It’s always darkest just before the dawn – an age-old saying that many Labor loyalists have been reflecting on in the wake of the state election result. For Darcy Byrne, however, sitting back and musing on the result is wholly insufficient. Fresh from his role as volunteer co-ordinator on Verity Firth’s state election campaign, the Leichhardt Labor councillor has taken up the fight for renewal of the ALP – an organisation he freely admits has stagnated in recent years.
“Whilst party reform is not an end in itself, I don’t think it’s possible to review, revitalise and rebuild our membership base without making membership more meaningful,” he said. “One of the worst things about where the party is at, is the culture that has developed, which is this top-down, arrogant belief amongst some – although not all – in the machine, that members are not important. [There is a belief] that you can run a campaign successfully and win without having much involvement and input from members – you raise money, you bombard the electorate. Our members have rightfully become very cynical about that, and they don’t regard it as a meaningful involvement.”
Earlier in April, some 400 branch members from across the state gathered in Surry Hills – a first step towards a projected revival of the party from the bottom up. Yet the reason for calling for party renewal in the first place is that ‘the machine’ effectively exploited loopholes in, or simply rode roughshod over, the party’s existing rules. How does he propose ensuring the same thing doesn’t happen again?
“There are people in the hierarchy and the leadership of the party who won’t want to see reform – that’s just a fact,” he said, declining to name names. “The only way to get change is from a groundswell from below. But in addition to that, we then need to go out and rebuild our membership base – and you can’t do that from Sussex Street. You can only do that by having persuasive conversations with the thousands of Labor supporters in the community, and convincing them to become involved again.”
At this point, the question of policy enters the mix. How can Labor offer something to tempt its traditional supporters, if the policy direction remains set from the top?
“We have this campaigning model now, the logic behind which is, ‘We’ll tack to the centre because we want to win the middle and our supporters will vote for us anyway’,” Byrne said. “I think we need to move to a different model where we stick to traditional Labor values, we energise our supporters, and then we train them up and win the support of the people in the middle.”
He cites the state campaigns in Balmain and Marrickville as successful exemplars of this philosophy. Firth’s campaign attracted over 600 volunteers, an achievement Byrne hailed as “fantastic”, and a key component in ensuring the race went down to the wire.
As for ‘Robbo’, the new party leader, Byrne reserves final judgement, but cites his involvement in the ‘Your Rights At Work’ campaign as “a fantastic model of grassroots campaigning”. As for his prospects? “Clearly, he has an incredibly tough job – we’ll just have to wait and see.”