A socialist breakthrough in Victoria
A socialist breakthrough in Victoria

“Win, lose or draw, I could not be prouder of the campaign we’ve all been part of.” Jerome Small, Victorian Socialists candidate for the Northern Metropolitan region, summed it up well to an elated, exhausted crowd of hundreds at the Victorian Socialists’ post-election party. Throughout months of campaigning, it felt like we were having an impact, connecting with people who feel abandoned by the major parties, angry at the system and open to socialist solutions. As the results came trickling in on election night, we knew this feeling was right.

Almost 60,000 people cast a first preference vote for Victorian Socialists in electorates across the north and west of Melbourne. The campaign we embarked on was double the size of the party’s first attempt in the 2018 state election. At that time, we ran only in the north. This time we took on the west as well. This meant campaigning to a combined electorate of more than 1 million people.

Our vote went up substantially in the north, with a positive swing in every electorate. Some places received outstanding votes, including around 8 percent in Broadmeadows and Brunswick.

The results in the west are a vindication of running a more ambitious campaign. We received an average of around 5 percent, including impressively high votes between 6 and 7 percent in Laverton, Kororoit and St Albans. In Footscray, we recorded our best vote anywhere, of 9.4 percent at the time of writing, for socialist councillor Jorge Jorquera. The upper house tends to lose votes due to the large and confusing ballot paper. But even still, we received close to 4 percent in both the west and north.

The results surpassed the expectations of all but our most optimistic supporters, let alone those of our detractors. While campaigning in Footscray, Bill Shorten said to a Victorian Socialists volunteer who criticised the Labor Party for privatising public services, “Enjoy your 2 percent”. The zinger backfired on election night when the numbers for Footscray came in, including numbers from individual booths, the highest of which recorded a 23 percent vote for Victorian Socialists.

It is especially impressive for a new socialist party to have received such support without there being a left-wing polarisation or high levels of class struggle. Our success is down to an impressive ground campaign (including knocking on 190,000 doors) and a clear political purpose.

In fact, the space for the left was relatively limited in the election. The media ran a relentless right-wing campaign against Daniel Andrews, attacking his government for its early attempts to stamp out COVID-19. They amplified the voices of the fringe far right and its infamous “freedom movement”. Fortunately, the far right and the Liberal Party did not win what the media frequently referred to as a “referendum on the pandemic”.

But the media campaign also meant that the most progressive face of the Labor Party was highlighted, and the government faced very little left-wing criticism despite its years of attacks on public services, workers and the poor. Even the Greens refused to critique seriously the Andrews’ government, instead preferring to talk about their positive role in “lobbying” it.

Despite this, socialists were able to carve out a small space for radical politics. We argued that the system is rigged for the rich and the politicians who serve them. Economic inequality is not a given. The cost-of-living crisis is not a given. Workers need a pay rise. We need to reverse privatisation, fully nationalise health care, education and energy, and inject billions of public money into these services.

Other, supposedly progressive, campaigners counter-posed themselves to our volunteers by pointing out that they were “focused on moderate, evidence-based policies” (Reason) or that they “had all policies costed by Treasury” (the Greens). The Victorian Socialists have also costed our policies. We will fund them by stripping the billionaires of their obscene wealth. As far as evidence for the necessity of this goes, time and again voters raised their horror stories of being overworked or overlooked when it comes to essential services.

Healthcare and aged care workers raised the ways they are being wrung dry. People recounted having to wait hours for ambulances to arrive or being sent away from emergency rooms because there was no capacity. A voter in Laverton spoke to me about how he had recently become a full-time carer for his ageing mother because she didn’t qualify for NDIS support and was terrified of going into aged care.

A woman working in state emergency housing recounted to a Victorian Socialists volunteer that, rather than providing people in need with apartments or motel rooms, she was reduced to offering people tents. That this goes on in a wealthy state in which thousands of houses stand empty every night should be a scandal.

No wonder people responded positively when we argued that we need to end the homelessness crisis, freeze rents and ban multiple investment properties. In the lead-up to the election, Victorian Socialists campaigned to save the old Footscray hospital site from being sold off to developers. We organised a community survey to field suggestions as to what the site should be used for. The most popular response was public housing, something that the Labor Party has been selling off. And in Preston we are part of a campaign to save the Preston market from being demolished in favour of high-rise apartments. This campaign has garnered wide support throughout the electorate, reflected in the votes for both Victorian Socialists and Gaetano Greco, a local left-wing independent.

Victorian Socialists also campaigned for radical action on climate change in one of the largest carbon-emitting states per capita anywhere in the world. For the thousands of people who see through the Labor Party’s greenwashing, a vote for the socialists was a vote for urgent action, for shutting down the fossil fuels industry rather than pandering to it.

The same goes for refugee and migrant rights. Victorian Socialists volunteers spoke to hundreds of people languishing on temporary visas that make them insecure and vulnerable to hyper-exploitation. We were able to tell people not only that Victorian Socialists supports full citizenship rights for all refugees and migrants, but also that some of the most prominent refugee activists in Melbourne are committed members of VS.

Throughout the campaign, we had thousands of conversations, in particular at doors and on the polls, but also at stalls, political forums and rallies. Because there is no general surge towards socialism, the basis on which people voted socialist was varied. For some, the most compelling reason to vote socialist was around a specific issue. For many, it was a combination of our policies and arguments. For most, I would wager that it was to do with the fact that we call out the electoral racket and the wider social system.

Rather than present a series of policies designed by a PR team, Victorian Socialists has the conviction and politics to argue that we will fight for workers and the oppressed, that we won’t be part of politics as usual, and instead want to use positions in parliament to build resistance to the injustices of capitalism.

This message cut through in different electorates and different demographics. One of the most significant aspects of the recent campaign, building on our approach in previous campaigns, is that we have managed to win solid votes in inner-city progressive seats, as well as in traditional working-class seats.

The anti-working-class stereotype that the left enjoys support only in affluent, highly educated communities is peddled by most political commentators and parties, including the Greens. But socialists take the working class seriously. We want to win people to fighting in their class interests, and to left-wing political positions that will strengthen our side. Broadmeadows remains our most successful seat in the north, and is also the most solidly working-class seat in the country. We out-polled the Greens there, as we did in Thomastown and Greenvale. And in the west, apart from Footscray, our best votes were in solidly working-class seats.

Among the people who voted socialist at this election, there was also a minority for whom it meant something deeper than just supporting the best party on offer. For people looking for a more serious alternative to capitalism, voting socialist was about supporting the growth of a conscious, radical socialist movement in this city. This motivated both young people new to politics and older socialists who were able immediately to identify with their kind.

At the Sydenham early voting booth, Victorian Socialists volunteers met Marinita, a Chilean socialist who told us how she and her comrades used to seize land from the rich and build houses on it for working-class and poor people. She then spent a few hours with us on the booth, talking to us about the need to build the socialist movement. Activating new socialists and potentially reactivating people like Marinita is one of the most hopeful aspects of the Victorian Socialists project. Over the course of the campaign, hundreds of people joined the party, and on election day more than 1,000 people helped out on booths across Melbourne.

This campaign marks a step forward for the socialist left in Melbourne and in Australia. We went into this election with a serious shot at winning positions in the upper house if we could get a decent vote and secure a preference deal with progressive parties. We managed to do both. At the time of writing, we can’t win the seat in the north, but still have a chance in the west. Either way, our vote alone marks the campaign as a major success, and confirms we can make more gains in the future.

The strength of our effort was in our ability to mobilise our members and supporters and to make politically convincing arguments. Neither would have been possible without the growth and political development of Socialist Alternative over the past two and a half decades. Socialist Alternative members were the majority of active volunteers and coordinators who led and participated in the campaign.

The campaign required determination and tenacity to talk to people one on one all across Melbourne about socialist politics. The ability to do this comes from an organisation that has spent years involved in and leading grassroots campaigns against racism and imperialism, for civil rights, for LGBT and women’s rights, for workers’ rights. Socialist Alternative has experience leading workers on strike and in building radical campaigns on the campuses and in the streets.

The skills learnt through this kind of activism helped to make our campaign vibrant and politically responsive. As well as doorknocking and staffing polling stations, the campaign organised people to join picket lines of striking workers, held regular forums and called a number of protests. For example, early in the campaign Liz Walsh, candidate for the Western Metropolitan region, organised a protest of 15,000 to stand against the overturning of Roe vs Wade in the US and to defend abortion rights in Australia.

Just as significant is the political depth that comes from years of collective discussion and debate among socialists. Socialist Alternative takes seriously the task of educating its members in Marxist theory, history and politics. All of this helps to make sense of the system we are up against in a broad sense, and more narrowly the political contours of the election. It also provides a foundation of understanding and shared agreement around the fundamental tasks of socialists: to promote and build the struggles and confidence of the working class.

We can learn from history that neither struggles, nor the socialist movement itself, are built in straight lines. Socialists need to take opportunities to expand the reach of socialist ideas, to inspire more resistance to capitalism and to convince more people to become active socialists. Win or lose, Victorian Socialists provides a basis for all of these tasks.

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