Illustration: Andrew Dyson
Prominent past and present Labor politicians, liberal literati and ALP well-wishers in the Murdoch press have been complaining about the influence of factions inside the party for years.
Whether this whingeing is accompanied by calls to curb connections with the unions or not, it is part of a campaign to liquidate Labor's links with its working-class base and concentrate control in the hands of the high-ups in the parliamentary party. That would turn the ALP into a pastel version of the deep blue Liberal Party, the equivalent of the US Democratic Party, another straightforward party of big business.
The factions have long been fundamental to the way Labor operates. The decline in their influence in the parliamentary caucuses over the past 20 years has been a major factor in the disunity and turmoil to which many ALP apologists and superficial commentators alike attribute the recent defeat of the Rilludd government.
The ALP's own statutes do not mention factions but they have been a crucial element in its material constitution as a capitalist workers party. On the one hand, it is committed to managing and perpetuating Australian capitalism. On the other, its core constituency lies in the working class.
The historical connection between the ALP and the working class has multiple strands. All of them are fraying.
Workers, who make up about two-thirds of the population, have tended to vote Labor. A glance at the electoral maps of Sydney and Melbourne, in particular, tells us that the more working class the area, the higher the Labor vote.
While in decline since the 1960s, working-class identification with the ALP is still a fact of life. And although the Coalition now sometimes receives more votes from working people than Labor, workers are still a much smaller
proportion of the total conservative vote than they are of the total ALP vote.
In terms of active membership, and especially active working-class membership, Labor is a shadow of its former self. Many branches are inactive shells. In branches, the role of parliamentarians and full-time union officials (who are, by definition, not workers employed by a boss), along with the staffers, families and immediate hangers on of the professional politicians is disproportionate.
In order to recruit and hold members, the party has been reducing the already low requirements for participation in important ballots. A vote of members is part of the contest between Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten for the leadership of the federal parliamentary ALP. Under the rules of the NSW branch, the largest, people who have been members for two years and have attended at least four local branch meetings can vote in preselections for candidates. To vote for the national leader you need only to have been a member for more than 17 days.
Trade-union affiliation indirectly connects Labor with the working class, through the layer of senior full-time union officials who control their organisations' funding for the party and delegations to state and territory ALP conferences. Inside the party the main Left and Right factions and sub-factions are associated with unions. They are very important channels for union influence over the allocation of jobs and, to a smaller extent, over policy. And unions are workers' fundamental organisations for self-defence.
But the ability of union officials to exercise influence, inside and outside the Labor Party, has been in decline. With the exception of relatively brief episodes since their co-option into the wage-cutting Prices and Incomes Accord of the Hawke government, union officials have failed to lead militant and therefore effective campaigns to defend their members. This has weakened the movement. Union density, the ratio of union members to potential members, has trended downwards. Traditions of involvement, organisation, activism and militancy at the rank-and-file level have decayed.
Public funding of political parties and elections since the 1980s has also reduced the importance of unions in the Labor Party. The NSW Liberal government's changes last year to the NSW Election Funding Act, which prevent unions from paying affiliation fees or making donations to the ALP, have undermined their financial clout with the party even more dramatically. A challenge to the legislation by several unions is before the High Court.
The unravelling of the long-term ties between the working class, particularly through the unions, and the Labor Party has reduced the effectiveness of factions in the party and increased the autonomy of its parliamentary leaders. They have shifted the ALP to the right. Low levels of industrial and social struggle have meant they have had to deal with less pressure from below. Meanwhile, business pressure for action to improve profit rates, from above, has been unrelenting.
The rightward shift has gradually evaporated the distinctions between the Left and Right inside the party. As former NSW Labor minister Rodney Cavalier put it in 2005: ''The factions have become executive placement agencies.'' That is still true, but the decline in their influence and discipline has meant that even this function is slipping away from them.
The decline in factional discipline helps explain disunity in the party over its leadership. Individual Labor parliamentarians have increasingly consulted their consciences, generally a euphemism for calculating their chances of personal advancement, in deciding whom to back.
Since the early 1990s, the Left has not delivered a coherent block of votes in ballots for the federal leadership of the party. And it has just complained that the Right is trying to do so in the contest between Albanese and Shorten for the leadership. So far, is just a populist beauty contest over looks, style, loyalty and working-class background rather than over matters of substantial policy.
The federal leadership contests between Mark Latham and Kim Beazley, and Kevin Rudd and Beazley, and internecine warfare in the corruption-ridden Labor governments of Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally in NSW indicate the coherence of the Right has been in decline, too.
Two of the key proponents of reduced factional power have suffered from the resulting lack of unity. While accommodating to existing factional realities, Julia Gillard and Rudd consistently sought to erode them and increase the autonomy of the parliamentary leaders. Gillard railed against the factions, acknowledging that both the Right and Left had embraced the market, in a speech to the right-wing Sydney Institute in 2006.
She proposed that Labor leaders rather than caucus should select the (shadow) ministry. And this is exactly what Rudd did when he became leader later that year.
Rick Kuhn is co-author with Tom Bramble of Labor's Conflict: Big Business, Workers and the Politics of Class.