Max Ogden on the ALP & Social Democracy

Posted by on August 30, 2015 in General, Winter 2015 No 81

The ALP Is Not Social Democratic but Should Be

Max Ogden


The ALP is not a social democratic party. As the moves for party reform gather momentum, the party’s history and identity needs to be better understood since these make change difficult. The Australian Labor Party, and others of the English speaking countries, are better described as labourist, compared with the social democratic parties such as those in Germany, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Holland.


The foundation of the social democratic parties was considerably different from that of the labour parties. The German party was formed in 1863, the Danish in 1871, the Swedish in 1889 and the Norwegian in 1887. Many were part of the First International, all of them had much Marxist influence, and were far more ideological than were the labour parties in the English speaking countries. Moreover, the social democratic parties had direct influence in building the unions in their countries and those unions took on the ideology of the party.


The labour parties were formed later, in Australia in 1892, the UK in 1906 and New Zealand in 1911. They were created by the unions as 'Labour Representation Committees' and took on the pragmatism of the unions. This helps to explain why it is so difficult to get Australian unions to review their relationship to the party, as they see it as theirs. It means that discussion about changing the party must be within the context of the whole industrial and political labour movement


An important characteristic of Western European social democracy that has not featured very much in the traditions of the English-speaking countries is the labour movement's concern with and strategies for wealth creation as well as wealth distribution. Australia’s unions have been almost exclusively concerned with wealth distribution. They have put a price on everything, but left wealth creation to the employers and, to a lesser extent, governments. The ALP-ACTU Accord period 1983-1996, was a move towards greater concern for wealth creation.


A good example of the different approaches re wealth creation is the incredibly sophisticated strategy when Swedish manufacturing unions suggested to employers and government in about 1950, that they were opposed to protectionism, and wanted their companies to be efficient, and internationally competitive. The parties worked out a twenty year strategy to move from low cost, low wage, high volume, to high technology, high skill, high wage, high value adding manufacturing. Since then social democratic movements have devoted considerable attention and resources to improve business performance.


They have laws giving workers and their unions a say in company management, either through union/worker representation on the board, and-or a second management board below the company board that has a significant influence in day-to-day management. Nordic unions and social democratic parties have been interested in improving productivity, while protecting employees, by intervening in management processes.


Australian unions have been lukewarm about such involvement in company management, insisting that only unions can represent workers with companies and government. With only 18 per cent of employees now in unions, it is hard to justify that only unions should represent employees. In European countries such as Germany, where union membership is less than 30 per cent of the workforce, the majority of those elected to represent employees in Workers Councils are unionists, and much the same would happen here.


An outstanding current example is the LO (Norwegian Confederation of Unions) initiative, the Employee Driven Innovation Program, which works with employers to implement significant change to management systems, enabling their members to take initiatives to improve performance. Such an initiative is hard to imagine in Australia, given the reluctance of unions to intervene in management and wealth creation, and the increased and irrational employer and government hostility to unions.


Union reluctance arises from concern that unions would be doing the bosses’ job. By contrast, social democratic unions see it as doing the right thing by their members who are very supportive, because they are often more knowledgeable than management, and managing the workplace and production is too important to leave to managers. Nordic unions understand that creating wealth must come before distribution, so the more unions/employees intervene and contribute to value adding, the more they establish their right to bargain about its distribution.

The social democratic labour movements also plough enormous resources into ideas, research and training, particularly about work organisation, management systems, and training their activists. The Swedish union movement alone has six rather grand residential union colleges for training activists, while Australia does not have even one, after the unions rejected the Howard Government’s offer for them to purchase Clyde Cameron College, at a knock-down price.


As the future of the ALP is discussed, the focus must be: how can the movement best advance the goals of working people and the less well-off, including making their work more rewarding in every sense, not only financially. Traditional labourist strategies have shown little interest in improving the quality of work, so a lot can be learned from the social democratic tradition.


Currently capitalist, neo-liberal ideology is dominant. The ideas of Hayek have become a huge force, especially in the absence of a coherent vision and response from the Left. It is far easier to embrace neo-liberalism than the complexities of a more equalitarian and democratic society. Many people, including unionists, aspire to be businesspeople and wealthy, and enough of them make it to keep the neo-liberal myth alive.


In such circumstances, the best that the labour movement can aim for over the next half century is capitalism with a human face. Norway, while far from perfect, is a model to be studied. It is probably the world’s wealthiest and most equalitarian society, with deep democratic traditions, virtually all of them achieved by social democrats. Their $900 billion wealth fund, created from the proceeds of oil and gas extraction, is used for the benefit of the broader society. Even though the Norwegian people threw out the Labour Party (though it was in office for  8 years) in favour of a right-wing coalition (the day after Australia elected Abbott) the unions and the Labour Party (still the largest in parliament) remain powerful, and should be able to protect workers and the public from the worst of the new government.


In Sweden the previous right-wing government had privatised many public services, creating difficult problems for the Social Democrats, who have just recently been returned, after two terms in opposition, as a coalition minority government. But even out of power the Social Democrats have been able to defend their gains better than most left parties elsewhere. So far they have protected the social democratic tradition for benefits to be universal, ie regardless of wealth, every person has a right to their government benefits. Means testing is via the tax system.


Both Sweden and Norway figure in the excellent 2013 book by Andrew Scott, Nordic Lights: Work, Management and Welfare in Scandinavia. A real test of a successful strategy is the extent to which it can sustain its gains and organisation when inevitably out of government for a period. European social democratic parties have done this better than those with labourist traditions.  This is because they have pursued long-term strategies whether in government or not, while their tactics must change to take account of who is in government. This compares to labourist strategies that change with each change of government, which undermines long-term strategies.


The Swedish Social Democrats have 100,000 members, four times as many as the ALP on a per capita basis, including a large percentage of unionists, many with branches in their workplaces. Social Democratic parties are mass parties, more democratic, and more activist. An ALP member living and working in Sweden, and active in the Social Democrats, is impressed by the flexibility of their structures to promote activism in whatever field is relevant to the member and the movement. The same cannot be said of labourist parties, which do not encourage a lot of membership activism except during elections, and are rather top down, which enables strong factional influence to dominate.


Building a progressive, social democratic Australia will not be easy. Traditions weigh heavily on all aspects of our lives, and Australian’s unions and the ALP have much to be proud of and big fights are needed to just keep what we have. The social democratic parties in Europe have also had exhausting fights to maintain their gains. However, a big difference is the very clear and sustained social democratic labour movement strategy.


Change in Australia requires a determined, committed, competent leadership within both the ALP and unions. It must generate mass discussion within the whole labour movement and the electorate, and then step by step over a decade and more, implement some of those key elements. Such a strategy will attract many new members for both unions and ALP, and the wider electorate.


The debate to democratise the ALP is very important, but on its own, without reference to the overall strategic direction of the whole labour movement, democratisation of itself will not be sufficient. It is a means to an end. However, if the party in partnership with the unions were to embrace a more social democratic strategy, the input from unions and ALP members would markedly improve.


In essence, thinking boldly and imaginatively about new strategies is critical if the labour movement is to be more effective in the interests of working people, society generally, and the less well-off.


Max Ogden is a former metal worker, union activist, and AMWU and ACTU organiser. His article 'Whither the ALP' in Issue number 79 was the initiative for the series about social democracy compared with labourism

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