(If you were bigger, we would enter you)
I have been in favour of greater left unity for a long time. But occasionally one sees a side of the left that one would rather not see. I ask myself: could I seriously join in a common political organisation with someone who can use the phrase “cynical unity mongering” with a straight face?
I have no sensible answer to that question! A Socialist Alternative member recently commented on a blog that Socialist Alliance “is probably the clearest single example internationally of the utterly destructive impact that cynical unity mongering can have on the left.”
The Socialist Alliance is the outcome of three decades (give or take a bit) of the former Democratic Socialist Party’s left unity attempts. I joined the DSP in the early 1990s when there were no such left unity attempts being made, despite several very serious projects during the 1980s.
In fact, in the 1990s, I think the DSP’s approach to left unity was quite rhetorical and defensive. The left unity experiments of the 1980s had all ended badly (as had the party’s mistaken support for Gorbachev, and as had the Nicaraguan revolution that the DSP had been a strong supporter of). “Cynical” – probably not, not most of the members at any rate. But the history of the left’s battles in 1990s Victoria (where I was involved for some of the time) provides a few lessons in failing to take unity seriously enough.
1992 saw state elections in which Liberal party egomaniac (and neoliberal stormtrooper) Jeff Kennett was elected premier, and immediately set about the full neoliberal program of privatising and cutting to the bone state services. Australia had experienced milder (slower moving) neoliberal ALP government during the 1980s, but Kennett was the first (and maybe worst) of the unrestrained privatisers.
Resistance sprang up in various ways. Trades Hall organised a massive rally of over a hundred thousand against the vicious stripping of workers’ rights, but Trades Hall was a creature of the ALP and not used to fighting; the protests soon fizzled out.
A coalition of community groups called Public First mobilised many communities against privatisation, but by the time I moved to Melbourne in 1997 they appeared little more than a front for the dwindling Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist).
A wave of school closures was met by protests and, in some cases, occupations. In particular, the inner-city Richmond Secondary College was a centre of resistance. Much of the left participated in supporting the occupation and picket lines, including when the notorious police riot squad violently broke up the picket, beating people over the head from behind.
Most prominent was the small group Militant – internationally linked with the group of the same name in the UK, they had just left the Labor Party (following the lead of their UK cothinkers). Militant leader Steve Jolly traded on his role in this battle for years to come. The group grew somewhat after the experience.
“If you were bigger, we would enter you”
I first came across Militant in 1995 at a socialist educational conference put on by the DSP in Melbourne. Steve Jolly was invited to speak on a panel. I mainly remember him saying that the other left were too obsessed with selling their papers to be useful to community struggles. The DSP speaker, as I recall, pointed out that Militant had a very similar assessment of the broad political situation and the tasks of the left compared with our own, and should think about unity.
A few Militant members came along to the session as well, and I remember a DSP member asked one Militant member why they wouldn’t join the (much much larger) DSP since our politics seemed to be converging. The terse response was “If you were bigger, we’d enter you!”
But when I arrived in Melbourne in 1997, we were at the stage of having some more serious discussions with Militant over the possibility of unity. For the DSP, the sticking point was “democratic centralism” – of the DSP. Militant were affiliated with, and loyal to, the Committee for a Workers’ International, based in London; we wanted them to be clearly loyal to the DSP, and not part of any faction or tendency with outside loyalties.
“If you were bigger, we would negotiate”
I am not impressed by groups that join narrow ideological internationals. At the time, the DSP leadership’s conditions seemed reasonable: Militant could join up, Jolly would get a seat on the National Council, but otherwise they would simply be joining up as any other DSP member. If they had been bigger, the reasoning went, maybe there might be a more two-sided merger. But they only had one or two dozen members in Melbourne, and the DSP had almost 300 spread over nearly all the major cities in the country.
In my view, the DSP’s insistence on simply gobbling up the rather proud, new Militant group was a big mistake. It’s only hindsight that tells me that, but most lessons are learned that way of course.
It’s true that we didn’t know whether Militant were simply aiming for an “entry” operation to raid us for a few extra recruits. But they were small – only really existing in one city. We were somewhat less small, but the mutual gains could have been very large.
Subsequently, abandoning talks with the DSP, Militant merged for a while with two other (even) smaller Trotskyist groups. The DSP was fairly dismissive of this unity of small sects. However, the three groups merging created something of a buzz among at least some on the left. While the groups’ combined membership cannot have been more than 30, they were soon claiming membership of 100 in Melbourne. This included some experienced community and union activists, and even a few ex-members of the DSP.
At this point, the DSP’s Melbourne membership was about 70-80, although many were relatively inactive. Branch meetings tended to have 25-35 in attendance I recall. But I went to observe at one meeting organised by the new (post-merger) Militant group, which had well over 50 people present.
Subsequently, the alliance of the three Trotskyist groups broke up acrimoniously and I don’t think any of the three groups retained many of the new members – most went into the new left regroupment party, the Progressive Labour Party (PLP). But the growth they experienced at first should have alerted the DSP to the potential benefits of left unity. After all, we had a history of being involved in left regroupment attempts.
At this time we were starting to find out about the growth of the Scottish Militant Labour, who were bringing together the Scottish Socialist Alliance to work with other left groups. Subsequently they became the Scottish Socialist Party and were, for a time, very successful. Perhaps they illustrate a possible alternative path the left could have followed here if a bit more trust (or imagination) had been excercised.
A broad left forms
The DSP was banned from participating in the PLP (even though this was opposed by the PLP Melbourne branch). Many of that party’s leaders were hostile to the DSP for a variety of historical and political reasons. I don’t think the DSP could have gotten around this, but the 1999 Victorian state election showed the potential for a broader left, in some form of alliance at least.
The 1999 state elections in Victoria were the elections at which Jeff Kennett’s government was kicked out of office. Steve Bracks (later known as “Jeff Bracks”) was the Labor premier that replaced him. But also interesting in this election was the results for the left.
I can remember four clearly left, socialist candidates that ran. The PLP ran two, Militant ran one, and the DSP ran one. After the election, we joked that we at least had our election demands met (“Kick out Kennett”). But we also got a relatively high vote: in the city seat of Melbourne, Jorge Jorquera won 5.73% of the vote (1986 votes). Steve Jolly, still known from the Richmond Secondary College days, won an impressive 12.02% (4213 votes) in Richmond. PLP candidate Susanna Duffy won 7.93% (2480 votes) in Northcote.
These were high votes for socialist candidates in Australia: the DSP had been running a candidate or two in every election for years, but rarely won many votes. It is worth noting that this election had few minor parties. The Greens only ran in a handful of seats, their Victorian branch being one of their smallest. Their votes were also in the same range as the left’s, although they contested more seats (but not in the inner city, where they do so well now).
It should be noted that the left candidates were listed on the ballot without party affiliation – running as independents – because the electoral laws make it very hard for a party to achieve electoral registration in Australia, particularly at state level. The votes may not have been directly for “socialism” - whatever that means to the average voter - although the DSP leaflet, at least, was headlined “vote socialist”.
While the three campaigns were separate from each other, we did not run against each other. I think the lack of Greens candidates in these seats was only due to their small size at that time, but this certainly contributed to our success. The PLP candidate in Geelong, Luke Grose, only won 2.07% (641 votes) – but he competed with two other independents; the other three left candidates were facing only the two major parties’ candidates in their electorates.
Despite this promising start, the next state election in 2002 shows a complete turnaround. The Greens ran in most seats, and won results usually in the range of 7-12%, with a bunch of inner city candidates winning 18-28% of the vote. The left, on the other hand, was lucky to get over 2% this time. Most of the left candidates this time were Socialist Alliance, now a registered party with the party name listed on the ballot. Militant, now called Socialist Party, remained outside the Alliance. Steve Jolly only scored 1.99% (629 votes) this time. The Greens, on the other hand, went from not running at all in Richmond in 1999, to 28.64% (9055 votes) in 2002.
Of course, the left don’t measure success only in electoral terms, and there were many positive things in 2002 that had enabled the Alliance to unite many of the left organisations and achieve electoral registration. But I think the changed electoral terrain reveals some of the important missed opportunities that were squandered by all the groups: first and foremost, the DSP and Militant both bloody-mindedly refusing to work together, despite much good will from many members on both sides.
The inability to work together in the 1999 election (other than on an informally agreed non-agression pact) also cost us a valuable opportunity. By the next election (if not before) the Greens had well and truly captured the progressive public’s attention (and vote) and the left was back to its tiny votes and empty bucket campaigns.
Another comment on the same blog thread that I started on seemed to hit the nail on the head. “It never ceases to amaze me that the various socialist groups in Australia, all of whom are tiny and rather irrelevant, can not sit down, agree on a minimum programme and get to work representing the interests of working people in this country, both in elections and on day to day issues. We have a war on,the economy is stuffed, unemployment never moves and the endless drive towards privatization never ceases.”
What happened to the left between 1999 and 2002? This will be the subject of another post soon; and I will explain why this Victorian-centric history is of relevance to all Australia. I also plan later to write a brief commentary of the fall and rise (again) of the Greens from the 1990s to now.