The Progressive Labour Party: What went wrong?

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Therese Self. Photo by Alison Thorne.

The Australian Section of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) has a proud history of working toward a genuine socialist alternative to the Australian Labor Party (ALP). In the post Hawke-Keating years, some left groups have continued to call for the re-election of the ALP in order to “expose” its pro-capitalist agenda. This is insulting. Working people already know what the ALP is about. All the ALP can bank on these days is class conscious workers having nowhere else to go!

When FSP announced its decision to be a founding affiliate of the Socialist Alliance, we said: “The best way to fight the Liberals is to build a real anti-capitalist option. ALP politicians continue to promote themselves as market-driven, responsible economic managers pledged to protect profits and curb ‘excessive’ demands by workers. But the Labor Party cannot be simply dismissed — it must be replaced.”

PLP degeneration. In November 1996, socialists from many traditions met in Newcastle to form a new working class party. They named it the New Labour Party. But the ALP had already registered “New Labor,” so the new-born party was re-named “Progressive Labour Party.”

The Freedom Socialist Party embraced this project from the start. We urged supporters to “join the PLP today and help make it into the party we so urgently need!”

As members of the PLP, we fought for a vibrant, activist, democratic organisation that would popularise genuine socialist answers to neoliberalism’s brutality. We committed to build a party embracing the entire working class, especially its most oppressed.

But less than five years after its birth, the PLP lost almost all of its activist membership and settled into the comfortable role of an ALP ginger group.

When some members called on the PLP to join the Socialist Alliance (SA), Bruce Toms, from the Sydney Branch, responded that the PLP’s objective was to create a broad alliance, not a socialist alliance. Said Toms, “such breadth needs to include centre, as well as left, parties.”

National Secretary, Rod Noble, who opposes the PLP having anything to do with Socialist Alliance, said: “The thing that sets us apart…is that we are a more moderate socialist grouping and more likely to get wider support for socialist policies.”

Rather than winning wider support for socialism, this timid leadership has been left behind. Outside New South Wales, PLP branches have collapsed, and those remaining are reduced to a narrow membership which vainly hopes that social democracy — a political current moving rapidly to the right all over the world — can be revived as a progressive force.

Early potential. The PLP initially had some impressive achievements. In the last federal elections in 1998, the party stood candidates in two Victorian electorates — Wills and Corio — running strong grassroots, anti-capitalist campaigns. It scored 2.3% of the vote in Wills and an impressive 4.11% in Corio. The Corio result for PLP’s Therese Self, a socialist feminist, won electoral funding — the first time any socialist campaign has qualified.

The Progressive Labour Party also adopted important policy positions. Its constitution enshrined affirmative action principles, guaranteeing a leading role for women. The party declared it would be the voice of the working class, in all its diversity. It put sovereignty at the heart of its Indigenous rights policy. At its second conference in June 1998, the PLP adopted a comprehensive and radical Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual and Transgender rights policy, proposed by FSP members.

But these positives were overshadowed by a string of mistakes which prevented this ambitious project from realising its potential.

What went wrong? There is much to learn from the PLP experience. The first lesson is the need for programmatic clarity. From the start, the PLP lacked unity of purpose and agreement about fundamental ideas.

The FSP saw the Progressive Labour Party as a united front — an opportunity to draw socialists from diverse backgrounds into a campaigning organisation that would contest elections on an explicitly socialist platform. The growth of rightwing populist party, One Nation, gave urgency to the creation of an effective leftwing alternative.

But others saw the PLP as an opportunity to return to “real labour values,” promoting economic nationalist demands, not anti-capitalist ones. Those who politically dominate the PLP today want a moderate social democratic party, slightly to the left of the ALP. They see the PLP as a group waiting in the wings for the ALP to split.

This bunch even argued for state funding to private schools, on the basis that the PLP would lose support from working class Catholics if it opposed state aid!

The PLP’s second national conference concluded without agreement on economic policy. The social democrats had derailed the debate by presenting the choice as protectionism or free trade. Not surprising, they are now peddling a new-look protectionism, dressed up as “fair trade.”

The alternative to economic rationalism is not to return to the days of economic nationalism. Failing to be clear on this question is downright dangerous. At the core of fair trade is national chauvinism: instead of workers nailing the boss for their economic problems, they’re supposed to blame workers overseas. Who gains? The boss — and One Nation.

The alternative is — as we say in our political resolution From the Ashes of the Old Century, A Better World’s In Birth — “to push the movement forward and increase understanding that the problem to deal with goes beyond the current face of capitalism, neoliberal globalisation, to capitalism itself.”

Unfortunately, full and frank discussion on the fundamental economic question of economic nationalism versus the nationalisation of industry under workers’ control never really occurred in the PLP. The debate always got sidetracked by procedural issues.

Absence of democracy. From day one, the Freedom Socialist Party argued that democracy was key to the success of the PLP. We said, “Besides the nature of its program, the party will rise or fall on one thing: the presence or absence of full democracy.” At the end of the founding conference, we again stressed that the PLP was a fragile formation, and “to thrive and grow, internal democracy — the free flow of ideas and a climate of mutual respect — is crucial.”

But democratic exchange was squelched in the PLP. A hard-fought battle over the constitution at the founding conference resulted in members of registered political parties being proscribed — a move designed to prevent the ongoing participation of the Democratic Socialist Party, which was registered as the Democratic Socialist Electoral League. Although the constitution did guarantee freedom of expression and debate and the right to organise factions, the party’s highly centralised structure and the lack of any formal dialogue between branches rendered this right almost meaningless. One political tendency dominated the national leadership through a system of multiple proxy voting. Discussion of key questions was derailed by squabbles over standing orders. If an outcome wasn’t what the leadership wanted, minutes were conveniently lost or decisions not recorded. An agreed set of minutes documenting the decisions of the 1998 Canberra Conference is still yet to materialise!

So concerned were the PLP’s national bureaucrats about maintaining control, they even opposed a proposal to set up a structure for unions to affiliate to the PLP, for fear they might lose the numbers!

Lessons for the Socialist Alliance. The Socialist Alliance is off to an excellent start, avoiding some of the pitfalls that beset the PLP. For one thing, the Alliance is proud to use the “S” word — Socialism! The founding document gives SA a common purpose which the PLP lacked.

SA must also internalise democracy as crucial. The Alliance needs structures to support the exchange of ideas between members in far-flung branches and methods of decision making which encourage active membership participation. SA’s decision to reject the destructive system whereby a small number of individuals carry large numbers of proxy votes is most welcome.

The PLP resiled from discussing key political differences in an open manner. The Socialist Alliance — an organisation founded by nine socialist organisations and attracting hundreds of previously non-aligned socialists — is rich with ideas about how to achieve human emancipation. Let’s discuss in full and listen to each other. Then let’s settle on a platform that can mobilise whole new layers of support for socialism.

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