on the Sudanese community, blaming them for “gang” violence?
Turnbull and immigration minister Peter Dutton are keen to take potshots at the Victorian Labor government in an election year. But while the Daniel Andrew’s government has barely sustained a graze, the very vulnerable combined African community has been left reeling and open to further attack.
This is where the Victorian Socialists could make a difference. Winning a seat in the Victorian parliament cannot turn around years of attacks and marginalisation. But it would help champion progressive ideas in a mainstream way.
Just imagine a socialist MP turning the spotlight back on the government and bosses for their attacks on unions and their lock-outs. Or demanding that public housing and public transport stay in public hands and not be run down and privatised. Or standing up our health and education services, and demanding that the cuts and outsourcing be reversed.
Imagine a voice inside parliament that is accountable to the working class and marginalised communities.
It’s not just about raising these demands. A socialist in parliament gives the left access to resources, “insider” information and greater campaign opportunities. The left should never forget how Pauline Hanson used her first term of office in 1996 to mobilise a right-wing base of support.
Jolly and the Victorian Socialists could use the platform to build the case for socialism but building the campaigns to defend workers’ rights, standing up to corporate power and racist scapegoating and giving voice to the social and environmental movements.
Of course, the Greens should be doing this too but, as a party, they’re just not as convinced as we are that the system stinks.
Not all projects are perfect. But can we really afford to sit around and wait until the perfect coalition comes along. Why don’t you join us now?
[Sue Bull is the co-convenor of Geelong Socialist Alliance and a long-time union activist.]