ALP Left on what we can learn from the unions

The Australian Labor Party’s factions sure are interesting beasts. At their best, they serve as avenues for new ideas and new thinking. Both factions have their own magazines which are often full of interesting things.

Challenge, the magazine of the ALP left had a decent quick article in their last edition about what the party can learn from the union movement.

I know there will be those on both sides of the political divide who find the basic premise of the article ridiculous, but there sure is some good stuff in the meat of the article…

1. Invest in growth

Growing membership size and organisational capability are central to any renewal program – you can’t get stronger by getting smaller. But a target for growth is of no value if you don’t have a real plan for growth to go with it.

The Prime Minister’s announcement of an ambitious target for 8,000 new members is one thing – but a plan for growth is of no value if you don’t resource growth. Growing membership takes time, people and money. Labor needs to grow, but if it doesn’t prioritise and resource growth, it won’t happen.

Totally agree. In 2009, with the help of others in our ogranisation, and based on some excellent materials produced by Phil Twyford in Auckland, we ran a very successful membership drive in Wellington Central, attracting many new members, and re-engaging old members.

While there will (hopefully) always be localised success stories – that is simply not enough. We need proper resources (people, time, money) to run a well co-ordinated nationwide membership drive. Labour will only survive as a party of mass membership if we are able to systematically attract and retain new members.

2. Campaign

People who’ll sign up to a cause simply because they like your ideas are rare. Any union organiser can tell you the best way to engage new people is to campaign around issues they care about, whether it’s better safety, flexible work hours for parents, or secure jobs.

For Labor, the opportunities to work with communities at the local level to campaign for things that would make a difference – sports facilities, pre-schools, new bus services – are limited only by imagination and willing feet on the ground.

Again, I agree. Any MP or local government member who is not campaigning for their community throughout the three year term – and I’m not just talking about press releases and speeches – I’m talking actual campaigning and engagement – doesn’t deserve to be re-elected.

The one challenge that this doesn’t touch on is how to take the momentum of a campaign and transform it into long term support.

3. Respect your members; they’re your best asset

There was never an excuse for unions not to respect their members, but the days of lifelong, rusted-on allegiance made it easier and many fell into the trap. No longer. The union playbook has changed, it’s now best practice to make sure members take the lead in identifying issues with the union there to support, advice and lead.

Members need to be listened to, empowered to make important decisions and trusted.

This is a more difficult, less tangible one. An immediate example I can think of is a Labour friend of mine who was telling me how they feel that the upper levels of Labour’s byzantine structure do not represent her, and doesn’t feel there is enough two-way communication and consultation. I think she’s dead right.

4. Remember who you represent

Unions regularly take a pounding for the positions they take in the interests of their members. Take the Qantas unions – no-one can accuse them of not standing up for their members.

Even if they don’t like you much, people respect you for doing something consistent with your values and representing the people you’re meant to represent.

People understand Labor is a broadly socially progressive party that stands for working people. That is Labor’s core value. Labor should not aspire to be simply a ‘good economic manager’ in the narrow sense, but rather to manage the economy in the best interest of working families.

Over the weekend at Labour summer school I heard several different interpretations of who and what it is we stand for, including one or two nebulous references to ‘our people’.

I suspect this will be a matter of debate for some time to come.

5. Everything has to be aligned with the mission to grow

There was no single factor that turned things around for unions, except perhaps sheer determination.

Unions are a world away from where we were in the mid-90s – we have new attitudes, new organising techniques, new internal structures, new governance standards.

Similarly with Labor, no single measure will turn things around.

We don’t only need rules reform to increase party democracy. We don’t only need to reaffirm our values and renew our ideas. We don’t only need to reach out to communities and build the capacity of ordinary people to campaign for change in their lives. We need to do each of these things.

This is spot on. Everything we do must be aligned to our objectives or we are simply wasting our time.

From what I’ve heard them say, David Shearer, Grant Robertson and Moira Coatsworth all seem to be on board with this thinking. The problem we face is that not everyone is on board. There are still some very organisationally conservative elements in the party who will reject change, modernisation and growth, though they will dress their objections up with other far-fetched fallacies.

I have no idea how many of these ideas or similar concepts are already being embraced by the trade unions in New Zealand, but I know that Labour has already started heading down this path, and it’s first steps are encouraging so far.

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