In one of his numerous press conferences during the Labor leadership showdown, Kevin Rudd called for, “reform of the Labor Party itself, so that our party is equipped for the tasks of the 21st century. And that means a party which is not governed by the faceless men.”
Tony Abbott, who has used the phrase ad infinitum since Rudd was knifed by Gillard, said Rudd’s speech confirmed, “the faceless men are running the Labor Party”.
Rudd pretends his attack on the “faceless men” is about democracy in the party. Many have taken it to mean the influence of parliamentary faction leaders like the notorious, former Senator, Mark Arbib, an apparatchik for the NSW right faction, or Anthony Albanese of the Labor Left.
Behind Rudd’s attack on “faceless men” and factions is a more insidious attack on the left and union influence in the party. Rudd sees class and union influence as an obstacle to making Labor electable by taking it even further to the right.
Labor emerged out of the trade union movement and in particular the major defeats suffered by the unions in the 1890s. A layer of union officials concluded that gains for workers were only going to be possible by winning seats in parliament.
In so far as this represented workers organising themselves politically against the bosses, it was a step forward for the working class movement.
But the Labor Party was always built on a contradiction. On the one hand the party’s base consisted of unions and workers; on the other hand it was a party that sought to manage capitalism through the administration of the state. It was, and still is, a “capitalist workers’ party”.
Rudd, a self-confessed “Labor moderniser” influenced by former British PM and architect of New Labour, Tony Blair, wanted to get rid of the “workers” part in favour of a straightforward “capitalist party” in the style of the US Democrats.
Tony Blair’s achievements in moving UK Labour towards this model were praised by The Economist in 1999: “..his greatest achievement in opposition was to get the party to ditch its historic commitment to nationalisation, and to water down its traditional links with the unions. At times he has even hinted that the very foundation of the Labour Party was a mistake…”
The Labor Party no longer even pays lip service to representing the interests of the working class in parliament.
Its leaders have always have always sought to represent the national interest—that is the interests of the bankers and billionaires who have real control. But it is the influence of unions in the Labor Party that gives it any organic connection to the organised working class that still votes for it.
Union leaders can wield their influence to fight against parliamentary Labor’s betrayals of working people—like they did in the fight over electricity privatisation in NSW that took Premier Morris Iemma’s scalp.
Unions control 50 per cent of the Labor Party national conference. Potentially those votes can express Labor policy that runs counter to what a Labor government might do “in the national interest”—like adopting policy in 2007 to scrap Howard’s anti-union watchdog, the ABCC.
Just like Tony Blair, Rudd relies heavily on media spin and glib sound bites to market himself. Its the politics of opportunism and policy by focus group.
The real faceless men
Rudd’s loyalties lie not with the grassroots but with a group of much more genuinely faceless men (and a few women)—big business and captains of industry.
ABC journalist Chris Uhlmann revealed that as well as briefing journalists before publicly launching his leadership challenge, Rudd buttered up the rich behind closed doors.
During the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last November, Rudd’s chief of staff Phillip Green met with several business leaders, to reassure them that any future Rudd government “would not revisit past issues” and would “move on” over “workplace laws, emissions trading and the mining tax.”
By far the most important thing to stop Labor’s shift to the right is class struggle. That is also the reason that Rudd and others want to end the unions’ influence inside the party. Socialists can’t be neutral about fights inside the Labor Party.
Without union influence and their block vote, the ALP would truly be just “Another Liberal Party”.