Victorian Socialists, an alliance of socialist groups and individuals, is mounting a serious attempt to win an upper house seat in the Victorian Parliament this November in Northern Metropolitan Melbourne.
This is Australian Labor Party (ALP) heartland, increasingly contested by the Greens. In the Victorian multi-member upper house system, five Members of the Legislative Council are elected by preferential proportional representation, so Victorian Socialists will need 16.66% of the vote after preferences to get only the second outright socialist not in the ALP into any parliament in Australia.
There is no danger of the socialist campaign letting in the right. Over 500 people attended the campaign launch on 12 May. Steve Jolly, long term socialist local councillor for Yarra (Socialist Party, then The Socialist, now independent), heads the ticket. Second is Sue Bolton, Socialist Alliance local councillor for Moreland. Third is Colleen Bolger, Socialist Alternative activist, asbestos lawyer and Australian Services Union delegate.
Three socialist forces that have historically been at odds with each other have come together behind this initiative. It has attracted support from unions ($50k from the Electrical Trades Union and $5k from the Victorian Allied Health Union) and prominent left wing intellectuals, and increasingly from independent working class people, union and social movement activists.
The initial organisational structures in place are weak, both in terms of democratic decision-making, and in holding Steve accountable to the working-class base if elected. There is no apparent structure for unions, community group and other socialist groups to affiliate. The programmatic material currently available is limited; essentially militant left reformism targeting local issues with upfront class-struggle politics, but little explicit socialist or “transitional” content evident. However, a democratic constitution has been adopted, which will lead to a conference electing the leadership, approving policies etc., for “Victorian Socialists”.
Steve told me: “Given the increasing disenchantment with major parties, there is a massive market for socialist alternative to that. Socialist polices run properly can win votes and appeal to ordinary people.” Sue said to me that she sees the effort as “more focused around an electable socialist, rather than a coming together of organisations... This differs from previous left unity attempts including around elections such as [the original] Socialist Alliance.” Colleen added: “State parliament has a lot more profile, and will garner a lot more attention for a socialist representative than a local council.”
Whilst Steve and Sue’s organisations have had long orientation to electoral politics, Socialist Alternative has previously abstained from active participation, apart from giving some support to Steve’s council and state lower house campaigns in the past. An initial problem with the dominance of Socialist Alternative was that they were only willing to endorse a one-off upper house seat campaign, not even permitting Socialist Alliance or other socialist group lower house candidates to run under the Victorian Socialist banner.
I see this as counterproductive on multiple levels: running lower house candidates within the upper house electorate could galvanise the local organising groups; and assist in mobilising other groups to support the initiative, and potentially attract non-aligned activists with local standing to run as candidates, e.g. union shop stewards or organisers.
There has been some recent changes in attitude, with more openness to the possibility of running candidates in some lower house seats. The “one-off” election stance also avoids the question of the long term outcome for socialist organisation of this initiative. Discussing the post-election possibilities, Steve Jolly said “If elected I would use that position to mobilise and advocate – a tool for both. It would open up questions about what we do with the coalition, move to multi-tendency party like Democratic Socialists of America, or maintain it as a coalition.
I have spent the last 14 years as a councillor, with increasing votes… I have been able to use the role to advocate and mobilise. What I have done at council level, I will try to do at state level. Organisation will be around that. Then do we then move towards some sort of new political formation? That is the question, not a question about how we would use the position.”
Despite the structural and programmatic issues, this campaign offers great opportunities to take socialist ideas to a large working-class population