Challenges for Labor in Sydney council elections

September 6, 1995

By Brian Jones
SYDNEY — The Leichhardt and Marrickville Councils elections on September 9 offer some interesting insights into the politics of the inner west and reveal some of the problems the ALP is facing at the local level. The area traditionally has been a Labor stronghold, but disaffection with the ALP stretching back two decades has spawned a variety of left, feminist and alternative politics — the latest of which is the No Aircraft Noise (NAN) Party.
In Leichhardt Council, it is anticipated that the Community Independents, led by the current mayor, Larry Hand, will consolidate themselves as the largest group, followed by the ALP.
The defection to the Community Independents of two sitting ALP councillors, Kate Butler and Trevor Snape, will assist this. Butler, a prominent leader of Labor Women before it was abolished by the ALP right, and Snape are understood to have left the ALP over the third runway, the rigidity of the caucus system and the poor performance of Labor generally.
The Community Independents, who are to the left of Labor, include many former ALP members, including some who have been expelled. They have grown as the ALP's influence on the council has declined.
A vicious ALP faction fight in the inner west in the 1970s resulted in the left recruiting more members. The factional struggle culminated in the brutal bashing of Peter Baldwin in 1980. By this time the left had the numbers to secure federal and state seats, and it dominated Leichhardt Council. However, having beaten the right at the numbers game, the left did nothing to develop an alternative political movement.
By the mid-1980s branch membership had fallen markedly, in part due to the right-wing nature of the federal Hawke government. The performance of state MP Peter Crawford was so poor that Labor lost the seat of Balmain to independent Dawn Fraser.
In the 1991 council elections, the ALP gained only four positions out of 12, a far cry from 1980, when it secured all 12 positions. That ALP group subsequently split, and Councillors Butler and Snape voted for Hand in the 1994 mayoral election instead of the Labor candidate.
On September 9 the ALP is expected to win three or four positions, while the Community Independents could win up to six.
The rise and fall of the ALP's fortunes are tied up with an inherent weakness of the party: the leadership is largely concerned with winning elections, rather than campaigning for progressive politics. The membership is used as faction fodder, and recruitment is driven by the "numbers game".
Is history going to repeat itself in Marrickville? The battle between the left and right ALP factions is more recent and less nasty. The left now has both the state and federal seats, and heads up the ALP tickets in all three wards in the council elections.
In 1991, while the left was not the majority in the ALP group elected to council, Barry Cotter (from the left) was elected mayor because he could deliver votes from the Green and Progressive Independent councillors to the ALP.
This time around, the ALP will be challenged by the Greens and NAN as well as former right-wing ALP councillors. Labor rebuffed the NAN challenge at the recent state election. However, NAN would expect to pick up some council positions if it can repeat its state election vote. The ALP left, having finally overtaken the right, may find itself under immediate challenge from left political forces outside the party.
Added to this, the social composition of the inner west has changed: a younger white-collar population, which includes a substantial progressive component, is replacing the older working class. The ALP left has used this to knock over the right. The irony, for Labor, is that the progressive part of the electorate is now challenging it. This is a clear illustration of the weakness of the strategy of trying to reform Labor from within.

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