Every happy labor party is the same, but every unhappy labor party is unhappy in its own way. That would appear to be the case of the branch of the Australian Labor Party (Labor hereafter), centered on Victoria, Australia’s second-most populous state, which is currently in uproar over the exposure of widespread dirty factional warfare, in pursuit of control of first the state party and then the federal party as a whole.
There’s nothing strange about the practice in general, but what many find unusual in this case is how it has gone down this time — the amassing of enormous power by one man, a junior minister and member of Victoria’s somnolent upper house, Adem Somyurek.
Somyurek, who was sacked from the state cabinet and expelled from the Labor Party this week, was a leader of a group called the “Mods” (or “Moderates”). For the past several years, the Mods have been taking over suburban branches of Labor in Melbourne, using networks drawing on the city’s Turkish-Australian, Lebanese-Australian, and Indian-Australian communities. Somyurek and his officers were caught on concealed video forging signatures and paying for others’ memberships, and that was enough to get him removed. Without the surveillance — underway for months before it was revealed by a media investigation, working with Labor insiders — the Mods’ takeover of dozens of branches (guaranteeing power to appoint the state executive) would have continued unabated.
The mystery for many is not that a group of people — in this case, drawn from the right of the party — was trying to take it over, but they were doing so with no substantial political or industrial base to speak of. The fact that this was possible is indicative of the dilemmas of Labor, of social-democratic parties, and of organized politics in general.
The Rise of Factions
The Australian Labor Party has had “factions” of one type or another going back to the 1910s, a decade after its founding. It was a composite of two distinct groups: trade-unionized workers, largely of Protestant Anglo-Saxon stock, and a cross-class Irish-Catholic community, comprising both workers and small businesspeople. The party was explicitly racist, committing itself to maintaining “white Australia,” which meant excluding indigenous workers, Chinese Australians, and initially being wary of Italians and other southern Europeans.
A section of the party split off in World War I (including a Labor prime minister, Billy Hughes) over their support for conscription, which much of the party opposed. But it was in the 1920s that two distinct wings developed — a union-based “Industrial” group, who reoriented the party’s objectives to full socialism, and a Catholic right, whose politics were governed by Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which endorsed private property and the master-servant relationship as part of God’s order, but which commanded governments and business leaders to give workers a “living wage” and conditions befitting human beings.
The conflict between these two formations exploded in 1929 when Labor, under James Scullin, had the misfortune to win power with an ambitious program three days before the US stock market crashed, inaugurating the Great Depression. Large sections of the Catholic right and socially conservative groupings split to form a National government.
The party was revived by its solid leadership during and after World War II. But in 1954, the bulk of the Catholic right in several states split off to form an anti-Communist Democratic Labour Party, which supported the right-wing Liberal Party in government. However, the split did not occur in all states; in New South Wales, in particular, the Catholic right stayed in the party, forming what became known as the “New South Wales Right,” who dominated the party and had extensive corporate, criminal, and US state connections.
The factions were formalized around 1970, with separate caucuses, newsletters, and branches. After the 1975 sacking of the progressive Gough Whitlam government by the governor-general, a former CIA-client cold warrior, perturbed by the Whitlam government’s threat to not renew the leases on US spy bases, the party spent the following years in opposition, where a brutal battle broke out between the Right and Left over the party’s future direction, with the US alliance versus nonaligned neutrality, and state ownership versus private development at issue. The Left lost comprehensively, and the Right dominated the Hawke-Keating governments who held power from 1983 to 1996.
By the time Labor left power in 1996, to spend nineteen years of the subsequent quarter-century in opposition, the coherence of the factions was in disarray. The Left had abandoned any commitment to public ownership, much less renationalization, and committed itself to a left-neoliberal economic policy, with some gestures toward industry policy. The demise of Communism as a movement removed the adversary that had given the Right much of its unity, and a widening division developed between the Catholic right that had remained in the party, and a more pragmatic right increasingly centered on a pro-market, pro-consumerist politics, stripped of its moral character.
Enter the Void
The factions had once organized substantial forces within Labor, organized in rival unions and communities, and provided a rank and file on the ground. By 2001, union membership had fallen from 50 percent in the early 1980s, to less than 25 percent, and the working-class, inner-city communities on which they depended had been hollowed out by the destruction of manufacturing. At the same time, the practice of importing faction-aligned student politicians into union official positions had become so generalized that many unions entirely lost a connection between membership and officialdom, and unions became little more than pawns in battles of increasingly atomized forces.
By the 2000s, the right factions had collapsed entirely, into smaller “warlord” groups, who formed larger factions through a series of short-term alliances. These mini-factions reached their apogee of power in 2010 when they removed the popular Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd — who had risen mostly outside the factional system — both for internal reasons, and because Rudd had pushed ahead with a super-profits tax on the mining industry, to claw back some of the hundreds of billions being made by private outfits as a resources boom export to China developed. When two of these mini-faction warriors departed, the last remaining, Bill Shorten, found himself to be the Opposition leader.
Shorten’s base was a center-right union, the Australian Workers’ Union, whose active membership and clout had become much diminished in recent decades. He was threatened from the hard right; the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), a union for retail workers, which had been part of the Democratic Labour Party from the 1950s to the 1980s, was in control of Catholic conservatives and had spent much of its energy over decades opposing abortion and homosexuality decriminalization and, most recently, same-sex marriage. To Shorten’s left was the far more united Socialist Left faction (in Victoria) and the “National Left” in New South Wales, whose leader, Anthony Albanese, was an alternative leader.
Shorten and what remained of his mini-faction needed a partner to stay in power, and Adem Somyurek, elected to Victorian state parliament in 2014, was that man. A Turkish Australian, Somyurek had risen in branches in Melbourne’s Southeast, on a basis of ethnic community support. The socially conservative nature of such groups — Muslim and Lebanese Maronite-Christian — had led them to ally with the SDA. But the SDA leadership was concentrated on Irish Australians, and the leadership was now a religious-obsessive reactionary rump, with a hefty dose of racial chauvinism. Somyurek and others formed first an internal “moderate” group within the faction, and then, denied advancement, staged a showdown over policy, and left to form their own group.
Though Adem Somyurek is now being cast as a fool, he was smarter than many of the people around him and understood the way in which power bases were shifting. Union solidarity was vastly depleted; Australian workers had either been flung into precarity, or raised to high wages and high asset ownership, by the resources boom (and remnant string unions). Class composition had been radically altered.
At the same time, Australia’s high annual immigration rate had continued, and a state policy of multiculturalism with it. For seventy years, Australia had had uninterrupted high immigration, and though it has a (deserved) global reputation for white-skin racism, it has become the most multicultural nation on Earth, with its major cities of Melbourne and Sydney having approximately 20 percent European and Middle Eastern non-Anglo-Celtic populations, and about 24 percent East Asian and Indian populations.
Since the ’70s, the official policy of multiculturalism had recognized such ethnic groups as bounded “communities,” with community “leaders,” who might either be genuine and well-respected, or shonky suburban lawyers building a power base. Both parties committed to multiculturalism, though elements of the Right would later publicly denounce it for culture-war gain. But its use for organized politics was that it could “deliver” solid voting blocs, relying on the residual solidarity of ethnic groups in a new world — a solidarity generated both by the need for mutual reliance in a new country, and due to the greater levels of social solidarity and extended family relationships to be found within peoples coming from less modernized societies.
Such groups had been relied on to create voting blocs in Labor for decades. What made it possible for a minor suburban operative like Adem Somyurek to take over a large section of the party was that there was now no counterposing force to these blocs. Wider political solidarities had melted away; the cultural, ethnic, and familial solidarity of multicultural groups was all that remained. By drawing on both the promise of eventual greater access to power and political advancement, Somyurek and his core control group were able to reliably have dozens of new members turn up to Labor branch meetings, ready to pay their membership. Various factions of Labor have been loosening membership requirements for the purposes of branch-stacking for so long that there is little gap between a member joining and being able to vote on delegates to the state conference.
In 2017 Somyurek’s Mods made an alliance with Bill Shorten’s AWU and other groups, the so-called Centre Alliance. In 2018, this formed a wider alliance with a new faction, the Industrial Left, focused on the militant Construction Union, the CFMEU (which also covers maritime, forestry, and mining workers). The Industrial Left had jumped out of the Socialist Left, angry at a lack of advancement for their own members within the faction, but also at what they saw as a lack of pushback against the economic neoliberal policies of the Labor right in Opposition, which substantially shared the government’s enthusiasm for keeping wages and conditions lower than they might be, through the use of an employer-friendly Fair Work Commission.
The Centre Unity-Industrial Left alliance could hardly be said to be founded on deep principle, since it was the right parties that were most enthusiastic to discipline union power and to eventually detach Labor from any union influence. A measure of the cynicism of this alliance was that it sought to eventually include the SDA, who were embroiled in scandal after friendly deals with major supermarket and convenience store chains had left tens of thousands of their members — many of them non-Anglo-Celtic casuals, such as overseas students from India — paid far less than was their due through mandated industry wage awards.
Somyurek’s grand plan to control large sections of the Labor Party — exposed only because former allies appear to have become so alarmed at his rise that they undertook a complex surveillance operation and drew in the mainstream media — has prompted a range of calls for party reform and renewal. But these calls have been echoing for two decades, while Labor has wandered in the political doldrums, unable to create a solid and consistent renewed vision of social democracy for a globalized era. It’s significant that its only success came when Kevin Rudd, an outsider and a former diplomat — who became chief of staff to a Labor premier in the state of Queensland and moved into the party proper from there — supplied the party with a left-populist campaign against the “old establishment” and, once in power, instituted an elegant plan to use school building to pilot an education revolution, while at the same time increasing skilled employment. Socialism it wasn’t, but it was more progressive and joined-up than anything Labor has had since.
Labor has always been seen from the Left as a party seeking to manage workers’ expectations within capitalism and use that energy to attain power. In Australia, this has been particularly so, since the country acquired a centralized wage-fixing system early on — with the High Court’s “Harvester” judgement in 1907. The institutions arising from that made industrial struggle a matter of lawyers, courtrooms, and state-implemented wages and conditions for three-quarters of a century. It turned Labor, and the labor movement, into a smooth and complex machine, integrated into the state, even when Labor wasn’t in power.
With the mass politics falling out of the middle of it, only the machine remains, its mechanism now reversed, from the judgment that socialist Vere Gordon Childe delivered on it in the classic How Labour Governs of 1912. Labor is not a smooth machine for gaining power; it has become one for denying itself success, at the Federal level, through the sort of mechanisms that made the rise and rise of Adem Somyurek possible.
Ironically, there is justice to Somyurek’s cause (or, at least, his pretext): Labor’s reliance on student politics at its elite, private-school-fed universities, to supply leaders has marginalized non-Anglo-Celtic Australians within the party, as has the remnant power of decades-old formations, handing down union leadership within dynastic and privilege networks.
Whether the party has the capacity to genuinely reform itself remains to be seen. But for Australian socialists, any notion of replacing it with something better, is no easy matter — Australia’s “preferential” (i.e., ranked choice) electoral system, always rewards “least worst” choices on the Left and Right at the ballot box (and gives them matching funds to boot). The rise and rise and fall of Adem Somyurek is a measure of the salient political fact for Australian socialists and progressives: its stuckness and comprehensive incapacity to reproduce itself, in the absence of actual political movements within.