Sunday, February 27, 2011

Labor Culture at a Senior and a Student Level

above: what's wrong with ALP culture?

Nb: the following is an intervention regarding the culture of organised factions on the Left and Right of the Australian Labor Party. (ALP) It considers the perspective of student politics and the observances the author made when he was involved in that context many years ago. But all the observations are of relevance for the broader labour movement and ALP as well…

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By Tristan Ewins

Rivalry between the factions in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) often gets in the way of productive dialogue on issues, values and strategies. Early on young Labor activists are encouraged to become part of an almost 'tribal' culture. The result is entrenched and inflexible positions and rivalries; a lack of engagement.

But along the way in the 1980s and 90s Labor 'lost the plot'. Some leading parliamentary figures from the ALP Right painted a picture of the Left as stuck in a ‘state socialist rut’. According to this interpretation anything apart from the most minimalist position on the role of the state left one branded a ‘statist’. But in the 80s and 90s it was the traditions of mainstream social democracy that the party lost sight of. Privatisation and tax cuts became ‘the answer to everything’, and gradually – over many years – the party lost sight of its commitment to a mixed economy; a fair labour market & the dignity of labour; a fair tax system and social wage – based on principles of social justice, compassion and redistribution.

For my own part there is also today a commitment to economic democracy, participatory media, liberal education and active citizenship – But I want to focus here on the way Labor traditions and identity were ‘emptied out’ – including in the Left.

Today the Left is also losing sight of past values and traditions: and a mix of liberal multiculturalism and equal opportunity – while important – are not enough to fill the void. The electoral challenge posed by the Greens, and their mobilisation of an important part of Labor’s traditional membership and electoral support bases are making some sit up and take notice – but there is little recognition of the need to reclaim our traditions and values in response.

And yes Labor does need to balance an electoral support base involving more internal contradictions than do the Greens; but we have all but walked away from most issues of social and distributive justice, including the class interests of our core supporters.

ALP National Conference is still highly-stage-managed and considered non-binding, and there is little scope for real grassroots mobilisation and influence despite any rhetoric to the contrary. The Labor grassroots are withering as attempts to control the tenor of debate leave many disillusioned, sidelined, frustrated.

To begin, we might like to start making a changes at the level of student politics. Being a PhD student I think I’m in a position to put some positions based on past experience in the 1990s. So many people learn the ‘factional ropes’ of patronage and tribalism early on.  The intensity of the 'tribal' influence is used to discipline factional and sub-factional support bases.  This culture is fostered at the expense of grassroots activism and engagement on the level of ideas between ordinary members across factional lines.

To promote a shift in culture at the senior party level, at a grassroots and student level – across factional lines - we need to develop an activist culture; a culture of engagement; a culture which draws from Labor’s social democratic, social liberal and democratic socialist values and traditions. And we need a vision for social justice that is deeper than educational equal opportunity. (valid but on its own not enough) But by reproducing the culture of tribalism and patronage we instead often become part of the problem.

A good place to start bridging the gap between the factions is to encourage rigorous debate on values; but also a realistic appraisal of how such values might be applied in policy, and in various levels of mobilisation in the party, the broader labour movement, and other social movements.

The commitment of the Labor student Left to free education is often put forward as a defining distinction between they and Student Unity. (ie: the relatively right-wing faction) In terms of values – providing free education is an admirable objective. Education – after all - is more than a commodity.

Assuming the ambition of progressively broadening the tax base by as much as 1.5% of GDP over the course of each term of reforming Labor government, though – with the aim of improving the social wage – what are our priorities?; How much can we achieve, and how soon?

As well as free education, then, we have welfare reform for the unemployed, the aged and the disabled; a National Disability Insurance Scheme for both recipients and carers; provision of quality Aged Care for all with the need; investment in public primary and secondary education; investment in public housing with the aim of boosting supply and making home ownership affordable again…

Then there’s the need to make water and energy affordable for all. (possibly involving strategic re-socialisation) And there’s dental care, the mental health crisis, ‘closing the gap’ for indigenous peoples, and tackling climate change – including through investment in renewable energy and public transport, and through smart urban planning.

And there’s the claim by women unionists in the community services sector for fair pay, and against effective gender discrimination in the labour market. Reform here in the community and public sectors would involve a serious amount of money.

Even with an inflow of approximately $15 billion of new revenue every year (in the context of an economy worth well over $1 trillion) we couldn’t achieve all of this in one term of Labor government. We could only achieve all of this over the long term; with sustained reform of tax and the social wage. (Although there’s an awful lot we COULD achieve with that kind of money as well!!)

That said – assuming all these priorities – what kind of policies for reform in higher education are achievable – desirable in the ‘big picture’ of a medium to long term vision for reform? And where do we begin the journey – ‘right here and now’? When we consider competing priorities – for instance the indignity and suffering experienced by many in Aged Care – it is clear that some issues take precedence.

Instead of free education ‘right here’ ‘right now’ the Student/Youth Allowance is a critical area. The insufficient nature of the payment forces students to take up part-time work; and this can detract from studies – in which the community and individual students have made an investment. So increasing the Student Allowance is critical.

Then there’s HECS. HECS was originally introduced to finance a massive expansion of higher education. But since its original incarnation it has become ever more regressive. Repayment thresholds have gradually lowered in relative terms – and regardless of any real financial gain in the labour market. And the level of student contributions has also spiralled out of control beyond that imagined by those who originally established the policy.

On the other hand – HECS is like “a tax you have without having a tax”. Structured correctly, it could have the same effect as progressive taxation; while slow and strategic increases in progressive taxation elsewhere could fund other crucial priorities. So it’s the tiers, thresholds, and level of contributions that need reform for the here and now – rather than an absolute withdrawal of the entire policy.

These are the kind of areas where we need dialogue ‘across factional lines’. Movement on these fronts isn't likely without a change in party culture; and that means we need figures in Unity to take the lead in changing our agenda and culture as well as figures in the Left. And we need to start from the premises that we are all in that spectrum that ranges from Centre-Left to Left; and in this we have common purpose.

We also need recognise that electoralism alone is not sufficient. What is needed is ‘movement politics’: mobilising a cross section of social forces - unions, progressive parties, social movements and lobby groups -in support of a reform agenda.

So ‘right from the word go’ we need to recognise that back-room deals and back-stabbing are not going to deliver reform. A disciplined alliance of party activists, social movements, lobby groups and organised labour on the broad Left/Centre-Left need to co-ordinate their cultural and electoral efforts with a shared long-term plan for reform until all joint aims are achieved via mobilisation and solidarity.

Consider for a moment at the student-political level in Australia - What’s really most important in the big picture, then?: This cultural struggle or ‘who gets NUS (National Union of Students) President’? That I even have to pose that question is indicative of the problem that demands the attention of us all…

Tristan Ewins is a PhD student, freelance writer, and veteran ALP activist; He maintains this - the 'Left Focus' blog

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