In the aftermath of their loss to the Tories in the 2010 election, the UK Labour Party prepared itself to go straight back to the polls. Not to redo the election, nice as that would have been, but staring down the barrel of some long, hard years in opposition, the party needed to choose a new leader. Unlike the Australian Labor Party at the time, UK Labour had a model that allowed for 33% of the vote to go to local party members, and 33% to go to members of affiliated trade unions. In other words, the people who cared about the party and the movement had some agency over its future. There were televised debates, tens of thousands of new members, and a genuine discussion about the future of the party. Compare that to the last two times the ALP leadership changed. Whatever your opinions on the merits of either Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd (I have plenty), no one could reasonably argue that the spills and speculation that occurred under the last government were good for the party or for the country.
It is with that in mind that this time around, the ALP is doing things a bit differently. Following rules introduced by Kevin Rudd in his most recent foray into Prime Ministering, the Federal caucus vote will only be worth 50%, with the remainder of the decision made by all members of the ALP who had joined by September 7. The party has a month to conduct the ballot, with the membership vote happening first and being conducted via postal ballot.
Although MPs have until Friday 20th to nominate, in all likelihood this will be a contest between our most recent Deputy Prime Minister and avowed Tory-hater Anthony Albanese, and past Minister for Education and Kingslayer, Bill Shorten. In other words, two serious candidates with significant policy achievements and ministerial experience are going to travel the country explaining their vision for the future of the party, and asking the rank and file to get behind them. Then the party will democratically decide. Speaking as a member, I have to say I’m pretty excited.
Which makes it all the more frustrating when this contest gets portrayed in the media as just more ALP infighting, or as a bad thing for the party. Given the strength of the Australian economy, important reforms such as the NDIS and Gonski, and the much stronger policies for an NBN and paid parental leave, many ALP supporters are struggling to understand why the Australian public saw fit to appoint a misogynistic lizard-man to the office of Prime Minister. Yet we have to recognise that a large portion of the blame for this defeat lies with the party itself, and unless some serious internal change happens, the history of nation building reform enacted by Labor could be at risk. ALP rank and file members have sat in angry shock as the party bickered and backstabbed its way out of office, and now we want a chance to do something about it.
These reforms are not perfect, nor are they enough. There needs to be a place for trade union members to have a say if the party wants to continue representing working Australians, and we should also return to a system in which caucus elects the ministry. Yet this is a good start, and a necessary one. The ALP that wins back government in three years should be a changed beast, ready to fix Abbott’s mess and to continue to be the strongest force for progressive change in Australian politics. Whatever the result of the leadership election, this is a positive step for the party.