What would ‘new Labor’ look like without the unions?

As Labor looks to rebuild after a resounding defeat at the last election, its relationship with the union movement must be examined. Unions are already voting with their feet.

Labor’s big experiment with democracy, adopted during its last convulsions in power, may be one of the most important steps towards a crucial rethink of its relationship with the unions. The party periodically goes through deep introspection on the matter – after the 2010 election a review advocated for an increased role for unions in candidate pre-selection.

That document now gathers dust on a shelf at party headquarters, and in soul-searching this time around, things are looking very different. Early indications from Labor’s attempt at post-Gillard-Rudd political rejuvenation suggest unions will find themselves with less – not more – influence.

Unions, of course, haven’t done themselves any favours. With the scandals surrounding factional heavyweights such as Michael Williamson of the Health Services Union and Eddie Obeid of the New South Wales Right seared in the minds of the rank-and-file, the case for the lessening of union influence will be strong.

Despite those embarrassing revelations, for a number of unions the Labor party itself is on the nose. At the September election, the National Tertiary Education Union donated $1 million to the Greens, and the Electrical Trades Union's Victorian branch also made a $300,000 donation to the re-election bid of Melbourne Greens MP Adam Bandt.

This is a double threat for Labor, with the Greens now picking off progressive voters as well as political donations.

In its haste to ‘rule a line under’ the disunity of the Rudd-Gillard era, Labor risks fumbling a rare chance to establish itself as a broad political church – a party with a divergence of views but united under a single name. It is ignoring the potential to give a strong enough voice to its Left faction to win back progressive voters lost to the Greens, while also using its Right to appeal to the party’s traditional base and unions.

But any change to Labor’s relationship with the unions would almost certainly unleash a tsunami of repercussions across the party’s factional structure.

Factions are undoubtedly part of Labor’s DNA (Labor’s factional, unbreakable heart,) but they are not exclusive to the Labor party. Sub-groups reside in the Coalition and the Greens with equal impact, even if they do so with less scrutiny. But it’s the unwillingness of Labor to publicly address the influence of factions that has perpetuated Machiavellian narratives of back-room deals and ‘faceless men’.

Labor can no longer pass off as fanciful journalism the wide reportage of factional brawling in a bid to placate public distaste. Just this week, a quartet of Labor heavyweights – Brian Howe, Geoff Gallop, John Cain and Steve Bracks (a co-author of the ignored review of Labor’s 2010 campaign) – endorsed a new group aimed at reducing factional influence.

A spokesman for the new lobby group Open Labor, Tom Bentley, criticises the party’s “culture of internal competition for power”. He says the group is about “finding stronger connections with people who might sympathise with the Labor cause but feel a distance with the way politics is run".

Key to this process will be selling the virtues of factions. Ideological division between the Left and Right is shrinking – a fact one insider says represents an “ideological maturity” – but one Labor MP says factions have a more practical purpose, playing a “pastoral role” in the Labor party.

Pastoral as it may be, instances such as Don Farrell’s appointment to the shadow cabinet, despite him losing his Senate seat at the September election, highlight that there is still at least a residue of a culture that looks after one’s self before his or her flock.

Another MP says the nature of modern factions is that they are less “like ideological power blocks and more like executive recruitment agencies”.

It’s the recruitment process, too, that has some Labor insiders concerned. Business Spectator has been told there are legitimate fears that innovation is being stifled by Labor’s factional nature; that a culture is in place where talented individuals from outside politics are either lost in the factional escalators, or worse, too afraid to get on.

Bob Hawke famously pushed the case for lateral recruitment into the Labor ministry and there is merit in an alternative perspective to the one finessed through the political school of hard knocks and unions – even if the cost is a less seasoned political performer. Peter Garrett, Maxine McKew and Malcolm Turnbull on the other side of the political divide are some recent examples of mixed success.

Though Labor is keen to distance itself from notions of the ‘messiah’, if there is to be a savior many insiders suggest it may be the party’s sole unaligned caucus member and former professor of economics at the Australian National University, Andrew Leigh.

Last year, Leigh launched the Australian Capital Territory Independents – an online network of non-aligned Labor members in Canberra. His profile on the site describes him as “as a non-aligned member of the Australian Labor Party because my political loyalty is governed by one simple rule: to always do what's best for our great party and the people who depend on it”.

Leigh is the latest in a long line of non-aligned MPs – indeed at various points in Labor’s history being unaligned to a faction was a faction in itself – though a source close to the party was keen to point out that even Leigh’s pre-selection was factional.

Of course, as with all politics, it boils down to beliefs. At Labor’s great moment of soul searching, if it is to remain the party of the workers – if it is to find the ‘true believers’ once again – it will have to earn the votes of workers and not take for granted their support via unions.

The democratisation process, the frank assessment of the factional system and Labor’s relationship with the unions all merely nibble at the edge of the central question that is powering the party’s entire rebuilding process post-GFC, post-Rudd and post-Gillard: Who and what does Labor represent in 2013?

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