If the Party is to survive as a membership based party, it must take its direction from the membership, it must exist to fight for the interests of its members. The argument that ‘we know what’s good for you’ has been disproven. It was disproven by the election of MacDonald, it was disproven when Rozendahl was placed at #1 on the Senate ticket, ahead of John Faulkner, it was disproven in the NSW lower house by the elections of the likes of Obeid and Reba Meagher, to pick just two, and it was disproven in Victoria when candidates in Gipsland who had received 90% support from the rank and file were overridden by factional choices, even though it broke the party’s own rules to do so.
The usual argument in favour of allowing the factions to choose candidates is that it allows the party to recruit ‘star candidates’. Apart from the party’s inability to pick stars from duds – see previous paragraph – the fact is that if someone is such a political star they will win a rank and file preselection. A demonstrated fear of a rank and file preselection ought to be enough to disqualify any would be candiate for high office.
Whilst some of your argument makes a lot of sense, and the track record of picking stars from duds in a drop-in preselection is very poor, your premise that Labor is a membership-based party is a false. Labor has always been a party with a strong union presence, and has always been an affiliate-based party with a membership addendum. Whilst your surface argument is about factions, it seems the real agenda is to push unions out of the Labor Party, which would leave it as no Labor party at all.
Labor was formed in an alliance between the unions (rather more of them than are currently affiliated) and the ‘Labor Leagues’ (the forerunners of the modern branches). Since then, we’ve seen repeated union amalgamations, in the name of efficiency, and we’ve seen branches increasingly sidelined, initially by N40s, more recently by Federal Interventions. One (probably) unintended consequence of amalgamations is that union members have far less say than they used to. Serious contested elections have become something of a rarity. At the same time, we’ve seen a move away from direct election of union delegates (used to be common, is now rare). So union members have largely lost control of their unions – even though they may be unhappy with the leadership, there is no alternative, and the cost of creating an alternative is much higher than it used to be when unions were smaller. Meanwhile, the branches have largely lost control over prelections. So we’ve moved away from a situation where unions choose the upper house and branches choose the lower house and ministers (mostly) come from the lower house to a situation where unions choose the upper house and the lower house and, if it matters, ministers can now come from the upper or lower house. Not to mention that many functions that used to be performed by branches are now performed by staffers (for eg, information gathering, analysis and diffusion). It’s not just about the ratio between unions delegates to conference and EC delegates to conference, it’s about membership based decision making within Unions just as much as it about membership based decision making within the branches. I agree that the Party is unlikely to survive without input from the labour movement, and that’s the problem. Thanks to inbreeding, too many unions aren’t representative of the labour movement. They’ve become gangrenous, and they’re poisoning the Party. Better to cure them than to amputate, but we have to do one or the other.
The Party has very different histories around the country, and perhaps there was a golden era in NSW as you describe. In the States I’ve been involved, the history is of 100% central preselection, with local votes being a more recent addition. With vastly different rules and histories, the issue you are railing against is seemingly universal.
In my experience, unions are more likely than branch members to break from their factional lines and vote with their own brains and hearts. Also, the feeling of powerlessness you feel is just the same for many union secretaries (think ETU and power privatisation). For them, they see activists like yourself trying to cut them out of decision making. The issues of exclusion from power is the same for both union and branch.
What you say about staffers is the go. That’s where all the power really went. It’s in the interests of the leaders/staffers of the moment to avoid internal disputation. They’re the ones who are running around fixing internal elections. They’re the ones shutting down internal debate at conference to avoid headlines about ALP brawling. They’re generally good people, but they’re day to day responsibilities are in direct conflict with your long term vision.
Not sure I’d use the word golden. I’d go so far as to say that there’s a long, rich and occasionally colourful history of preselections. Preselections aren’t perfect. But they’re a test of ability to organise and of ability to persuade. They’re an opportunity to flush out candidates with skeletons in the closet before they’re up for election, or up before ICAC or IBAC or whatever your local anti-corruption watchdog is called. As compared to imposed candidates who, seem mostly? entirely? to be chosen for loyalty or some other utility to some an existing power-broker.
I don’t want to see the unions cut out of the party – I accept I’m probably in the minority in that. What I do want to see is Union Secretaries doing what they used to do – winning the support of their members for what they want. In the case of power privatisation, that wouldn’t have been hard. Union members, from all unions, like party members, like the general public, they were all vocal in opposition to privatisation. And you’ll note, it went down on the floor of conference. So on that occasion, the system worked and it would have worked just as well in a democratic party – better in fact, because the next Premier after Iemma was rolled by the factions and his replacement did push through partial privatisation and in so doing turned what was always going to be a bad defeat into a worse one.
Under a reformed party, Factional powerbrokers will still win support for good ideas and good candidates. It’s the bad ideas and the bad candidates, the ones that currently go unchecked, that will (sometimes) be blocked.
Democracy’s messy. But it’s still the best system we’ve got.