In the recent local elections of Victoria, Australia, socialist candidates won seats in Yarra and Moreland (covered by Grant Brookes here: http://tinyurl.com/a7gbcxl.) Yarra Socialist Party councillor Stephen Jolly won his seat for the third time. Writer for The Spark Ian Anderson interviewed Socialist Party member Mel Gregson.
The Spark: So the Socialist Party retained its council seat for Stephen Jolly, and lost its council seat for Anthony Main. Can you break that down a bit more?
MG: The campaign in Yarra was very successful with almost 1 in 5 voters across the city voting for us. We stood a team of five candidates, including current councillors Stephen Jolly and Anthony Main.
Our vote increased across all three wards, with Stephen Jolly topping the polls with 34.24% (the quota to be elected outright is 25%). Anthony Main stood in a different ward to which he was a councillor, where residents are being overrun by inappropriate development. There we increased our vote from 2.13% to 11.74%, with Anthony just missing out on re-election by a very small margin. In the other ward we almost doubled our vote to 10.81%.
The Spark: What is your political purpose in running electoral campaigns?
MG: The primary reason the Socialist Party stand in elections is to raise socialist ideas as an alternative to the pro-capitalist, neo-liberal policies of the main political parties. With class struggle at historic lows in Australia the level of political debate is also at a low, we believe that engaging with people at election time through standing candidates, debating the other parties and distributing political material can play a role in developing the level of political discussion.
In Yarra we have been able to take this to the next level by having some of our candidates elected to council. Through our work in Yarra over the last eight years we’ve been able to demonstrate socialist ideas in action. In this area we have been able to redefine the term ‘socialist’ from what many believed to be a stale, failed ideology into a positive term that people associate with the best class fighters and community campaigners in the area.
The Spark: How did you campaign in the lead-up to the election?
MG: Over the last 4 years we have built up more support in the community through our everyday work. But our goal in this election campaign was to reach into areas where we are still not widely known. To this end we distributed 90,000 leaflets, doorknocked 15,000 homes, and held a number of fundraisers.
We had over 150 volunteers helping throughout the campaign, including a number of important community activists with whom we’ve built trust over the last few years. Because of this community support we were able to out campaign both the Labor Party and the Greens. Due to the transient nature of the inner-city, it’s important that we are consistently going out discussing with people about what we are trying to do and why.
The Spark: Stephen Jolly has been a councillor for a number of years, while Anthony Main was more recently elected to his ward in 2011. What work has the Socialist Party carried out while on council?
MG: People are aware that despite the fact we are a minority on council we have won a number of battles in Yarra. This includes saving community centres, parks, kindergartens and other community assets. We have also won some gains for local environmental groups and public transport activists with a $100,000 public transport campaign fund. The only way these things have been achieved is through mobilising residents into collective action.
The Spark: What is your view of the Australian Labor Party and the Greens?
MG: The Labor Party and the Greens have jointly run the council since 2008. With the support of right wing independents they have passed yearly neo-liberal budgets that increase rates for residents while cutting services and selling off council assets. On a national scale many still cling to the idea Labor is a lesser evil than the traditional conservatives, the Liberals. Others, mostly young people and the middle class, look to the Greens as an alternative to the two major parties. But there is also significant disillusionment in the policies and actions of these parties, so voters have been punishing them by voting conservative.
Yarra is really the only area in Australia in which there is a genuine, serious left-wing alternative to these parties on offer. By offering people this alternative and receiving significant support we have demonstrated the desperate need for, and potential success of, and new workers party that genuinely fights for the interests of working people. Neither Labor or the Greens are that party, as they both unashamedly back the interests of big-business.
The Spark: How does your approach differ from capitalist parties?
MG: Our approach differs dramatically because we are fighting for a entirely different society; one based on public ownership and democratic decision making from below. The Labor and Greens councillors would prefer to make decisions behind closed doors. If fact, they complain when we mobilise residents into community campaigns and encourage them to speak at council meetings! Unlike them, we believe what happens in the council chambers is secondary to what happens on the streets and in the workplaces of our community.
The Spark: What are your plans for the coming period?
MG: We plan to continue what we have been doing in Yarra. While there have been small victories, there are many more battles to fight. There is currently a class war going on in the inner-city, with developers running riot. These developers are fully backed up by the pro-big business, anti-worker state government and local councils, and ordinary residents are left with no-one representing their interests.
While we are not opposed to development, we need to fight for sustainable development that provides a decent standard of living for residents new and old. We want communities, not middle class ghettos. This also means fighting for an increase to public services and community infrastructure. On this and other issues we will continue to help residents organise against a system based on corporate profit rather than human need.