Workers Party member Ian Anderson interviews socialist Stephen Jolly, on the Labor Party and recent union elections.
The Spark: Socialist Party recently committed to helping with the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) election, can you tell me why that was?
SJ: The Victorian branch of the ETU is probably the most militant trade union in Australia. When Dean Miles the current state secretary took over in the 1990s, workers on building sites were almost embarrassed to admit they were electricians. Now they’re the highest paid, best organised, and work the shortest week of any construction workers in Victoria – in an industry that’s 100% unionised, so that’s quite something.
And secondly, he’s taken the union out of the clutches of the Labor Party. The leadership organised an internal referendum to ask the members if they wanted to stay affiliated and by overwhelming majority of over 80%, they said no, we want to be independent of the Labor Party. At election time the ETU give election funds sometimes to the Greens, sometimes to what they consider better Labor candidates, and also to the Socialist Party.
We think they should go one step further, and work to create a new workers’ party.
The Spark: What limitations does Labor affiliation bring?
SJ: First of all, the obvious one is financial. You’re used as an ATM every election time. For example the CFMEU, Australia’s most powerful union, hand over millions at every election to the Labor Party. On election here in Victoria, the Labor Party gave out contracts to the most anti-union companies, and when that led to a picket line they’d send the police to fight the unions that had supported them.
But also when a union is affiliated to the Labor Party it signifies a whole ideology; a softness, or reformism, an unwillingness to take on Labor governments, an unwillingness to take on bosses actually.
The Spark: What did the Socialist Party do to help out, and how did the election go?
SJ: We don’t have any members who are electricians, so we helped out by way of ring-arounds of members in Victoria and nationally. The result went very well in Victoria, they won 80% of the vote. The Labor Party tickets got smashed in the Victorian elections.
Nationally, which has been a stronghold of the right in the ETU, the Victorian elements almost won. Which shows the big dissatisfaction that exists inter-state.
The Spark: What are the alternatives to Labor affiliation?
SJ: We don’t think having no affiliation to any political group is viable in the long-term, but no real mass workers’ party exists, so the Socialist Party is saying that as a holding position, unions should disaffiliate from the Labor Party and support candidates on the basis of their working class record and policies.
But that’s a holding position, what we need to move for is a coming-together of progressive unions, community organisations, public housing organisations, left-wing individuals, student organisations and so on – to talk about the need for a new mass left party that’s democratic in organisation, radical and anti-capitalist in character, which allows different platforms to exist.
The Spark: Is there any interest in a new political formation in the ETU or elsewhere?
SJ: Well on the most militant, best organised and largest site in Australia, the desalination plant in Worthaggi, we’ve got members there and there’s been a lot of interest in the idea of a new workers’ party.
I think there’s a low political level amongst Australian workers at the moment, a low level of class-struggle, there’s no mass organisations explaining what’s going on, but there’s dissatisfaction that could turn into political action. We’d support the formation of a genuine workers’ party that’s democratic, a broad church if you like, where socialists and other anti-capitalists could advance their politics – and even those who wanted to reform capitalism. We’d have to deal with that, there’d be debates every day. But that’s where we think things should head.