Modernised ALP may struggle with cash and policy; political historian

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Plans to reduce union influence in the ALP and give members more power must be handled delicately to ensure union donations keep flowing and new members don’t abandon the political centre by advocating fringe policies, according to a political historian from the University of Western Sydney.

Dr David Burchell, from the UWS School of Humanities and Communication Arts, is the author of Western Horizon: Sydney’s Heartland and the Future of Australian Politics and The Prince's New Clothes: Why do Australians Dislike Their Politicians?

He says the various proposals by Labor Leader Bill Shorten to make it easier to join the party, to address the party’s dwindling voter-base, and to update its policy direction, are all sensible in themselves but don’t sit easily together.

“Measures that please party members do not always impress the wider electorate- and policy cannot be written by the membership if it’s to make political sense,” says Dr Burchell.

“Considering the current unpopularity and dwindling memberships of unions, it’s understandable the ALP wants to loosen the union embrace. Yet Labor is as poor as a church mouse currently, and must tread carefully if it wants to enjoy the unions’ continued financial support.”

Dr Burchell says plans to give rank and file members more power to preselect candidates and formulate policy may indeed attract more youthful members, but it’s not clear how this will mesh with Mr Shorten’s desire to articulate a fresh approach to policy.

“In Labor’s own mind it’s not clear whether it’s building on the Hawke-Keating legacy or returning to the more interventionist style of Whitlam, and in practice it’s been suspended somewhere unconvincingly between the two,” he says.

“Articulating a modern Labor policy direction may not please members if it’s seen as a ‘lurch to the Right’, and conversely the party leader may be reluctant to take on difficult policy changes if they’re reliant on the members for their re-election under the ‘Rudd’ leadership rules.”

Dr Burchell says it’s unclear whether the changes will matter where it really counts- at the next poll.

“Labor’s primary vote has hit parlous depths – and it’s not really budging,” he says.

“This is partly due to the loss of voters to the Left, particularly the Greens, and partly the lack of enthusiasm for modern Labor values, such as asylum-seekers.”

“It’s not obvious an enhanced role for members will do anything to help improve Labor’s polling, and in fact may arguably make it worse, since members tend to be well to the Left of the electorate as a whole.”


22 April 2014

Contact: Mark Smith, Senior Media Officer

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