Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

We need a new workers’ party in Australia

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‘Why bother to vote? They’re all the same’, is heard more and more in every election. As Australian workers face an assault on their workplace rights, the question of the lack of political representation for working people is becoming increasingly pressing. While lapping up financial support from the union movement, the ALP repeatedly demonstrates its credentials as the second bosses? party.

The Socialist Party argues that what is needed is a new, broad workers party to ensure workers are no longer left without a political voice. Such a party could unite trade unionists, other workers, socialists, young people, environmental and community campaigners, minority groups, and all those looking for an alternative.

The ALP has embraced big business

Historically the Labor Party was a pro-capitalist workers’ party. It was set up in the 1890s when workers, through the trade unions and socialist organisations, formed a party that gave them their own independent political voice. To one degree or another the leadership of the ALP has always been committed to capitalism. Despite this because of its once mass base and certain level of internal democracy workers were able to influence the policies and direction of the party.

As union membership and workers participation in the ALP declined, workers influence changed. The ALP became a party that no longer provides any alternative to the Liberal Party. Labor governments have shown just as much as the Liberals they can step up the attacks on worker?s rights, civil liberties and public services. We have seen many examples of this most notably the smashing of the BLF and Pilots union in the 1980?s.

Can the ALP be reclaimed?

Disillusioned rank and file members have left the party in droves. Workers aren’t drawing the conclusion that they should go into the Labor Party and change it. Instead they’re beginning to ask, “why are our unions giving thousands of dollars to a party which then turns around and kicks us in the teeth?”

To quote Mark Latham “I remember making lengthy policy submissions to the National Conference from (my local branch) in the early 1980s, with some expectation they might influence and shape the debate. Such was my romantic attachment to the cause of Labor, inspired by the reforms of the Whitlam government and a belief that working-class politics could change the country. Today, such a notion is absurd. The prospect of local Party units influencing the national policy debate is inconceivable. Party members do not even try, knowing it to be a waste of time and effort….Face the facts: Labor is stuffed. Its branches are rorted and its membership base is a joke.”

Unions must disaffiliate

Many trade union leaders will resist moves towards disaffiliation. However, as struggles intensify in both the public and private sectors, the idea of disaffiliating from the ALP and building a new workers? party will gain increasing support. Left leaders in unions should be approached about organising a cross-union rank and file conference to discuss what concrete steps could be taken now to build a new political alternative. In addition, union political funds, currently used to support the Labor Party, should instead be used to support pro-union, pro-worker candidates and parties.

How could new workers’ party form?

There are many ways in which a new party could emerge, and it’s not possible to map out exactly how this might happen, but we must learn the lessons of history to ensure we do not repeat the same mistakes again. It will be new forces moving into struggle in the workplaces and in our community that will play the main role in building a new party. Militant left wing union leaders could also play a role as a catalyst for a new party.

A broad workers’ party won’t spring into existence fully formed. The Labor Party itself rose out of the accumulated experience of decades of working class struggle. Campaigns against Howard’s IR changes, privatisation and cuts in education, housing, and other services all have the potential to develop rapidly and lay the basis for a new broader political organisation.

The program of a new workers’ party

Working people won?t all move into struggle with the same ideas, attitudes and outlook. Some will be fighting against the particular affects of capitalism: privatisation, low pay, job losses, cuts in local services, destruction of the environment, racism, discrimination and so on. Others will challenge the system itself. A new workers? party could play the role of uniting these people. It could be a vehicle for defending the interests of working people through collective action in the workplaces and communities, becoming a pole of attraction to the most class conscious workers and young people, as well as radicalised middle income earners.

However, a new party would not be an end in itself. A fundamental change requires a revolutionary program and party. It could be argued that by calling for a new mass workers’ party we are trying to create a Labor Party II; a party where reformist ideas would predominate, sowing the false idea that capitalism could be gradually transformed into a better society. In fact, when it was formed, the Labor Party provided a mass forum for debating and comparing the ideas of fundamental socialist change with those of a gradual reform of capitalism. Creating such a forum is crucial if we are to challenge the neo-liberal attacks that are affecting the lives of ordinary people in Australia and around the world. When a genuine new mass workers party is formed SP will both build it and argue for socialist policies within it.

German philosopher Fredrich Engels advised Marxists to do everything they could to promote an independent workers’ party. In 1886 he wrote in relation to the attempts by American workers to create their own party:

“It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat, than that it should start and proceed from the beginning on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than to learn by one?s own mistakes? above all give the movement time to consolidate, do not make the inevitable confusion of the first start worse confounded by forcing down people?s throats things which at present they cannot properly understand, but which they soon will learn.”

Editorial Comment from the December 2005 issue of ‘The Socialist’


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