The rank-and-file campaign for party democracy is the first step towards rebuilding NSW Labor
While the Campaign for Labor Party Democracy (CLPD) is in its infancy, its achievements have demonstrated that organised rank-and-filers can alter the direction of our party. If we continue to fight together we can restore a reasonable balance of power between the party’s officials and members. We should aspire to a party in which branch members have an inalienable right to preselect Labor representatives in the Nation’s Parliaments. MPs and the decisions they make in Parliament must reflect the beliefs and aspirations of its members. Until we can offer branch members a legitimate reason to remain active in NSW Labor we risk severing the organic links between the labour movement and working-class communities we rely on to form Government.
NSW Labor’s perennial corruption crises, public blow ups, and tendency to suspend rank-and-file democracy have mirrored a long-term decline in the party’s primary vote. Top-down ‘solutions’ to candidate preselection and policy disputes invariably favour the interests of party insiders at the expense of branch members. It seems that rank-and-file participation in party disputes is contingent upon our willingness to tow the leadership’s line. If the ruling clique cannot be sure that members will make the ‘right’ decision, then its praetorian guard immediately suspends any semblance of rank-and-file power.
Labor’s structural aversion to democracy is driving a collapse in the number of active branches and overall party membership. As former Labor Senator John Faulkner surmised in his 2014 C.E. Martin Memorial Address, the causes of this trend are clear:
“When party involvement is limited to branch meetings whose resolutions and recommendations are duly ignored. We shouldn’t be surprised.
When party involvement is limited to handing out how to vote cards on election day—the privilege for which we ask people to pay an annual fee. We shouldn’t be surprised.
When the tools of the electronic age are used to send endless emails asking for donations, but not to engage our membership in the processes and policy making of the party. Like us on Facebook but leave us alone. We shouldn’t be surprised.
When party conferences are little more than media spectacles where the important decisions were made by a handful of people months ago. We shouldn’t be surprised.”
The Coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this troubling tendency for two reasons. First, there are barriers to online activity. Many branch members are unable to use online meeting software such as zoom for financial and technical reasons. The party has not undertaken to resolve this issue by providing guidance to party-unit secretaries or by subsidising the cost of online meeting software. Second, the pandemic has provided an invaluable excuse for the leadership clique to supplant rank-and-file participation with its executive authority. The truth is that the suspension of party activity allows insiders to justify decisions most Labor members would otherwise disagree with.
After nearly two years of lockdowns, Head Office has not developed a mechanism for new members to join branches or vote in local preselections in a covid safe way. Under the guise of coronavirus restrictions, NSW Labor has opted to omit policy debates from its annual conference. Instead the 2021 event will be a one-day report back from MPs and party officials to a mostly silent online audience. The justification for this decision is that the Party was unable to find a way for delegates to debate and vote on platform changes. Head Office’s ‘solution’ to these challenges has been to totally suspend party democracy.
Last year, the Online Branch Meeting Campaign attempted to address some of the issues facing branch members in lockdown from the bottom-up. The campaign convened several general meetings of NSW Labor members to mobilise the rank-and-file behind progressive rules changes. With the help of hundreds of party members the campaign secured interim rules changes to permit online meetings. Proposals were discussed and ratified with simple online voting mechanisms available to anyone with an internet connection. We also stepped in to provide technical advice and paid zoom subscriptions to branch secretaries who wanted to meet online. The fact is that this was a relatively straightforward task. Rank-and-file activists organically kickstarted party unit activity without the membership fee revenue, donations, and staff enjoyed by head office officials.
The Online Branch Meeting Campaign has since morphed into a broader Campaign for Labor Party Democracy (CLPD) with three central goals.
First, to cement online and hybrid branch meetings in the NSW Labor rules. Slated changes to the rules governing online meetings are excessively restrictive, effectively giving an individual the power to veto digital meetings that might attract members who are elderly, disabled, or otherwise unable to attend meetings for work or caring reasons.
Second, to open up the party’s policy committee process to rank-and-file participation. Currently, policy development is largely undertaken behind closed doors. The committees responsible for translating branch motions into conference agenda items rarely meet and are generally secretive in their deliberations prior to conference.
Third, to defend Kevin Rudd’s 2013 reforms to the party’s internal rules umpires. On this issue we have had a number of victories following the silent withdrawal of proposed changes. The proposals would have given factional party officers the right to interfere in preselections, to expel members who criticise tribunal decisions, and to indefinitely defer independent adjudications of rules disputes.
While the Campaign for Labor Party Democracy is in its infancy, its achievements have demonstrated that organised rank-and-filers can alter the direction of our party. If we continue to fight together we can restore a reasonable balance of power between the party’s officials and members. We should aspire to a party in which branch members have an inalienable right to preselect Labor representatives in the Nation’s Parliaments. MPs and the decisions they make in Parliament must reflect the beliefs and aspirations of its members. Until we can offer branch members a legitimate reason to remain active in NSW Labor we risk severing the organic links between the labour movement and working-class communities we rely on to form Government.