Victorian Socialists, an alliance of socialist groups and individuals, is mounting a serious attempt to win an upper house seat in the Victorian Parliament this November. If successful, this would be only the second outright socialist not in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) to win a seat in any parliament in Australia.
Momentum is building behind the electoral drive. Over 500 people attended the campaign launch on 12 May, going way over the capacity of the hotel venue. Many people commented that this was the largest election launch they had ever attended, for any political party. Along with speeches by candidates and organisers (I couldn’t get close enough to hear them!), people were signing up for local organising groups in the 11 lower house electorates.
Steve Jolly, long term socialist local councillor for Yarra (Socialist Party, then The Socialist, now independent), heads the ticket. Second is Sue Bolton, Socialist Alliance local councillor for Moreland. Third is Colleen Bolger, Socialist Alternative activist, asbestos lawyer and Australian Services Union delegate.
Up front, this is a great initiative – taking genuine socialist policies to over 500,000 overwhelmingly working class voters, with a real chance of having an assertive working class socialist voice in parliament. Three socialist forces that have historically been at odds with each other have come together behind this initiative. It has attracted support from unions ($50k from the Electrical Trades Union and $5k from the Victorian Allied Health Union) and prominent left wing intellectuals, and increasingly from independent working class people, union and social movement activists.
However, there are some problematic issues. The initial organisational structures in place are weak, both in terms of democratic decision-making, and in holding Steve accountable to the working class base if elected. There is no apparent structure for unions, community group and other socialist groups to affiliate. The programmatic material currently available is limited; essentially militant left reformism targeting local issues with up front class struggle politics, but little explicit socialist or “transitional” content evident. A limited range of socialist groups were approached to participate, and the process of establishing the party was done behind closed doors, rather than inviting broad consultation.
In recent developments a democratic constitution has been adopted, which will lead to a conference electing the leadership, approving policies etc. This should soon be available on the website along with the policy manifesto. Members of other electorally registered parties (mainly aimed at Socialist Alliance) can join Victorian Socialists as full members in terms of making decisions, but not as electoral members.
I interviewed the three Victorian Socialist candidates earlier this year.
Northern Metropolitan Melbourne is ALP heartland, increasingly contested by the Greens. Nine of its 11 lower house seats are ALP, two are Greens. In the Victorian multi-member upper house system, five Members of the Legislative Council are elected by preferential proportional representation, so 16.66% of the vote after preferences is required; currently 2 ALP, 1 Greens, 1 Liberal, and 1 Reason Party. As Colleen noted that the upper house seat “stretches from Yarra right to outer reaches of Melbourne. The seat that has some of the most progressive and green voting electorates, as well as solidly Labor voters in outer areas. So there is a real chance of [Victorian Socialist] getting the last spot”.
At the last election Fiona Patten from the Sex Party took that last spot with 2.35% of the first preference vote. Steve saw this as very different to previous campaigns. “The Sex Party changed their name to Reason, so their vote is set to collapse. I was told I was in with a red-hot chance given my history. So I approached other socialist groups, individuals and community organisations. Given the increasing disenchantment with major parties, there is a massive market for socialist alternative to that. Socialist polices run properly can win votes and appeal to ordinary people.”
Sue saw the campaign as “more focused around an electable socialist, rather than a coming together of organisations. It is a certain coming together; a collaboration of Socialist Alliance, Socialist Alternative and Steve and his supporter base. This differs from previous left unity attempts including around elections such as [the original] Socialist Alliance.”
Bolger agreed that it was focused on an electable candidate: “State parliament has a lot more profile, and will garner a lot more attention for a socialist representative than a local council. The other difference, is that [socialists] usually run as a propaganda exercise, not concerned with the final vote. This has a real shot, so we are serious about running a campaign that could win.”
Whilst Steve and Sue’s organisations have had long orientation to electoral politics, Socialist Alternative has previously abstained from active participation, apart from giving some support to Steve’s council and state lower house campaigns in the past. Unsurprisingly, the candidates differed on Socialist Alternative’s motivations.
Steve commented that for “Socialist Alternative, this is the first time, they explained their reasons in a Red Flag editorial. They got involved with gusto. This is an important change for the largest group on the left.” From evidence at the campaign launch, there is certainly great enthusiasm from their membership, and a realisation that this sort of mass campaigning requires a much more grounded engagement with the working class than the typical propaganda approach of left groups.
Colleen said that Socialist Alternative “have supported Steve’s runs previously, not on this scale. We are not opposed to socialists running in elections, with no illusions that that is how change will come about. But this is worth doing to show that there is significant minority support for socialist ideas. Ticks that box, makes it worthwhile. It would really shake up the political landscape in Vic to have a socialist go-to person on every picket line, protest etc. This would bring it out from the margins.”
Sue argued that “They can see what is happening overseas with Corbyn, Sanders, disillusion with traditional parties. They are a bit worried that because they don’t participate in elections they are cut out of that. So supporting Steve as electable, is a short cut to be part of that. I may sound cynical. They have skipped all the hard yards that the Socialist Party and Socialist Alliance have done to build up an electoral base. It's quite a big change for Socialist Alternative, an opportunity for them to participate. Also they are the dominant socialist group in Melbourne, and need to develop themselves further; so this is a way to do that. They have been abstentionist in using elections as field for class struggle, although they have participated in student elections for a long time.”
An initial problem with the dominance of Socialist Alternative was that they were only willing to endorse a one-off upper house seat campaign, not even permitting Socialist Alliance or other socialist group lower house candidates to run under the Victorian Socialist banner. I see this as counterproductive on multiple levels: running lower house candidates within the upper house electorate could galvanise the local organising groups; assist in mobilising other groups (e.g. Freedom Socialist Party, Solidarity, The Socialist) to support the initiative, and potentially attract non-aligned activists with local standing to run as candidates, e.g. union shop stewards or organisers. There has been some recent changes in attitude, with more openness to the possibility of running candidates in some lower house seats.
The “one-off” election stance also avoids the question of the long term outcome for socialist organisation of this initiative. Discussing the post-election possibilities, Jolly said “If elected I would use that position to mobilise and advocate – a tool for both. It would open up questions about what we do with the coalition, move to multi-tendency party like Democratic Socialists of America, or maintain it as a coalition. I have spent the last 14 years as a councillor, with increasing votes… I have been able to use the role to advocate and mobilise. What I have done at council level, I will try to do at state level. Organisation will be around that. Then do we then move towards some sort of new political formation? That is the question, not a question about how we would use the position.”
Bolger said “If Steve was elected that would really shape up political debates, and sometimes nationally. There would be a voice to project demands that people are fighting for. It would be a shot in the arms for our campaigns, and perhaps increase our capacity to fight, and start to give a sense of what socialist ideas mean for new layers of people in the 21st century.”
Despite the structural and programmatic issues, this campaign offers great opportunities to take socialist ideas to a large working class population. Potentially, the collaboration could act as an example for other parts of Australia, and help galvanise the formation of a large, democratic, inclusive party with class struggle politics, especially should there be electoral success. This initiative is worth the support of all socialists and working class activists, and maximising the range of such views amongst the membership will be important in future debates about leadership, policies and representative structures.