Lessons for Labor
Modern, democratic political parties in Europe and North America, like the Labour Party in the UK and Canada’s New Democratic Party, involve party members directly in the election of party leaders. In Canada, at least, this approach is working with the NDP increasing its membership and winning seats in the Canadian legislature. Political leadership is central to the success of a political party but the enduring strength of a party comes from the involvement and ideas of members and supporters. There are lessons in this for the ALP and I've written some of my thoughts in The Australian today.
Canadian Left's lesson for ALP
Last week I was in Ottawa where I met representatives of the two main Canadian progressive parties, the Liberals and the New Democratic Party.
The NDP is closer to the Australian Labor Party in that it is affiliated with the union movement. There are, however, elements of policy in both parties that overlap with Labor.
Historically the Liberals were much stronger than the NDP, regularly forming national governments since before World War II. When the Liberals lost office they were always the official opposition.
All that changed at the Canadian elections in May when the Conservatives were re-elected with an increased majority. The really surprising story however, was how the once all-dominating Liberals, the party of Pierre Trudeau, were decimated and replaced as the official opposition by a resurgent NDP under the leadership of the charismatic Jack Layton.
In the years leading up to the recent Canadian elections Layton proved to be a difficult politician to pigeonhole. He championed social reforms such as gay marriage and once forced a minority Liberal government to abandon massive tax cuts for business and instead spend the money on social programs.
On the other hand he refused to support a carbon tax and controversially allowed his MPs a conscience vote on a move to ban the registration of firearms.
It was, however, a policy and political cocktail that worked. At the recent national election Layton took the NDP to its best ever result, 103 seats in a house of 308. When he took over the leadership of his party eight years ago it held just 13 seats.
But now Layton is dead, struck down by cancer just months after guiding his party to a remarkable resurgence.
Last week the nation mourned a man who was in the process of transforming Canadian progressive politics. After that the NDP set about finding his replacement.
In Australia his successor would be selected by his parliamentary colleagues, but not in Canada (and a surprisingly large number of parties of all colours across the world).
Last Friday the NDP's executive met to set the rules for the election of the new parliamentary leader. As in the past, the next opposition leader will be chosen by a vote of all 86,000 members of the party.
There will be a leadership election campaign during which candidates will have to woo and engage with the rank and file. Anyone who wants to help choose the next NDP leader need only join the party.
The healthy state of this once-marginal party warrants close examination by the ALP's leadership. Even at a time when the conservatives are dominating Canadian politics, the NDP's membership is growing.
Although unions can affiliate with the NDP their vote at party conferences is restricted to just 25 per cent compared with a massive 50 per cent in the ALP.
Furthermore, unions have no bloc voting power in leadership contests. It's a case of one vote, one value, as surely it should be in any organisation committed to democratic principles.
Most importantly for the ALP and the Coalition, in a system where the rank and file selects the parliamentary leader the power of factions is dramatically reduced. Talent is rewarded over blind loyalty and ability cannot be supplanted by decisions of entrenched interests. Most importantly, any move to replace the leader requires rank-and-file approval. That certainly could have made recent Australian political history quite different.
In 2003, when Layton won the NDP leadership, he did so in the face of opposition from his parliamentary caucus and the affiliated unions.
He won it through rank-and-file support after a protracted engagement with and involvement by the party's rank-and-file membership. In the following years he transformed his party, united his parliamentary team and won the respect of a nation.
All this is real food for thought. The Labor Party has to grow if it is to attract the best talents. However, it will only do so if its membership feels a real sense of ownership and involvement.
Labor's membership has been in decline for years and compares poorly with the NDP, whose members may soon number about 100,000.
Reducing the influence of faction leaders and union secretaries would mean turning the ALP's present modus operandi on its head. However, Labor's popular vote sits at below 30 per cent for the first time in living memory.
Opening Labor's leadership ballots to all its members is surely an idea whose time has come.