It can’t be far off that we start to see the some of the same problems with the union movement involvement in Labour as those being experienced by the ALP:
The Australian Labor Party has survived two World Wars, three splits and the Great Depression. Over its 121 years the influence of unions on the ALP has ebbed and flowed. In recent times, the influence of union officials and faction leaders has been asserted as never before. This has occurred because of a collapse in rank-and-file membership, a dearth of strong parliamentary leadership after the departure of Bob Carr from the state scene, the removal of Kevin Rudd as prime minister and the promotion of union officials and former staffers into Parliament. The public gaze has turned to the influence of people such as Eddie Obeid, Craig Thomson and Michael Williamson, with a resultant collapse in the ALP’s support and image problems for the bulk of the union movement.
Consider this: in 1971, 24 per cent of federal MPs listed their previous employer as a union, or as an ALP political staffer. After the 2005 election the number jumped to 67 per cent. The result is a much narrower collective world view than is healthy and a disillusioned rank-and-file membership as they realise their real influence on the party is, at best, marginal.
My concern is these factors are undermining the appeal, talent pool and credibility of Labor. It creates overdependence on unions for political, intellectual and financial support.
It is an unholy alliance…and one that Queensland is seeking to destroy:
However, this dependency may be coming to an end with the ban on union donations enacted last year by the O’Farrell government.
This legislation, if found to be constitutional, will stop unions financially supporting Labor in election campaigns. The Queensland government this week said it was considering similar legislation. Labor will then be forced to make historic changes to the way it operates – and those changes could prove to be its salvation. With a ban on union donations and affiliation fees, the party will be forced to look to other sources of financial support. That means looking at ways to encourage the growth of rank-and-file membership by giving members a far greater say than they currently enjoy.
It is certainly something that John Key should looking at. That and law changes that mean only natural persons can join and/or donate to political parties. Two very small changes that would see a return of people power to political parties rather than the vested interests of corporate and union donors. The removal of affiliate status would improve Labour no end.
It isn’t difficult and has been successful in Canada.
In Canada a decade ago the Labor Party’s equivalent, the New Democratic Party (NDP), was faced with the same problem. A Conservative government banned corporate and union donations to any party. At that time the NDP was a political rump, with just 13 MPs in the Parliament, a dwindling rank-and-file membership, affiliated unions making up 50 per cent of its voting bloc and its 13 MPs electing the parliamentary leader.
Facing political extinction, the NDP took dramatic action. It gave rank-and-file members the right to decide the parliamentary leader and reduced union control from 50 to 25 per cent because unions could no longer pay affiliation fees and thus no longer argue for preferential treatment. These changes had a number of remarkable and beneficial results. Party membership swelled, as did its coffers and the party elected a charismatic leader, the late Jack Layton. As a result, the influence of factional leaders was severely curtailed as power shifted to rank-and-file members whose vote now decides the NDP leadership. Today the NDP has close to 100,000 members and its parliamentary representation has swollen to 101 MPs. It is on track to form the next government.
Labour here though has done it a little different, instead of reducing union influence they have in fact constitutional enhanced it. History would suggest that won’t be a successful development. Labour would be looking jealously at the NDP, if you removed their affiliate memberships they wouldn’t have any where near even a tenth of their members.
Other countries have tried it too:
The British Labour Party’s leader is elected by a college comprising MPs, rank-and-file members and unions. In Italy 2.2 million people recently paid €2 ($2.50) each to elect the leader of the Democratic Party. In France more than 2.5 million voters selected the Socialist Party’s Presidential candidate. By taking power from the few and giving it to the many Labor can reform itself and guarantee its long-term future.
Unfortunately Labour think they have done this, instead they locked power into the hands of the caucus, just you watch in February when the membership finds out just how powerless they are.