Socialist Alliance Building report

Socialist Alliance Building report

1. Busy first part of the year

Socialist Alliance has had a very busy first half-year, which has had a big influence on what we’ve been able to achieve in party building terms.

The “Arab Spring” rallies, refugee rights, climate change, same-sex rights, the NSW election campaign, anti-coal seam gas campaign, anti-NT intervention and deaths in custody campaigns, the unexpected boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, and union action against public service cuts in South Australia, NSW and now Tasmania: we’ve thrown ourselves into helping to organise, and in many cases also politically lead, these campaigns. This has taken up a lot of branch resources and branch leadership time.

We have to mention that at the beginning of this discussion because this is the context in which we are carrying out our party building work.

It also helps explain why the raw numbers that you will see in this report are not, if viewed on their own, an adequate summary of where our party building work is at.

This National Council meeting, the first to solely focus on branches assessing their own work, doesn’t have the time to assess all our movement work.

But branches have been asked to reflect on this and the campaigns we’re involved in as part of their assessment of how well the branch and, in particular, how well the leadership teams are functioning.

Right now, as the ALP shows it has little ability or will to lead any sort of reform movement, the left outside the ALP is being called on to step into the breach. Meanwhile, the Greens are still largely focused on parliament and not allocating many of their considerable resources to building the movements.

Socialist Alliance is still too small to do this easily, but we nevertheless give it our best shot. This invariably means that while our political authority is enhanced by taking on big commitments in the movements — as we emphasise democracy and inclusivity — our branch building can suffer. But as long as we are aware of this tendency, we can work on redressing the imbalance. This phenomenon is not new to our tendency.

2. ALP

This meeting is taking place in much the same general political framework as last January.

There have been some developments in the Greens, nationally and in NSW where there’s been a state election.

There have been fewer developments in the ALP, which is now in opposition in NSW, Victoria and WA and federally is hitting new lows in popularity.

The ALP-Green-Independent alliance is very weak: just last week we saw a successful motion against the anti-refugee “Malaysian solution” moved with the support of the Coalition, Greens and some independents.

The ALP version of neo-liberal austerity, which includes a carbon tax, a watered down mining profits tax and more cuts to services, is putting pressure on the Greens, who have acquiesced to the right-wing pressure — from within their own ranks as well as the right — that some sort of carbon tax is better than none at all.

The Australian economy is not looking as good as Wayne Swan and others would have us believe.

Added to that, a year after the leadership coup against Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard’s popularity is at an all-time low. Rudd is waiting in the wings to take advantage.

In Queensland, Premier Anna Bligh has used the terrible summer floods to rebuild her party’s fortunes, which were turning very bad as a result of the state government’s hugely unpopular decision to sell off most of the state’s assets.

The Liberal-National Coalition has decided to run for the Brisbane Mayor as its shot to grab the state, and it seems that the union challenge to ALP has faded … but this is not necessarily the end of the story.

In Tasmania, a new young female premier is carrying out much the same neo-liberal agenda as Bligh, and under the former Keneally ALP government, but this time with the support of the Tasmanian Greens led by Nick McKim.

In NSW, Victoria and WA, the ALP are now in opposition.

In NSW, at least, the ALP is attempting to rebrand itself as having “listened” and

“learned” from its mistakes, even though the federal minister in charge of the ALP’s “renewal” — John Faulkner — all but conceded in his recent Wran Lecture that a renewal that shifted the ALP to the left is an all-but-hopeless task.

An important public sector union campaign for rights at work has sprung up over the last few weeks in response to NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s law to limit public sector wage rises to 2.5% per year without recourse to the state’s Industrial Relations Commission. This has sparked fury among workers across the public service. Some 10,000 mobilised outside Parliament House 10 days ago, but their fury was well managed by the officials in Unions NSW who, cynically, are keen to narrow this down to a four-year re-elect the ALP campaign.

While the legislation has gone through — with the help of the reactionary Shooters and Fishers in the NSW Upper House — it is not clear that the ALP will be able to exert total control over this campaign, which seems to have sparked a renewal of union activism.

While Labor, at a state and federal level, is looking to lift its political fortunes with these state campaigns, membership of the party continues to drop. According to this article in the June 13 Australian, the ALP had 75,000 members in the 1970s. Now that figure is closer to 38,000.

By contrast, the Greens in 2003 had 5800; now it would be close to the same as the ALP (if not more).

3. The Greens

The Greens are set to take the balance of power in the Senate come July 1 and all eyes are on how they’ll do.

A quickly growing party, the Greens are also developing left-right divides, something that became evident during News Ltd’s all-out attack on them over the boycott, divestment and sanctions motion passed by Marrickville council at the end of last year.

A more right(ish) faction or tendency seems to be forming, led by Bob Brown, and which includes Cate Faerman and Jeremy Buckingham in NSW, and Nick McKim and Christine Milne in Tasmania. Will Lee Rhiannon (from NSW) be capable of getting a left faction together (with WA Senators Rachel Siewert and Scott Ludlum) when she takes her Senate seat in July? And if so, how will it organise with the extra-parliamentary left?

The Greens’ support for the ALP’s carbon tax-turning-into-an-ETS scheme puts them in a contradictory position. On the one hand, they can say that they are “doing something”. But the “something” — subsidising fossil-fuel companies while hitting workers with a new tax — may well come back to bite them politically.

The Greens are playing a big role in the regional and city-based anti-coal seam gas campaigns, and this is helping them reach new constituencies in regional and rural areas where the party has always been more feared. However, when it becomes clear what the carbon tax scheme entails, some of these new linkages, and some old ones, may sour.

Also, the Greens governmental alliance with the ALP in Tasmania — which wants to cut some 2000 public sector jobs — is fuelling widespread anger. This was bought home to SA members when they found it hard to distribute Green Left Weekly at an anti-cuts rally because people thought GLW was a Greens’ paper.

While the Greens are a contradictory party, in policy terms they still represent a left break from the ALP. A more conservative wing may well be in charge at a national and state-wide level, but the ranks of the Greens comprise progressives, socialists, unionists and many young people.

We want to reaffirm here that we must maintain our non-sectarian approach to working as closely with the Greens on as many fronts as we can, while presenting a clear left political alternative.

In this context, Illawarra comrades can fill us all in on the Community Voice ticket and the relationship with ordinary Greens members who are under pressure from NSW Greens MPs not to participate.

4. Party building progress

How have we gone on the party building front?

Given the pace of events, branches have struggled to find time and energy to focus on carrying out the projections we adopted in January. As one member put it recently:

“Part of the problem is that we are all more willing to take on 'movement' responsibilities than SA organising tasks. I suppose the movement can exert greater pressure on us than the party, especially as we win more experience and authority and people ask us to do things.

“However, we all know what the party offers: GLW and Marxism drew us into activity in the first place - you don't find those in the 'movement'. The key then is to broaden out participation in party building tasks amongst comrades, even just a little would help, the recent effort with the electoral re-registration campaign (in NSW) shows what we can do ...”

While the “movements” do put pressure on us — as we are organised, committed and effective, and often times it seems there’s a chance of “winning” one or other reform — we do have to remind ourselves of why we are such good movement activists in the first place.

You just do not get the training and perspective if you only carry out your politics in the movement.

This is not unique to us, of course. The Communist Party of Australia learnt the hard way when, during the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of their leading activists either melted into the movements or became functionaries of the state.

This is why we have to take stock of where we are at and discuss ideas of how to strengthen our party in a political climate in which the opportunities are open as never before and the pull of the social movements is stronger and stronger.

How do we use our growing political authority in many of the movement arenas to help grow the party?

We recognised in our January National Council meeting that the key to successful SA building lay in the branches getting better organised, and developing stronger and more effective leadership teams and structures.

Therefore, we will be modest in our projections because unless we find the ways of making the local teams work, the projections will not be able to be carried out. They cannot be carried out by just one or two very committed people in a branch.

It’s not that we’re discouraging that sort of commitment: on the contrary, we need to convince others about the reasons why we work so hard and get so much done. But this can only be done by politically convincing members.

Politically convincing new, and longer-term, members to take ownership of SA — our party building projects — is the only way we’ll grow and become a more effective fighting force.

That means that political education — in socialist theory as well as keeping abreast of international and domestic politics — is essential.

This National Council is an opportunity to share ideas on what has (or hasn’t) worked.

Membership

You can see from the membership graph that we have not grown since last year. But if you include those who branch coordinating bodies believe they have a chance of re-joining, we will be in front.

During the NSW elections, we joined a few members who decided to quit the ALP. This is (and was) an important break and we have to work on involving those comrades: they have a lot of experience and we need them to take “ownership” of SA as well. We also want to pick their brains on who else would be willing to join. Should we be trying to set up a branch in Fairfield, for example?

We’ve invited the comrades to this meeting so that they can contribute their views, and see our structures and how we work.

While it doesn’t seem hard to join people — and new members keep joining over the web — what is obviously harder is the follow-up, and asking members to renew. Every branch needs at least one member devoted to this.

This report proposes that we campaign for 1000 members by the end of 2011.

We are not projecting a new joining brochure right now as we still have heaps of the old one (which we should spread around more liberally). There’s been some informal discussion about publishing a short manifesto for SA after our next national conference. This could also serve as a recruitment brochure.

Hobart is looking into producing recruitment YoutTubes; other branches may like to also do this. We managed to make a few during the federal election campaign, which went viral on the web and Facebook. But can we make them more targeted for the people who so admire us in the movement areas?

Green Left Weekly subscriptions

Subscriptions need to take a higher priority in our overall distribution effort for Green Left Weekly. Ultimately, this comes down to the branch level. We need to do this for GLW's survival sake, let alone morale of those who still distribute the paper week in and out in the streets.

Subscriptions have been relatively stable over 20 years (with peaks around O-week and during national mass campaigns, such as the Your Rights at Work Campaign), hovering around 900-1000. They have fallen a little recently, but with some effort this can easily be lifted.

Can we run workshops on how best to sell subscriptions (and papers)? What about reminder notices around the offices to sell subs? Can we take the subscription signs to all stalls? Several branches are doing their own subs push and they should report on progress in the newsletter.

Around 48% of Socialist Alliance members have subs, but slightly more (51%) are expirees. Can we turn this around?

We’re having an important political dialogue with members who we do not see week to week: it’s a critical part of forming a political consensus on the big political events internationally and domestically.

We should be investigating whether more members can help sell subs, as well as longer-term subscribers (many more of whom are solidarity subscribers).

We’re in the process of updating the subs database to make it easier to generate reports.

While we’re not in a position to stop everything and launch a new subs campaign, we will be campaigning for subs at the CC|SC conference in Melbourne, and we can give a free four-week sub with three-day registration for the conference.

Green Left Weekly distribution

I’ll leave it to branch reports to talk about how they are tackling the weekly distribution issue. We’ve done well at the rallies this year — it’s where GLW really comes into its own. But how can we encourage more members to help out in this party-building work?

Finances

The finance office has graphed our progress and can say more in discussion. But it’s clear we do need a push on the GLW Fighting Fund donations and solidarity subscriptions; the latter are increasingly coming in from subscribers, which means we should also be confident to ask members to do the same.

Now’s also the time to adjust fundraising targets to make sure they are achievable by the end of the year. This report proposes that we recommit to the 2011 GLW Fighting Fund target of $250,000.

Branch coordinating teams

Given fewer full and more part-timers, with none in some branches, branch coordinating teams will only hang together around politics, and maintaining a political atmosphere is critical to that.

Under the enormous pressure of movement work, and work and study, some branches are now cutting back the coordinating committee meetings and making the branch meetings the place where decisions are discussed and voted on, and teams are established to work on certain projects or discuss campaign interventions.

Various branches are trialling different time-tables of branch versus outreach meetings.

In all of this, however, it is very important that weekly or bi-weekly meetings make decisions about what the branch prioritises.

Education

I sent around the notes produced by Dave H with suggestions and a list of work in progress (Appendix A below). Branches should say how they are going; there have been some very successful educational events in a number of branches.

National office, Green Left Weekly and Sydney branch

The move to the new office will take a little more time, but it’s already clear that it will be a boost to our party-building efforts.

We do need some more help in the national office, and GLW is interviewing student journalists to see if they can help with writing, proofing and laying out the paper.

Motions proposed in Socialist Alliance Building report:

  1. Campaign for 1000 members by the beginning of 2012.
  2. Campaign for more solidarity and ordinary Green Left Weekly subscriptions among members.
  3. Concentrate on developing branch teams.
  4. Recommit to the 2011 Green Left Weekly Fighting Fund target of $250,000.