|Issue No 122||07 December 2001|
Whither the ALP?
Mark Paloff calls on the ALP to boldly reassert its historical function as the political wing of the trade union movement - or whither and die.
WHITHER THE ALP?
Federally, and also in the State sphere, some mischievous sections of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) appear determined to distance their party from the trade union movement and thus by logical extension, working people generally. This recent round of undignified smoke-screening after yet another election defeat is symptomatic of a party that really began losing its way long ago in ignoring party policy in unabashed pursuit of economic rationalism, corporate sponsorship and deregulation in worship of globalisation. In short, the political wing of the ALP sold its soul in a shameless attempt to be make itself acceptable to the financial markets, treasury moguls, and their so-called "new aspirationists" of the Australian upper-middle class who now mingle on the emerging affluent urban/rural interface of our larger cities. They neglectfully forget that the ALP was formed by trade unions to help realise the basic and collective aspirations of the working class and fail to see the sizeable insult to these people inherent in this 'pop' terminology.
Extraordinarily, trade unionists are by some circuitous logic now being blamed for Labor's defeat. 'The Labor Party must modernise. It must review its relationship with the unions', is the mantra currently being proffered by the party's elite. Whatever the real reasons for their electoral losses, it is nothing but delusionally dishonest to include this relationship with the trade union movement as a contributing factor. In fact, analysis of the recent election defeat and the five week campaign suggests just the opposite. Much to Labor's disgrace, intrinsic domestic issues vital to its core constituency such as the cascade of massive job losses of recent times; the incessant casualisation of formerly full-time jobs; lock-outs and baseball bat industrial relations; the continuance of low wages in female-dominated occupations; the stripping back of Award conditions; and the incremental loss of workers' rights under the Howard government were not elevated by Labor as crucial issues during the campaign.
The ALP failed to promote the core concerns of the very people who have historically been that party's major source of funding, the very people who provide the army that staffs its polling booths, the very people who comprise the majority of its membership. This party needs to remember that the union movement is the only bridge to this nation's largest grass roots movement,consisting of over two million paid up members.
If, during the election campaign, the ALP was silenced on these issues by the fear of being accused by Howard, Costello, Reith and Abbott of being too close to trade unions and thus quailed at pursuing the Coalition's atrocities in the field of industrial relations and job security, then the ALP lay diminished by its own cowardice. If this is the case, then the ALP has finally lost its ability to claim relevance to working people. Place this weakness alongside the Carr government's assault on the rights of injured workers to fair compensation and you have a clear pattern emerging that must cause workers to question the value of contributing their hard-earned money or their valuable time to such a timid and treacherous cartel. For all working people it is time to question the value of their money, either through membership, donation, or via union affiliation, funding such a pernicious organisation.
Of course, it would be much more beneficial for both working people and the Labor Party if the ALP were to responsibly and boldly re-assert its historical function as the political wing of the trade union movement. The alternative to facing up to this responsibility and exerting this boldness will inevitably be an ALP decimated by lack of funding, support, and membership as workers look to other entities more representative of their needs and humble 'aspirations'. The union movement can always find within itself a well of talented advocates. The question for the ALP is can it really find a new mass constituency? The ALP will soon find its irrelevant candidates challenged at elections by people more appealing to its historical constituency.
The conservative parties could inflict no more cunning nor grievous damage upon the ALP than to convince it to desert its working class roots in the aimless search for political relevance among the fickle "new aspirationists". These 'new aspirationists' have no fixed political allegiances or historic ideological base and will assuredly swing with interest rate movements and/or transient issues. To look to capture them as a loyal constituency is a mistaken exercise. They are a demographic group that will remain myopically insatiable, ever switching their votes to the highest bidder. This is not a stable foundation on which any political party should entrust its future, lest it desires only sporadic existence.
History reminds us all too well how Robert Gordon Menzies spectacularly exploited the contemporary divisions within the ALP during the time of the DLP incursion and the ALP split of the 1950's to languidly ensconce his conservatives on the government benches for more than twenty years. By going down this path of redefining its relationship with the trade union movement, Labor is surely encouraging salivation among the conservative parties as it falls for the old "three card trick" by mindlessly fracturing once again in post-election confusion.
To seek to broaden the party's base is necessary and understandable. To alienate its core constituency in the process would be self-defeating. It needs to be much smarter, more loyal, and, in the first instance, to reconnect with Australian workers. Without the support of trade unionists the ALP will assuredly become an irrelevant political rump in pitiful search of real meaning. Yes, we need each other, but the ALP needs the trade union movement much, much more.
Mark Paloff is Secretary, Illawarra Sub-Branch of the Fire Brigades Employees Union (FBEU)
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005