Understanding the ALP
Understanding the ALP

This is part of Red Flag's guide to Australia’s four major political parties – Labor, Liberal, National and Greens – and One Nation. In this article, Red Flag editor Ben Hillier discusses the Labor Party.


The founding of the Australian Labor Party in 1891 was a breakthrough for the continent’s working class. It was an acknowledgement by organised labour that it had different political interests from those of the capitalist class and therefore needed political independence. And it was recognition that workers’ aspirations to a decent life could not be fulfilled through economic struggles alone – they needed not just unions, but also political organisation. 

Labor built an apparatus of hundreds of branches with tens of thousands of members. It commanded the loyalty of millions who viewed their vote for the party as a vote for the working class. Unions representing hundreds of thousands affiliated to Labor, and union officials played a prominent role on executive bodies and at party conferences. The ALP’s connection to the working class in these various ways gave it the character of a workers’ party. 

Yet the ALP was a contradictory formation: a “party conceived by the union movement out of desperation and hope”, as Neil Massey put it in a 1994 Labour History article. It was a desperation born of defeats – the shearers’ and maritime strikes – and a hope that gaining seats in the parliament would make up for weaknesses in the labour movement. So despite the advance, it was also a retreat to relying on the state to guarantee workers’ rights in an exploitative class system stacked against them.

This gave Labor the character of a capitalist party. Party leaders attempted to resolve this tension through a narrative of national unity to paper over the class divisions that were the basis of Labor’s existence. But they couldn’t eliminate class conflict. Rather, they often acted against the interests of their working class base, ruling in the interests of the bosses – to which the “national interest” is always reduced.

Labor, then, had a dual nature: a capitalist party in its program and leadership, a workers’ party through its organisational constitution. It was a capitalist (bourgeois) workers’ party. 

Today, the ALP appears quite different from a century ago, and would be unrecognisable to many who founded and built it. Organisationally, the party has decayed and grown ever more distant from the workers it claims to represent. Politically, it has degenerated after years of governing and becoming integrated into the state it once sought to tame. The long, drawn-out transformation poses a question: to what extent, if at all, is Labor still a party of labour? 


The election of John Hancock, Melbourne Trades Hall Council president, in the 1891 Collingwood by-election, was one of the earliest breakthroughs for the section of the union movement with eyes fixed on parliamentary representation in the aftermath of the crushing defeats of the maritime and shearers’ strikes of 1890. “Every boot factory in Collingwood was turned into a Hancock Committee room”, noted an article in the Collingwood Observer. “Hundreds of men, with lanterns and rolls, went from door to door, appealing to the working folk, whether unionists or not, to lay aside for once all other considerations and go as one man for the Labor candidate.” 

Early Labor was built in fits and starts, but there is no doubting the enthusiasm many workers had for the project of constructing a political party of their own. Today, however, “grudging” would be more apt than “enthusiastic” in describing the ALP’s support. This is most evident in the state of the organisation’s base.

“What incentives could one offer a prospective ALP branch member, other than being recruited into a faction? Influence policy? Help choose MPs? Interesting branch meetings? Making a difference?”, Barry Jones, former ALP national president, asked in 2006. “One would need a black sense of humour to even suggest it.” Key figures in the party have testified, in stinging fashion, to the decimation of the party’s branch structure in recent decades. 

Rodney Cavalier, a former education minister in the Wran and Unsworth governments in NSW, wrote in his 2010 book Power crisis of the closure of 101 branches in NSW alone over the decade to 2009 and of many surviving branches being “phantoms or paper frauds”. On releasing the party’s 2010 National Review, the last time numbers were publicly declared, former Senate leader John Faulkner admitted: “Our local branches are closing across the country on a monthly basis”. According to Troy Bramston, a senior writer at the Australian, there were 53,550 members in 2018.

Party volunteers tend to be much older, surviving on memories of what Labor once was, students with their sights set on a career in the machine or union delegates mobilised only at election time by the trade unions. Increasingly, with occasional exceptions, those mobilisations have been anti-Liberal, playing on “lesser evil” sensibilities rather than positive arguments about how an ALP government would transform workers’ lives for the better. 

The class composition of the party has also changed. In 1901, 63 percent of Labor parliamentarians came from a blue collar working class background. By 1941 it was about 40 percent. Today, professionals from the party and union apparatus dominate. The majority have not known life as a worker and many have private school backgrounds and significant wealth. 


The experience of Labor governments over the last four decades has been of increasing integration into the state and the circles of the ruling elite. The party’s integration into Australian capitalism has also made it more reliant on and better able to draw favourable coverage from the capitalist media. Even Rupert Murdoch understands well the nature of modern Labor. According to a September 2018 ABC News piece, the media mogul told fellow billionaire Kerry Stokes: “I did all right under Labor and the Painters and Dockers; I can make money under Shorten and the CFMEU”.

The degeneration is not down simply to “corrupted” or “spineless” leaders, though there have been plenty of those. Laborism – and the broader framework of governing shared by social democratic parties everywhere – was thrown into crisis at the end of the long post-World War Two economic boom, just as the ALP regained federal office after being in opposition for 23 years. During the boom, a model of state-regulated capitalism delivered low unemployment, robust GDP growth and rising living standards in Australia and much of the industrialised world. In the mid-1970s this economic model fell into crisis; so too did the political model that based itself on it. 

In the eyes of party leaders, progressive reform was predicated on growth; lower growth meant lower expectations. And reviving the economy meant attacking the working class. In the 1980s, Labor brought neoliberalism to Australian politics and undermined the award system of wages and conditions that had underpinned a level of wage equality within industries and had ensured that if one section of workers got a better deal, the benefits would flow to all workers.

The degeneration is illustrated not only by the shifting of the party to the right, but by the almost total collapse of the party’s left. While there were still alternative programs put up by sections of the left in the mid-1980s, the faction existed in name only by the 1990s. Barry Jones noted a decade ago that there were no significant public policy debates at any national conference from 1991 onwards. Cavalier was more forthright: “No force describable as a ‘left’ has engaged in active contest within the ALP over ideas, policies or a framework to respond to unfolding issues, since the mid-1980s”. 


The federal party under Hawke and Keating was a path breaker in corporatising and privatising state assets. Because of that, many people have argued that the 1980s marked a qualitative transformation of the party – a sort of counter-revolution against its own history and traditions. 

But while the adoption of neoliberalism in those years was a shift to the right – an embrace of principles directly at odds with labour movement values – it was not a definitive break from the party leadership’s orientation to managing Australian capitalism. The ALP has always been just as capable – sometimes more so – of attacking workers. The more notable examples are Fisher promising to support the British Empire to the “last man and last shilling” at the outbreak of World War One, Scullin presiding over the Premiers’ Plan austerity program during the Great Depression, Curtin introducing wage-pegging to cut living standards during World War Two and Chifley mobilising the army against striking coal miners in 1949.

What of the changing class background of the leadership? It signifies a weakening of the party’s connection to its base. Yet is the ALP less of a labour party because its leaders are apparatchiks instead of former train drivers? Without doubt, the trend is illustrative of the “bourgeoisification” of the parliamentary wing of the party. But, as a litany of workers-turned-parliamentarians shows, having sweated for a living is no guarantee of fidelity to the interests of the class. To argue that it could be is naive and a pretty shallow form of identity politics.

The decline of Labor’s working class vote – it struggles to break 40 percent of the entire electorate – is also significant, and another indicator of the growing distance between the party and the class. However, the party’s heartlands are still working class suburbs. It is not simply workers who identify the difference. The ruling class overwhelmingly votes Liberal, with primary votes of more than 80 percent in exclusive suburbs like Vaucluse and Dover Heights in Sydney and more than 70 per cent in Melbourne’s Toorak. It is quite different from the Democratic Party in the US, which is backed by most big unions, but also wins the richest congressional districts in the country. 

The decline in the party’s active membership is more important. Yet crisis after crisis indicates that the problems have been recurrent for more than a century. According to Donald Rawson’s 1954 doctoral thesis, The organisation of the Australian Labor Party 1916-1941, after the First World War the party “seemed simply to be stagnating. Its inactivity and lack of spirit showed”. A NSW executive report in 1927-28 “admitted that the affairs of many of the 500 branches, which the party now claimed, were in chaos”. In 1965, an internal document noted that individual party membership was “appalling” and that some electorates contained only “a pitiful handful of devoted stalwarts to keep the party alive”. There are more examples.

Yet Labor was never a mass party on the same scale as the European social democratic parties and has always had a smaller number of branch activists. The British, German and Swedish parties all claimed more than 1 million members at their height; Austria and Italy were not far behind. Further, the branches were often on the right of the party. In the 1970s, the Victorian left was hostile to the branches, viewing them as unreliably middle class, as opposed to the unions, which were regarded as the party’s true link to the working class. In any case, the branches never held genuine power over the party.


If there was a psychic contradiction between despair and hope in the party’s founding, the social contradiction embedded in the apparatus was more enduring and the key operative link between the party’s two poles, “capitalist” and “workers”. That link is the trade union leadership, which is central to understanding the party. 

Union officials are neither workers nor bosses; they play a particular role as mediators between capital and labour. On the one hand, they are formally elected representatives of the working class. On the other, they are removed from the class and negotiate settlements that keep their own position as mediators viable. Their existence is defined by doing a deal; getting a contract between their members and an employer. In this way, they can at once serve the interests of workers by helping to improve their living conditions while also serving the bosses by ensuring that their members do not fight for more during the period of the contract, creating a stable regime of exploitation for an agreed period.

All political parties are subject to the general external pressures that the labour movement can muster through exercising its industrial power, through protest action and even through effective lobbying efforts. But the ALP, unlike the Liberal Party, is subject to significant internal pressures and ruptures because union officials are so central to its apparatus. As Graham Hudson, a historian of the party, wrote in 1999, unions are the “battalions of the party” and the union officials comprise “something of an officer corps” within it.

The affiliation of unions is one aspect limiting the absolute autonomy of the parliamentarians. The latter constraint today is very weak, but organisationally, the union officials’ control of the numbers at state conferences gives them significant power, even if they don’t always exercise it in the interests of the workers they purport to represent. One reflection of this was during the Hawke-Keating years: Labor’s corporate neoliberalism never pressed for the full deregulation of the labour market. 

In the ALP, most important is the way the unions, when they choose, can discipline the parliamentary leadership. That this is still the case was illustrated by the crisis provoked by the NSW ALP’s attempt to privatise the state-owned electricity sector in 2008. When the parliamentary party tried to ride roughshod over a state conference decision opposing privatisation, a union-led rebellion forced the parliamentary leadership out. Whatever the underlying motives of those involved, the party machine was (temporarily) acting in the interests of the class. Nothing resembling this could happen in the Liberal Party, which, like the Democrats in the US, lacks organic connections with the labour movement and therefore faces no comparable internal obstacles.


Labor’s dual nature historically meant that the party was a vehicle that, in a limited and contradictory way, expressed workers’ consciousness of themselves as a class, but which simultaneously was a key obstacle to the further development of that consciousness. Today, it’s not so clear that these things remain true. On many issues, such as privatisation or raising taxes to pay for greater social spending, party leaders are at odds with their own supporters. 

The success of the Greens among left wing white collar workers and the rise of third-party protest voting or abstention in working class suburbs are indications of this. Yet none of the electoral alternatives have offered an organisation and program capable of binding broad layers of workers to a new party that could be described as their “political expression”. That leaves Labor a repository of, if not contemporary expectations, residual loyalties. 

The 21st century ALP, and those supposed alternatives to it, need to be viewed in the context of the decades-long destruction of the labour movement and the transformation of the unions into professionalised and centralised bureaucracies integrated into Australian capitalism through the “partnership” channels opened by the ALP’s electoral successes and through financial stewardship of the superannuation industry.

The union leadership’s social role as mediators makes them natural compromisers – it’s just that the terrain of compromise has shifted further and further to the right. And as that terrain has shifted, union membership has declined precipitously, giving the bureaucrats even greater autonomy from the membership. Seen in that light, the degeneration of the ALP also reflects the absence, for almost half a century, of any political radicalisation strong enough to reconfigure the labour movement to put power in the hands of a new rank and file. 

Yet the social character of the party remains. Labor’s organic, if tenuous, connection to the working class means that future developments in the labour movement will be felt within the party. That much is clear. Exactly how and when is not.

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