To save Labor, activists must overthrow the political operators
Sydney Morning Herald
Friday April 1, 2011
In the dying days of a hard-fought campaign in Balmain I had a very revealing exchange with a voter. I was speaking to a middle-aged woman who had been agonising over whether to vote against Labor for the first time in her life. She told me several "passionate conversations" she'd had with Labor volunteers were what finally convinced her our candidate was "the real deal".In one of NSW Labor's darkest hours the party's campaigns in Marrickville and Balmain have offered a beacon of hope. Both were led by inspiring candidates and mobilised hundreds of grassroots volunteers. The lesson here is that, when they are allowed to advocate for the values they believe in, our supporters are capable of being a dynamic political force.For too long power in our party has been centralised in the hands of professional political operators and politicians. The role of members in developing policy and fighting campaigns has been continually undermined. It is time rank-and-file members stood up to reclaim Labor.We have already started organising and we will campaign to win our party back for its members and supporters, starting with a meeting at Tom Mann Theatre tomorrow afternoon.The 2010 national campaign review provides a roadmap for re-empowering our membership. Direct election of party officers, experimenting with primaries and investing heavily in training members are all positive suggestions. Nonetheless, many of these reforms were proposed in the 2001 Hawke-Wran review without being enacted.Grassroots Labor activists must fight hard to ensure that these reforms are adopted. Making involvement in the ALP more meaningful is the only way to halt the ageing and shrinking of our membership. We must recruit a new generation or we are finished.Our task is broader than the narrow goal of being electable in four or eight years' time. If the past four years has taught us anything it is that it is better to be a principled and purposeful opposition than a worn-out and directionless government.In tough times we must return to the very best traditions of our party. That means not just fighting election campaigns but training activists to organise and agitate for change in local communities.Barack Obama may be a Harvard law graduate but it was his role as a grassroots community organiser that attracted millions of people to his cause. The fact that he had worked on the ground on the south side of Chicago gave added authenticity and potency to his message of working for the common good.Building an army of volunteers is also our only path to future electoral success. The old campaign model of bombarding the electorate with direct mail and TV advertising has failed. Voters have wised up to this spin, not least because they know that it has been in part paid for by developer and corporate donations.This dependence on shallow marketing has also fostered an arrogant belief among some in the machine that campaigns can be waged with minimal involvement or input from members. Limiting the role of our members and supporters to letterboxing and attending fund-raisers ignores the skills of Labor people and unnecessarily limits our ability to campaign and win.Our reputation is so damaged that the only way for us to win back the support of voters is to personally contact and convince each and every one of them that we have changed. It will be the persuasive ability of our activists, not the cunning of our apparatchiks, that will determine how long we remain in opposition.The fight for renewal will not be easy. There are vested interests that will not willingly give up their power. There are some who would rather maintain their current influence over a dying party than give power away to save it.Faced with such dire circumstances, rank and file members must fight for Labor renewal the way it has been done for 120 years. From the bottom up.Darcy Byrne is a Leichhardt councillor and was Labor's volunteer co-ordinator for Balmain.