“So, how come the left is so divided?” we are routinely asked. After a conversation in which we try and put 150-odd years of struggle into its historical context, they inevitably respond with: “Yes, but don’t you think you’d be able to fight the right better if you were bigger and stronger?”
The answer is yes!
The February 5 announcement in Melbourne’s Herald Sun that the Victorian Socialists — an alliance of socialist groups — will contest the Northern Metropolitan Regional upper house seat in the November Victorian elections flags a new, exciting opening for the left and progressive movements.
There have been unity projects before: Socialist Alliance itself was born from one such effort in 2001. Now, we are aiming to get a socialist elected to Victoria’s parliament and the effort is being supported by two socialist organisations, some unions and many left activists.
This has not happened since the Communist Party of Australia’s Fred Patterson won a state seat in north Queensland in 1944, after several years of being a councillor.
If the momentum on the Victorian Socialists Facebook page is anything to go by — 1000 people were following it within two days — it is not an exaggeration to say that this initiative has captured people’s imagination. It is exciting to think about how effective this campaign could become.
It is not just that the lead candidate Steve Jolly has a strong track record as a fighter and socialist activist. Jolly has been a long-time councillor on Yarra City Council, one of the local government areas included in the Northern Metropolitan seat. He played a critical role in saving Richmond Secondary College from closure in the 1990s. He played a key role in the community-led campaign to stop the East West Tunnel and, more recently, supported the Carlton and United Brewery strikers.
Sue Bolton, Victoria’s only other socialist councillor is the second candidate on the ticket. Bolton, a founding member of Socialist Alliance, is a community leader on the Moreland Council. She was also instrumental in stopping the East West Link and has initiated fightbacks around local environmental issues including the toxic waste dump in Fawkner. By running as a candidate, Bolton can harness support from anti-racist, Islamic, First Nations and disability activists.
Colleen Bolger, a lawyer and activist with Socialist Alternative, is the third candidate on the ticket. This brings together two of Australia’s most significant socialist forces, a broad range of left activists and, hopefully, more unions. It allows us to build unity by working together on a campaign.
A broader left is an urgent necessity right now. Without a much stronger opposition, the racist backlash that the Trump era is trying to normalise appears to be gaining ground.
How else could Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull get away with his disgraceful attack on the Sudanese community, blaming them for “gang” violence?
Turnbull and Peter Dutton’ predictable “law and order” comments are clearly meant to attack the Victorian Labor government in an election year. But the Daniel Andrew’s government barely sustained a graze, while the very vulnerable combined African community has been left reeling and open to further attack.
This is where the Victorian Socialists could make a difference. Winning a seat in the Victorian parliament cannot turn around years of attacks and marginalisation. But it would help champion progressive ideas in a mainstream way.
Just imagine a socialist MP turning the spotlight back on the government and bosses for their attacks on unions and their lockouts? Or demanding that public housing and public transport stay in public hands and not run down and privatised? Or standing up for our health and education services and demanding that the cuts and outsourcing be reversed?
Imagine a voice inside parliament that is accountable to the working class and marginalised communities?
It’s not just about raising these demands. A socialist in parliament gives the left access to resources, “insider” information and greater campaign opportunities. The left should never forget how Pauline Hanson used her first term of office in 1996 to mobilise a right-wing base of support.
Wouldn't it be great if Jolly and the Victorian Socialists could use the platform to build the case for socialism by campaigning to defend workers’ rights, standing up to corporate power and racist scapegoating and giving voice to the social and environmental movements.
Of course the Greens should be doing this too but, as a party, they’re just not as convinced as we are that the system stinks.
Not all projects are perfect. But can we really afford to sit around and wait until the perfect coalition comes along. Why don’t you join us now?
[Sue Bull is the co-convenor of Geelong Socialist Alliance and a long-time union activist.]