The unity we need

[Green Left Weekly, #73, September 30, 1992. This is the text of a talk presented to a meeting sponsored by the electoral coalition Independent Action in Melbourne on September 16.]

These elections are marked by the record field of 182 candidates running independently of the major parties. And while the precise figures vary, all the polls indicate that collectively they enjoy substantial support.

These facts show the widespread disenchantment with the two-party cartel which dominates our political system. The powers that be are worried by this mood in the electorate. This morning in the Age Claude Forell advised us not to waste our votes on “independents, dreamers, zealots, charlatans or nutters”.

Some independent candidates might actually be successful. In so far as this shakes up the two-party system, such victories are undoubtedly positive. However, being "independent" isn't in itself a guarantee of progressive politics, and many such candidates offer no real political challenge to the status quo.

Furthermore, even for progressive candidates, there are severe limitations to what they can achieve if they win. In parliament an independent is isolated. He or she lacks the support base and political collaboration that a party provides. They also suffer from the lack of formal procedures of accountability to their supporters. At worst, they can become just another cog in the whole system. At best, they can give a voice to various issues and causes.

There is another, more fundamental point that must be understood here. Parliamentary politics — and parliament itself as an institution — is far from being the decisive political arena that we are constantly led to believe it is.

In fact, it is only a secondary field of struggle. Real power in our society is located in the inner cabinet, in corporate boardrooms and in the top echelons of the executive bodies of the state. Conversely, on our side, real power to change society can only be based on the mass organisation and consciousness of the oppressed and exploited.

These points are not made to belittle the importance of progressive forces participating in the elections. But running is important precisely as part of the process of winning support for radical policies and helping to organise mass support for real social change. A seat in parliament makes sense only if it is used as a platform to that end.

The election of progressive independents, even a number of them, can't substitute for what is needed.

There is an urgent need to develop a real, effective challenge to the s country. We need to build a vehicle that can offer a clear political alternative for the growing mass of people alienated from and disenchanted with the major parties.

This is the decisive challenge for left and progressive forces today. There is a radical disproportion between the depth of the capitalist crisis and its electoral reflection, on the one hand, and the weak, fragmented state of the left on the other.

We need to find the ways to develop real unity on the left, among all those who want to see serious progressive change in our society. Those of us who are in earnest about this must work to have the discussions and take the initiatives that are needed.

Of course, this won't be easy, and we'll have to confront serious political differences along the way. But with good will these can be dealt with. What we can't afford is the politics of play acting, rhetoric and dead-end sectarianism. Those who indulge in this will be marginalised in the next period.

While unity might well first take the form of a broad electoral alliance, at some point we have to do what the left is doing in New Zealand and try to build a new political party.

We should be very clear on this question. We reject the Labor Party and the Liberal-National coalition for their rotten capitalist policies. It would be a terrible mistake to reject the idea of a political party as such. The workers and oppressed in Australia suffer because they don't have their own party, to lead the fight for their interests.

Parties can be cohesive, capable of broad national campaigns and initiatives, and at the same time have structures and ways of functioning that facilitate real democracy and accountability.

Developments in New Zealand have lately received considerable attention in the media. In their campaign ads, Kirner and the ALP hypocritically tried to turn the dismal experience there to their own advantage. They could do this only by covering up and ignoring New Zealand Labour's role in preparing the ground for Bolger and the Nationals — just as the ALP here has prepared the ground for Kennett and Hewson.

One aspect of the New Zealand experience the ALP, Trades Hall and the media do not want to highlight is the building of a new political party — the New Labour Party — based on workers, young people, unemployed and the oppressed. The NLP and, around it, the broader Alliance, is offering a clear political alternative to the Thatcherite policies of Labour and the Nationals, which have devastated the country.

The ALP and Trades Hall are silent on the fact that numerous unions in New Zealand have disaffiliated from the Labour Party and have established links with NewLabour. It is also worth noting — and NLP president Matt McCarten stressed on his recent visit here — that the NLP, in terms of the most active and leading elements, is very much itself an alliance of left-wing forces who, despite their varying backgrounds and often sharp differences on some important questions, have managed to find a way to work together.

Left and progressive activists here should ponder deeply these aspects of the New Zealand experience.

I'm running in Melbourne for the Democratic Socialists. Over the last 10 years the Democratic Socialists have made a number of very serious attempts to build and participate in broader alliances on the left. We were among the most enthusiastic builders of the watershed Nuclear Disarmament Party when it first emerged before the 1984 elections. We also engaged in several unity projects in the mid and later '80s.

We don't pretend to have all the answers, but one thing of which we are absolutely convinced is that building a new broad party of the oppressed is the task of the day for left and progressive forces in this country.

The Democratic Socialists have been a part of Independent Action from the start. We regard it as a valuable initiative. Its five platform points are clearly key demands which any future left alternative must take up. While Independent Action has remained fairly modest in scope, it has provided a framework in which various forces and individuals from different political backgrounds have been able to collaborate, and that has been a very positive experience.

We look forward to working with others to develop such a project on a wider basis in the lead-up to next year's federal elections.