Kevin Rudd has called for factions within the ALP to be “abolished”. What are we to make of this?
At the outset, I should declare for transparency that I am a long-standing member of the Socialist Left faction of the ALP and a former long-standing member of its executive.
To start I think Kevin Rudd’s call is impossible to implement. It might depend on how one defines a faction. A definition is discussed further below. But clearly enough there will always be groups who meet and plot to affect certain outcomes- sometimes these will be policy outcomes, sometimes they will be outcomes that advance personal interests, often they will be both. This is just politics. It may well be just human nature.
If we look at evolutionary influences we see that with our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, live in groups of around 50. This is just as we did when we lived as hunter-gatherers. Like us, chimps are intensely political animals. Male leaders engage in a variety of political manoeuvres to get to the top.
Professor Frans de Waal’s book Chimpanzee Politics details the shifting coalitions created among chimpanzees to take power at Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands.
He argues that it is not enough to simply be the strongest.
“The best alpha males in chimpanzee communities are not necessarily the biggest and strongest males,” he says.
“You have to have supporters which means you have to keep these supporters happy.”
Hopefully, we have advanced somewhat. Not all our leaders are now men. But male and female leaders alike must still cultivate allies and try to keep supporters happy in order to obtain and maintain power.
We can define a faction as “a group within a larger entity united by a common purpose which differs in some respect to the rest of the entity”.
Adopting this definition we can see that the political parties are themselves factions within the broader polity. It is often assumed that factions come into existence following upon the creation of a political party. But this is not the history, at least in Victoria. In Victoria, factions actually preceded the existence of the party system.
The most influential factions within the Victorian ALP are the left and right factions. But both have sub-factions and splinter groups. I will not attempt to summarise the current state of those factions and sub-factions. The Independents Group is another much smaller faction and has about 3% of conference delegates.
But based on the definition above, all of the following activist groups within the ALP would also be factions:
There is at least one important difference between the two groups of factions.
The members of the first group enter into negotiations with each other to affect the outcome of pre-selections. The second group generally does not.
For those who may not know how it works, pre-selections for public office in the ALP are determined by a vote of local members, together with a vote of a central committee known as the Public Office Selection Committee (POSC). The local vote and POSC vote both count for 50% of the total pre-selection vote. Half of the POSC is made up of delegates elected by State Conference and the other half consists of delegates nominated by trade unions affiliated to the ALP.
The way the factions affect the outcome of preselections in the ALP is through factional agreements controlling how delegates vote on the central panel- the POSC. By agreeing on how to divide up seats between them, the outcome of preselections can usually be determined without any local vote of the rank and file members.
The factions will “trade away” or claim different seats based on a number of considerations. These do include the extent of local likely local support if a pre-selection went to a plebiscite vote of the local members. But other factors include the operation of affirmative action rules in favour of women, the desire to placate unions who are members of the faction with a favoured candidate, and other various other matters.
While the bigger left and right factions will generally bind their members (as a condition of factional membership) to support candidates from that faction in pre-selections, the Independents Group does not do this. In practice, however, and quite unsurprisingly, members of the Independents Group generally vote for each other anyway.
The members of the second group of factions- the activist groups- do not generally enter into cross factional negotiations in the same way as the first group of factions do. They exist to promote specific issues within the Party although they would no doubt be keen to see candidates who support their issues pre-selected. A partial exception to this maybe Emily’s List. A primary goal of this group is to promote women for pre-selection. To the extent that this group can control local or POSC votes, it can be a player in inter-factional negotiations over pre-selection.
Factions have both positive and negative consequences for a political party.
The benefits of factions are often overlooked. Factions can engage in productive co-operation. When they work well, factions can assist with the articulation and resolution or compromise around policy differences. In any political organization, there are likely to be many highly opinionated and passionate people. The existence of a factional system, compromise and give and take between factions, can allow its operations to be more predictable and stable.
But if factional strife becomes intensive and public, the organization may suffer from perceptions of disunity. Taken one step further, if the conflict is particularly severe, it may cause ruptures within the organization, or reputational damage, that seriously impede its effectiveness.
Factional strife often occurs when groups split off from the main factions to form a competing power block. The faction led by Adem Somyurek was comprised of groups that had all split away from those larger left and right factions that had previously agreed to a ‘stability pact’.
Undoubtedly, however, even when factions work well, a negative aspect of factionalism in the ALP is still the disenfranchisement that non-factional members justifiably feel by factional agreements that limit the effective exercise of their voting rights as members. These feelings are only exacerbated by branch-stacking.
Nevertheless, whatever their pros and cons, factions appear inevitable. Efforts to ban them are unlikely to succeed. Such an attempt, if made, might succeed in driving them (further) underground.
Factions also exist within the Liberal Party as Malcolm Turnbull’s problems with Liberal Party’s Right attest. It may nevertheless be the case that factionalism is more deeply entrenched and institutionalized within the ALP. If this is so there may be a number of explanations.
A party advocating progressive change might always be more susceptible to factionalism because there may be greater scope for disagreement about the best course of change than there is about how best to maintain the status quo.
Another explanation is the deep history of division in the Labor movement during the Cold War- the presence of communist leaders in the union movement, and the fanatical reaction against them by Santamaria’s Catholic industrial groups. This fierce battle could eventually no longer be contained by mere factionalism within the Party. It led to the 1955 schism and formation of the Democratic Labor Party. Interestingly, the whole episode with Adam Somyurek had its genesis in divisions within a leading “Grouper” union- the Shop Distributors Association.
Indeed factionalism may also run somewhat deeper in the ALP because of the affiliation of trade unions to the Party. Unions are themselves often hotbeds of factionalism. There are often rivalries between different state branches, different divisions within the same union, or between the current incumbents and union reform groups. And then there are the demarcation disputes over coverage that arise between unions. Different factions within unions might sometimes align with, or be sponsored by, different factions or even sub-factions within the ALP.
Marx might well have said “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your factions”.
Many people wrongly assume that factionalism ends with joining a faction. It does not. All of the main ALP factions have sub-factions and if you do not join one you will likely soon be typecast as belonging to one anyway.
If factions are inevitable, an alternative approach to trying to ban them might be to consider ways in which they could become more transparent- for example, requiring them to publish a list of their objectives, membership lists, agreements that they have reached, etc. A candidate for pre-selection or other positions in the Party could be required to declare factional membership.
This could potentially be a first step towards trying to reserve a percentage of elected positions in the Party for persons who are not members of a faction. But the problem with this approach is that membership of factions is itself fluid. Sub-factions within the factions are susceptible to realignment. Factions would soon develop “friends” not formally inside the faction who would seek to take advantage of any such rule. We should never underestimate how the smell of parliamentary leather can spur new innovations.
It is also possible for the rules to prohibit activity which factions typically engage in without trying to prohibit factions as a whole. Indeed, the rules against branch stacking are themselves an example of this.
There could conceivably be other forms of “factional activity” that could be prohibited. But where a rule change is proposed purporting to prohibit such factional activity consideration needs to be given to whether:
- the activity is an undesirable activity in itself,
- the activity is adequately defined and delineated from legitimate activity,
- the proposed rule is capable of proof/enforcement.