Labor Politics Before Factions

Michael Hogan

The year 1910 was a truly historic one for the Labor Party in Australia. Although there had been brief minority Labor governments in Queensland (1899),Western Australia (1904),Tasmania (1909) and in the Commonwealth (1904 and 1907), in 191O,for the first time, Labor won majority government – first in the Commonwealth and South Australia in April, and then New South Wales in October. Western Australia followed in 1911.

What stirring times they were. There was a strong perception in the labour movement that the parry had broken through, that the future belonged to Labor, and that the whole lanor program could be implemented forthwith. There is often such euphoria after great electoral victories, and within a few years reality had reasserted itself, but it was true that Labor had broken through.

The Australian experience inspired workers’ parties in the rest of the developed world. For comparison, in December 1910  the British Labour Party won 42 of 670 seats in the House of Commons, which was regarded as a triumph at the time, although the Liberals had an effective majority of more than 120 seats over the Conservatives, leaving Labour completely without leverage in Parliament. Although there would be brief periods of minority and coalition government, British Labour did not win an election on its own until 1945. Across the Tasman Sea the modern New Zealand Labour Party was not created till 1916 and did not win a majority until 1935.

A century later Labor is an established part of the political landscape in Australia, but there are suggestions that not all is well with the part y, .and some commentators even contemplate a future where Labor will not be able to govern without some kind of coalition with a more overtly progressive party such as the Greens. In fact it is not just the Labor Party that is in trouble; the whole party system is not coping with changes, especially in the relationship between politics and various facets of the mass media. I would like to draw attention to one feature that is often blamed for the malaise in Labor – the faction system within the party.

In a newspaper review of two recent books on the modern Labor Party, Ross Fitzgerald declared: “While factions, and factional reward in terms of preselection for parliament, have always been part of the ALP … NSW ‘factions have hardened into [mere] employment mechanisms'”.1

Fitzgerald’s assumption that factions have always been there is widely shared, but it is not true. Labor won election in 1910 without factions, and the first recognisable faction in NSW – the so-called Industrial Section – was not created until 1916.

This does not mean that there were no differences of opinion or competing structures of power in the party. There certainly were. For those first twenty years there were struggles between the unions and the branches, between individual unions like the Australian Workers Union and other trade unions, between city and country members, between political pragmatists and ideological socialists of a wide variety of brands, between temperance supporters and publicans, and, of course, rivalry between individuals for influence and promotion. The most obvious rivalry and suspicion during all those years was between the parliamentary party and the general labour movement, expressed every year in the annual conference of the party. Any modern mass political party needs such competition of ideas and organisation if it is to keep changing and adapting to new challenges. It is not something to be regretted.

Yet there was no faction system. In the governing mechanisms of the party – Conference, Executive and Caucus – any new issue demanded the construction of a new coalition of forces from unions, country and city branches, MPs, ideologues, and sectional interests. Each time this happened it demanded political skill from the promoters of a new issue or policy. Party members needed to be convinced by argument. Read the reports of the Annual Conference in the various volumes of my three volume collection Labor Pains (Federation Press) to tune into the arguments and discussions. From 1892 till 1910 Conference mattered, and decisions were made on the floor of the meeting after extended debate.

What happened between 1910 and 1916 was that the parliamentary party, especially driven by William Holman, effectively maintained majority support for Cabinet decisions in both Conference and State Executive. A Cabinet faction was being created. It could control the crucial votes at Conference, and it could control, through the Executive, access to preselection. For much of that time there was open war between much of the extra-parliamentary party – led by those who called themselves the Industrialists – and Holman. Long before conscription became a divisive issue in the party, Holman was crushing vocal dissent and suppressing his opponents. While 1910 marks a victory that deserves to be celebrated today, it also marks the beginning of the death of internal democracy in the NSW Labor Party. It was not primarily the faction system that destroyed it; it was the hardening of reluctance in the new Labor Government to accept any oversight from other levels of the party – even from its own Caucus.

Faced with this top-down management style the AWU saw no alternative to organising better than Holman. It put together a coalition of unions, branches and socialists, organised them into a tightly controlled caucus, imposed a discipline of show-and-tell voting in Conference, and captured virtually all positions on the Executive to oppose Holman and the Cabinet. Modern factionalism was born.

It ushered in one of the worst periods of corrupt administration in the history of the ALP – branch stacking, ballot rigging, intimidation and preselection rorts. If you want to learn more than you care to know about sliding panels in preselection ballot boxes, read the report of the 1923 State Conference. The AWU faction was only curtailed when Jack Lang put together his own factional machine that became the infamous ‘Inner Group’ – in many ways even more undemocratic and corrupt than Jack Bailey’s AWU.

Out of the mess of the 1920s and 1930s came the reformed party of the McKell era. But the party had to suffer ten years of bitter exile from power in both Canberra and Sydney before its revival. However, factionalism was well installed at all levels of the party, and its levers of power were too effective to be given up. The ‘NSW Right’ emerged, opposed by a Left faction which adopted various names over the years while it adopted the same mechanisms of internal control.

The ALP elected in 1910 was a party managed very largely by internal democracy. Holman set out to destroy it because he believed that the leaders knew better than the members. Does that sound familiar? The Industrial Section of the AWU successfully achieved the destruction of internal democracy, and then Lang imposed his personal dictatorship over the party, which was probably the lowest point for NSW Labor. These developments seemed to confirm the validity of Robert Michels’ famous ‘iron law of oligarchy’ where even the most radical of political parties tend to be governed by elites. Yet the period before 1910 had proved that some measure of internal democracy was possible in the NSW Labor Party. The question I am asking is: is there any chance that it can be revived?

Factions are not going to disappear from the ALP although most of the ideological justification for a division between left and right has evaporated. Rodney Cavalier was only slightly exaggerating in his recent assertion that modern factions are little more than ’employment mechanisms’ for aspiring party members. Can the  factions themselves reform the party – as they did, with some help from the Federal Executive, when they accepted the principle of proportional representation in most management sections of the NSW ALP?  It would require an almost superhuman effort to reintroduce internal democracy to the party, where local branches are revived and have a genuine influence, and where annual Conference is not stage-managed by block voting. However, the alternative is to recognise that the future structure of the Labor Party will be little different from the Liberal Party, which has always been overwhelmingly a party of MPs, with ultimate reliance on a dominant parliamentary leader and a compliant Executive. A bit like the Kevin Rudd style, in fact. Very much like the Holman vision. Does the ALP really want to go there?

This is an edited extract of Associate Professor Michael Hogan’s address to the NSW ALP’s Central Policy Branch meeting, ‘100Years of Labor Government’, held at the Trades Hall Auditorium, 15 November.


1        Sydney Morning Herald, 23-24 October 2010: ‘Spectrum’, p. 37.