Who wants a two-party system?

September 3, 2010

Socialist Alternative’s Corey Oakley thinks many on the Australian left have got the federal election wrong.

There is nothing positive about the balance of power being held by four independent MPs and one Green, he wrote in an August 27 article on the Socialist Alternative website.

He said the left should be fearful of the independents, but some activists were wrongly celebrating the new role of these reactionary politicians.

As evidence, he cited two Green Left Weekly articles by Tim Anderson and Graham Matthews. Oakley said both articles made the “ludicrous argument” that the election outcome opened up big opportunities for the left.

He also said Matthews made an even bigger mistake, by “pointing out the positives of a proto-fascist like [independent MP Bob] Katter”.

The trouble for Oakley is that neither of the articles he mentioned back up his claims. He badly misrepresented both authors.

The real issue in dispute is not about GLW’s supposed creeping decline towards fascism, but Oakley’s very different assessment of the election result.

In his article, Anderson did not imply that the left should give political endorsement to the independent MPs. Nor did he raise hopes that the left can rely on them to deliver progressive change.

Rather, his message was that the election result presented a “great opportunity for social change” and that the left should prepare to make the most of it.

He said: “Disillusionment with the two right-wing parties has created an outcome where a few populist MPs and the Greens will have a chance to demand some institutional change. That is not enough, but it is important.”

Furthermore, Anderson said this disillusionment, which showed up in the record-high vote for the Greens, has also opened new space for the social movements to raise “genuine voices for popular struggles” and build “platforms to raise and strengthen the popular demands”.

Anderson made an astute point. Earlier than most, he drew attention to an important outcome of the election — a new potential for the left to respond actively to this big electoral disenchantment with the two big capitalist parties.

The election revealed two contradictory shifts in Australian society: motion to the left and the right.

A majority still voted for the two major parties — both of which had moved even further rightwards. But a significant minority voted to the left of Labor, in opposition to this rightward trend.

The Greens received most of this progressive protest vote from disaffected ex-Labor voters.

The failure of either major party to win a majority, and the high Green vote, is a partial break from Australia’s two-party system. This is new in Australian politics — something the socialist left should welcome and seek to deepen.

The strong showing for the Greens will exert new pressures on them too. On one hand, there will be mounting demands on them from the corporate media and big business to conform to the rules of shallow electoral politics.

But an opposing pressure will come from people who voted Greens in record numbers precisely because the party challenged the neoliberal policies of Labor and the Coalition from the left.

The weakening of the two-party system presents a challenge for the left to link up with these leftward moving forces in social movements for genuine change.

But it’s on this point that Oakley disagrees most.

He said: “Another argument is that breaking the two-party domination of parliament is in itself a progressive aim. This too is garbage.”

To justify this stance, he took refuge in a very old theory: Labor represents the Australian working class, even though it has a pro-capitalist leadership.

Oakley said: “The fact that there are two major parties in Australian politics reflects the fact that there are two major social classes, the working class and the capitalists, whose interests are fundamentally counterposed.

“The problem is that the Labor Party, which is linked to the workers movement, doesn’t stand up for the interests of workers but is a craven servant of the rich.”

But the idea that Labor is something of a working-class party bears little resemblance to reality. Labor is no more a workers party than is the Democratic Party in the US.

Oakley’s argument that the two big parties represent the two major classes in Australian society is baseless.

Despite its base in the trade union bureaucracy, Labor remains the Australian capitalist class’s alternative party of government.

The domination of Labor and the Coalition stems from many factors, including Australia’s undemocratic electoral system, the relative weakness of Australia’s social movements and the past ability of Labor to buy off or tame dissent and redirect it into safe, electoral channels.

Unlike Oakley, Anderson posed the need to break the domination of the two capitalist parties as a precondition for a lasting progressive advance.

Anderson said: “First of all, the problem has to be clear — both of our major parties serve a tiny corporate elite, which likes to play them off against each other, to discipline them. This oligarchy (tightly interlocked finance, mining, media and investment groups) likes ‘change’ amongst the administrators, but never allows them ‘power’.”

Oakley’s reluctance to abandon his outdated view of Labor as a working-class party explains why he reacted to Matthew’s article with such fury.

Matthews examined the political record of the independent MPs. He pointed out that on a range of burning issues they actually had a better stance than Labor. He concluded with the modest claim that this “will certainly make for an interesting parliamentary term”.

But merely reporting these facts undermines Oakley’s theory about the working-class nature of Labor. It doesn’t make the indepdents “leftists”, but it reveals just how far to the right Labor is.

After all, even Katter, who Oakley calls a “right-wing nut job”, opposes Labor’s racist intervention in the Northern Territory.

Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor stand to the left of this supposed workers party on issues such as renewable energy and action on climate change.

Andrew Wilkie wants to end Labor’s support for the brutal war of conquest in Afghanistan, opposes Labor’s same-sex marriage ban and is against Labor’s scapegoating of refugees.

The point is not that these independents will spearhead social change. The opportunity for the left lies in these issues now being opened to a far wider public debate. This provides a new opportunity for the left and the social movements to build their influence and make their voices heard.

Most of all, Oakley is gloomy about the election result because he has missed the leftward motion of a section of the working class.

This motion is contradictory, partial and has been expressed mostly in the electoral realm, rather than in the social movements. But the motion is real and it is positive.

The good news is that more people than before are rejecting the two-party system in favour of left alternatives. The big test for the socialist movement is to make this break more decisive.

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