Andy Blunden 1999
Introduction - Voluntary Labour - Geelong PLP - Index

A Case Study

The following report tells the story of the birth of the Geelong Branch of the Progressive Labour Party. It would be impossible to tell this story without its subject being obvious to those who know it, so disguise pointless. I will nevertheless delete all personal names and details of a personal character.

Geelong is an industrial town about 75 km from Melbourne. Formerly a Labor Party stronghold, Geelong has suffered badly from de-industrialisation and financial crises. No left-wing party has had a base in Geelong since the 1940s.

Narrative based on Interview with T

1. In 1997, Pauline Hanson, the founder of the right wing One Nation Party announced that she would hold a public meeting in Geelong. Members of M in Melbourne decided to draft a leaflet criticising Hanson and announcing a public meeting in Geelong Trades Hall a week or two later to "found a new mass workers' party" and hand them out at the demonstration which would be sure to take place outside Hanson's meeting.

T and U turned up at the demonstration and saw lots of ALP members, trade unionists and lots of people they knew from local community organisations among the demonstrators. It was a big event for Geelong and very exciting, but T became horrified by the bitterness and indiscriminate, violent anger that increasingly affected the crowd. T & U were handed copies of the leaflet and were taken by the call for "a new mass workers' party", especially in the wake of a meeting with national officials of the ALP who had told them that "the working class didn't exist". T had rejoined the ALP in the wake of the election of the right-wing Kennett state government but had now resigned and the leaflet struck a chord.

2. T & U attended the advertised public meeting. There were PLP speakers from Melbourne and some local trade unionists. T particularly remembers the women speakers and left feeling very positive about the prospect of "a new mass workers' party" which would give representation for "ordinary people". She resigned the ALP at this time.

3. There was a second and a third public meeting called by people from Melbourne, and a similar small group of people continued to attend. At the third meeting it was agreed to set up a committee to begin a Branch of the PLP. The Secretary of the Geelong THC was there as were some important figures in the local trade union movement, and A, B and C from Melbourne, all people who were born in or who worked in Geelong. The Committee included T and U, and V who had actually already joined the PLP while in Melbourne, but nothing had come of it.

T & U went on holiday for 6 weeks and visited the PLP leadership in Newcastle, where they learnt that they had been elected in their absence as branch President and Secretary. T had never held such a position in her life before, but she had been inspired by what she had seen and especially the role she had seen other women taking and the aim of giving a voice to "ordinary people" and T began to think long and deeply about how she should carry out her role as Branch President, drawing especially on what she had seen her husband doing in the trade union movement.

4. The first committee was convened and a speaker from a new environmental group had been invited to speak to the Committee. This group was dissatisfied with the conservatism of the local environmental movement and wanted to organise a more activist group and had been recommended by B to the newly founded PLP Committee. Apart from T & U, there was V and W who had joined M in Melbourne and helped start the process in Geelong, plus B from Melbourne and local trade unionist X and two female family members. This Committee meeting marked the beginning of an association with an environmental group which will be further discussed below. At this time, T received a Newsletter from the PLP in Brisbane which reported the success of a "Politics in the Pub" (PiP). T liked the look of this idea, and consulted local trade union officials about the selection of a suitable pub where trade unionists would be likely to come and where a meeting could be held.

A PiP was booked and a large number of flyers printed and T, U and W spread hundreds of them around. Phil Cleary (a well-known and popular former independent MP) had been arranged to come and speak about the "Real Republic". This was a real success and attracted a lot of attention and ensured the success of future PiPs held regularly ever after on a very broad range of social and political issues with attendances of 20 to 30. At the same time an Environmental Festival was being organised and this provided the opportunity to further the relationship with the above-mentioned environmentalists. Two of them were lined up to speak at the second PiP.

T reports that the method of work with these PiPs was that every single person who came along was spoken to and their name and address taken and they were meticulously invited to every subsequent event and as much contact as possible maintained them. The circle of contacts is mainly the local trade union movement, particularly the building and maritime unions and former ALP members, but with young Uni students and local Greens being attracted to the social issues raised in the discussions. The branch has grown to about 12 at this stage, all of whom are still members today.

The Forum

At the same time as the PLP branch was struggling forward, B encouraged and assisted the environmentalists in their endeavours and soon what became known as "The Forum" was founded. PLP members attended the Forum meetings and sent troops to all its actions. There was a furious dispute over the name: "Forum" or "Alliance". B preferred "Alliance", reflecting a perspective of establishing a formal "Red / Green / Black" alliance, but the environmentalists insisted that this name was "too political" and were determined on "Forum".

The Forum continued to meet fortnightly, sometimes more, and at first it rarely manifested very much activism outside of the troops provided by the PLP branch, particularly their trade unionists. One person was particularly active in the Forum, S, and remains to this day the energy which keeps the Forum alive. S is a young academic with lots of talent, even more energy and an ability to communicate widely and effectively, and B gave her the same kind of unstinting advice and moral support which he was providing to T. In the very earliest days S came to a PLP Committee meeting and offered to do clerical work for the branch, but never agreed to join. S actually compiled the first ever membership list of the PLP Branch and included herself on the list. (This offer was declined).

The Forum developed a number of bold strategies, including a regular and noisy presence at Geelong City Council meetings, and a number of significant public meetings: the largest meeting in Geelong since the sacking of Whitlam was the Forum's Belmont Common meeting which was built in 10 days; the Forum meeting during the MUA dispute gave union officials their largest audience outside central Melbourne.

The period following the initiation of the Forum is one of continual strife. B and T worked with S to develop the Forum's initiatives. However, S remained the centre of opposition to everything that the PLP Branch tried to do. At the same time, the Forum is providing access for the trade unionists and ex-ALP members of the PLP to a wider section of the population motivated by the numerous local community and municipal issues which were the focus of the Forum. Despite the fact that it is almost entirely the PLP members who actually do the work, the forum provided the context in which this work made sense, and the Forum was for this reason invaluable for the development of the PLP.

The forum included socially conservative people, and with every new success, S acted to reinforce the difficulty of dealing with these differences. The positive out-reach side of S became a barrier as her 'control' tendencies interfered with and offended many in the groups who had been attracted by the boldness of the Forum.

5. As the strife escalates, the clear separation of the PLP Branch from S and the Forum now gives the Branch a clear identity; the PiPs are now regular and successful and the method of work and division of labour fairly well established. The conflict of which S is always at the centre, continues to be the source of frustration. With the constant support of B, the branch is still a bit of a one-woman show around T however.

6. A federal election is called in mid-1998 and T stands as PLP candidate for Geelong. The Branch hires a shop-front for daily contact with the voters, Y joins the campaign Committee, bringing with him some experience in electioneering and lots of energy. For the purposes of the election, a program is drawn up which now gives the Branch a clear idea of what it stands for and slogans and demands around which to campaign. The campaign committee works furiously for the few weeks of the campaign and welds itself into a pretty effective group. 5 new members join in the course of the campaign and T gets more than 4% of the vote, thus getting back campaign costs and more.

7. In the wake of the successful election campaign, B speaks at a PiP and gives the "world economic crisis" speech. The result is electrifying; people do not want to go home. Lots of money is put into the hat and most importantly, J and K who have been "watching from the side-lines" decide to join at this time, evidently taking B's speech as a clear sign that the PLP is serious and is "for them". The Branch has now grown to 20 and has become very well-known through the election campaign. Every week, the local newspaper approaches the PLP for comment on the issues of the day. The Branch is still a "one-woman-band", but from this time a division of labour begins and Y, J and K take on responsibilities, more members come in. The Branch takes on a character which is clearly identified with hard-left politics while still closely in touch with local issues and able to communicate with "ordinary people".

The PLP has now almost totally "lost interest" in the Forum. Others came forward to fill the vacuum left as PLP supporters stopped coming along, but nowadays, the Forum is described as a "virtual forum" inasmuch as the great majority of its activity is now only the steady flow of emails from S. However, the PLP branch has failed to gain real access to a huge body of the wider community which the Forum is not able to organise or activate, but to which S is able to block the path of the PLP.

The PLP Branch continues to expand its membership base - it was 40 in June 99 and now in October 1999 it is 91 . About half of these last 50 members recruited during the past 4 months have come from J & K's trade union support work including a group of 10 members in the ALCOA plant where J & K are shop stewards, and few new members who came from the recent election campaign. About 50% of the membership are trade unionists, in particular delegates in construction and metals plus a sprinkling of students including some mature age students. The active core of Committee members has expanded with J and K taking on specific responsibilities, W and Y and a number of female members contributing regularly. None of the existing members were formerly members of the Forum. However, the branch has so far failed to make relationships with similar groups in other towns and the growth of the periphery has far out-stripped the growth of the active committee.

Though real growth only began as a clear separation came about between S and the Forum on one side and T and the PLP Branch on th eother, the triangle of relationships between B, S and T was crucial to the whole development. B gave T recognition and approval and believed in and nurtured her. Without this leadership T believes that she could never have broken out of the position of second-class citizen — an unpaid, unrecognised housewife. S was given the same opportunity, but still chose to put her energies into blocking the path of the PLP and no amount of personal persuasion and support brought her "into the fold", but on the contrary fuelled her animosity to T personally and the PLP publicly.

Also, the group was a branch of a national organisation and identified as such. Although the branch engaged in the whole range of local issues, it was precisely the identification of the PLP as a national, working class party concerning itself with the world crisis which enabled the PLP Branch in Geelong to become what it became. B brought into Geelong (along with the others who came down from Melbourne) not just material resources or the shell of a national organisation (for in reality it was little more), but a vision of a different kind of world.

Note by B:

"I have often been asked by T if there was a 'plan' that guided these developments, but it is difficult to explain ...
As a Marxist with some years of experience organising there is of course a general perspective of assisting the working class to develop its own 'new' leadership, of mobilising and supporting developments/movements in the class.
I have developed some skills in assisting groups to come together and work towards commonly established goals and so when the 'environmentalists' emerged, disenchanted with the existing organisational forms, it seemed logical, rather than allow an internecine war to develop, to develop a new and larger forum in which all the tendencies could harmoniously exist and add to their individual strengths and compensate for perceived weaknesses through the larger 'forum'
At very few moments did this actually exist. However, significant gains were made in bringing together community and environmental activists with the best elements of the trade union movement.
My perspective for an Alliance has been developing for some time and is based on the work in SPSF during the late 80's / early 90's when it became clear that limited levels of political agreement were capable of uniting broad layers around quite specific goals.
Rural Action
This process developed rapidly following an invitation to address a group of rural activists and farmers in Ballarat and the "Bankwatch" movement spread quickly to the rest of Victoria, Southern NSW, SA and WA when it became clear that it was possible to unite seemingly widely disparate groups into a common force - "the Rural Action Movement".
The common element was that all of these groups were in struggle and were prepared to experiment with organisational form in order to fight better. When we lost the leadership of the SPSF to a united front of left- and right-wing ALP and the conservative country-caucus, all united in the hope of an "easier road" to surviving the Kennett regime, access to the Rural Action Movement began to dry up. It was the position of being able to represent a section of the trade union movement which facilitated dialogue with the farmers.
The Cleary Movement
The Cleary movement in 1992 provided similar opportunities although the difficulties were much greater, in part because the forces attracted and central to Phil Cleary (a lot of former Communist Party people and intellectuals, disenchanted ALP activists and neighbourhood activists from around Melbourne) had well-developed political perspectives and significant theoretical and organisational experiences behind them.
However the "Cleary movement" is another expression of the same desire of forces to break out of the two-party hegemony that has shackled political life in Australia for many decades. Cleary provided a focus around which this desire could crystallise. Cleary himself was not an organiser - in fact, his own actions often generated difficulties rather than solving them - but Cleary had a popular image which meant he could "symbolise" something and act as a catalyst for a wide range of people to come together.
Pauline Hanson
Hanson in a distorted way reflected much the same phenomena and importantly confirmed that regional and sections of working class Australia were "getting ready to march". While her own politics are reactionary and backward - not only in her policies but also in the internal regime which has been taken over by the extreme right - she expresses, or symbolises, for a lot of politically undeveloped people a hatred for the political establishment, and the feeling that the powers that be treat ordinary people as worthless. Just as many working class people see that the ALP has sold out to "economic rationalism", rural people have seen that the National Party has sold out and yearn for a genuine voice.
Both "the Left" and the political establishment missed this side of the movement behind Hanson; we saw it as a signal of both danger and opportunity.
The freshness of Geelong was an important factor in the development, as was the absence of other 'left tendencies'. At the same time, it meant that I was left to make decisions and develop perspectives without much by way of support (except for AB), it has also meant that for the majority of cadre in Melbourne, the Geelong experience remains a mystery.
The essential methodological feature is the insistence that the Particular is an expression of the Universal, that each particular moment is worth examining and positing against the accumulated body of knowledge and experience that we have acquired, and the development of Notion is then tested against the new moment that notion takes us into, so that perspective is constantly being developed updated and made live through cognising the richness of the unfolding moment.
There is no short-cut to this process and whilst at moments it appears to observers that a stroke of sheer genius is being expressed it is simply the interaction of accumulated theory and practice sensitised by the new moments.
Forward to the Alliance of Red, Black, Green, Purple.. in the search for an ethical way to live".

What was Essential in the Development of the Geelong PLP?

I think the essence of the Geelong PLP (and which is shown in other problematic developments which B mentions) is that "socialism is the solution of the problems of everyday life". By "socialism" I mean the rule of the organised working class against all forms of bureaucracy, political corruption, economic rationalism, national divisions, racism and sexism and valuing to the utmost the contribution of "ordinary people". By "the problems of everyday life" I mean those deepest personal concerns which people have from depression and lack of self-esteem, problems in their love-life, the quality of the environment, and so on.

Possibly the difficulty in getting this essential movement going in the "sophisticated" urban centres is that the political layers in the cities are too cynical about such a bland proposition, and have long accustomed themselves to "transitional stages" and so forth and political practicalities. There is of course a huge naivity in the proposition I have given, and maybe one must be either totally dedicated to the struggle, absolutely desparate or politically naive to accept it.

Let's look at the Geelong story. It got started by putting forward the call for a "new mass workers party" at a demonstration which united people around common decency in opposition to Hanson's racism. It recruited from people with a workers' movement background, but not in trade union or workers' rights struggles, but in a dialogue within fights over trees, parks, youth suicide, foreign ownership or republicanism. The movement was continuously sustained by attention to individuals, by compassion and personal values. It "took off" the more it demonstrated its commitment to "far-left" perspectives.

The Rural Action movement was based in a determination of country people to stand by their neighbours and friends and family against the banks, against the depopulation of the bush. It needed a Universal principle and the principle of choice was the organised workers' movement.

Expressed this way: "socialism is the solution of the problems of everyday life", the message of Geelong has of course totally universal significance, but is still abstract. The comrades in Geelong make it concrete and particular. The issue is to express the principle as a concrete universal and this means to express it as an individual, in a personality, who know it and is able to translate it into policies and tactics.