What’s left in the ALP?

With a Bill Shorten ALP government likely to take office this year, will any opposition come from Labor’s left to the party’s right wing policies? Don’t count on it.

Last year ended with the ALP national conference in Adelaide. With the Liberals in crisis, and with an election-winning lead in the polls, Labor is positioning itself as a government in waiting. Shorten hasn’t ditched his talking points of opposing tax cuts for multinational companies and fairness for workers, but the emphasis has clearly shifted to “stability”. His conference speech concluded with a rallying cry more insipid than inspired: “If we win this election, our number one challenge and my greatest ambition is to restore trust in our system”.

The conference confirmed that Labor will not pledge to raise the below-poverty level Newstart allowance, promising only a long “review”. On workers’ rights and the unions’ Change the Rules campaign, Labor said little and promised even less. And an ALP government will not stop the Adani coal mine.

On refugees, despite some token hand-wringing, Labor pledged to continue the six-year torture of hundreds of people on Manus Island and Nauru, which it began in 2013. The conference refused to call for the evacuation of the camps and for those imprisoned to be resettled in Australia. In fact, former Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, architects of these hell holes, were honoured with life memberships of the party. Offshore detention and boat turn-backs will continue under a Shorten government.

The only opposition to this right wing agenda came from refugee and Stop Adani activists, who were quickly dragged from the stage. From his party, Shorten called for unity, and the left obliged with record obsequiousness. Virtually no debate took place, and the left moved no oppositional motions.

At Labor’s last national conference in 2015, the party voted to adopt Tony Abbott’s policy of turning back refugee boats (a measure initially dreamt up by Pauline Hanson). Many left delegates, knowing that Shorten was at no risk of losing the vote, put up a token opposition and voted against the motion. In 2018, not even a token opposition was mounted. The left’s two leading figures, deputy leader Tanya Plibersek and shadow minister Anthony Albanese, announced in advance that they now support boat turn-backs.

Personifying this farce was former ACTU president turned Labor MP Ged Kearney. Put forward as a progressive face to defend Labor’s seat in the March Batman by-election against a strong Greens challenge, Kearney promised to keep speaking up for refugees. Within weeks of winning the seat, she was on national television toeing the party line and defending Labor’s (i.e., the Liberals’) cruel refugee policy.

At the ALP conference, Kearney not only failed to oppose or criticise the ALP’s ongoing support for offshore detention, its refusal to allow anyone from Manus Island or Nauru to resettle in Australia or its support for turning back boats, but also made a speech praising the ALP’s stance. She even tried to spin the outcome, in which Labor had recommitted itself to the bulk of Peter Dutton’s policies, as a win for refugees, declaring: “We can be proud of one of the most progressive Labour policies on refugees and asylum seekers we have seen for a long time”. This encapsulates the Labor left today. Far from actually being a faction fighting for a more left wing party, they instead defend and uphold the policies of the right.

This has been the operation of Kearney’s Industrial Left faction within the ALP for the past year. This grouping of left Labor and trade union officials, including the construction and maritime unions of the CFMMEU, did a deal with the right to ensure Shorten had the numbers to stifle any opposition on questions like refugees at ALP conferences. As outlined by the agreement done between these factions, the Industrial Left promises to support the right in ALP preselections, and vice versa, at the expense of the Socialist Left faction.

This is the reality of the Labor factions today. Virtually identical ideologically, they exist now chiefly as shifting networks for the advancement of political careers. When Gillard, nominally from the left, took over leadership from Rudd, from the right, in 2010, she lurched the party to the right, ditching Labor’s mining tax and adopting more vicious anti-refugee policies and rhetoric, only to have Rudd replace her in 2013 and lurch to the right again. 

When Shorten and Albanese, ostensibly from Labor’s right and left, contested Labor’s leadership in 2013, they were at pains to stress that there was no political disagreement between them. The criticism that Albanese has offered of Shorten’s leadership in the past year has all been from the right – for example in June, when he urged Labor to adopt a friendlier tone towards business.

Two comparisons which demonstrate just how unprincipled the Labor left is today are that of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and the Labor left that existed in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the UK, the bulk of the Labour left had undergone a similar trajectory to that of Australia, accommodating to the right and accepting neoliberalism. Corbyn represented a minuscule group that had stuck to social democratic principles. He participated in anti-war demonstrations, supported picket lines, voted against his own party more than 500 times and even called for former Labour leader Tony Blair to be sent to the Hague for committing war crimes in Iraq. 

His successful contest for Labour’s leadership, bitterly opposed not only by the ruling class but by almost every Labour MP (both left and right) and the party apparatus, galvanised a new left within the party, attracted hundreds of thousands of new members and shifted Labour policies to the left.

In Australia, especially in NSW and Victoria, a genuine Labor left existed in the 1960s and early 1970s. They argued for more militant unions, participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement, campaigned for a socialist Labor party and rejected pragmatic electoralism. For example, addressing the Victorian ALP state conference in 1969, outgoing president Bill Brown argued:

“Only conscious organisation of social production in which production and distribution are carried on in a planned way can save the world from destruction. This cannot be achieved by simply winning seats in Parliament and seeking to change capitalism into a morally good society. It can only be realised by a complete break from capitalist institutions, culture and morality.”

When Gough Whitlam, from the right, launched a federal intervention to smash the Victorian left, it led to a bitter fight and nearly split the party. Fast forward to 2018. At the Victorian ALP conference, the left voted with the right to stop a debate over refugee and industrial relations policies.

This is not overly to romanticise either Corbyn or the ALP left of the past. Both have and had their political problems, namely a reformist approach to the fight for socialism and an unwillingness to actually break from the right of their parties, which leads to compromise, backsliding and demobilisation. But these cases show what an actual left faction in Labor would look like.

At some point a new, more principled left may emerge again inside the ALP. That would be a positive development, despite all the limitations it would still embody. But it is not the situation we face in Australia. The pathetic Labor left of today has no political principles that in practice distinguish it from the right.