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Opinion Piece

Power to the People?

Originally published at SBS Opinion 11th October 2013

Opening up the Labor leadership ballot to the rank-and-file could be extremely empowering, but let’s not stop there, writes Simon Copland.

As we come to the end of the ALP’s first ever rank-and-file leadership ballot (votes close today and the new leader will be announced on Sunday) it is worth looking at how it has all gone. One thing we can certainly take out of it – and this is not unexpected – is that the ballot seems to have invigorated many in the ALP membership. Looking at the reactions of my friends in the party, I get a real sense of empowerment by the process.

For example, last week a friend of mine tweeted:

I just voted for @AlboMP. Great to be part of the first leadership election open to and empower the membership. #historic

On Facebook, another friend said that they were excited to vote in the ‘first leadership ballot of Australia’s most democratic party’.

And I can see why. This is a vote that see members of the ALP elect the future Prime Minister of Australia – a pretty important thing indeed. Coming in as a Greens member – a party that prides itself on grass-roots democracy – it is something that I think we should discuss.

Yet, at the same time, I am extremely skeptical. Whilst at the surface a vote for the leadership seems like the epitome of a democratic party, it is actually a really shallow version of democracy. In the long-run it may have real negative effects on member empowerment – no matter which party employs it.

To explain this it is really important to look at the idea and value of leadership. ‘Leadership’ has become an all important part of our society. Academic John Storey argues:

“Despite prevailing and persisting cultural differences between certain countries, the diffusion and increasingly dominant influence of American values in recent years may also help to explain the increased attention given to leadership across much of the world. The American Dream and the focus on individualism and the can-do attitude have permeated international teaching and development in relation to how organisational leadership is viewed.

“This individualised interpretation is fuelled by the media. Business magazines such as Business Week, Fortune and the Director  are especially prone to focus on the supposed crucial impact of top managers. Even serious financial newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times tend also to profile and give huge prominence to individual personalities and attribute to them apparent critical importance.”

Just have a look at the last few years in Australian politics and you can see it. When the ALP took government, the Liberal Party spent a good two years tearing itself apart because of its leadership. When it finally settled, the ALP did exactly the same. And the media loved it – focusing heavily on leadership turmoil throughout the past six years. And this focus plays out in real terms. As the Liberal Party has taken government it has meant a massive amount of power being placed in the hands of the Prime Minister. Earlier this year, the ALP saw an automatic jump in polling of around 7-8 points when they changed leaders, even though at the time it came with absolutely no changes in policies (those were to come later). In our politics, just as in the rest of our society, leaders are seen as extremely important – vital in fact.


Labor MP Anthony Albanese emerges after the Labor party caucus meeting at Parliament House in Canberra (AAP)

And in this context, a vote for a leadership battle makes sense. If leadership is the key determining factor in the direction of a party – as it could be easily argued it is within our major parties today – then it makes sense to involve members as much as possible in the choice of that leader.

But it is here where the problem comes in. Because whilst a focus on electing a leader may seem empowering it could potentially have the opposite effect. Through placing such an influence on leadership we are placing power in the hands of the few, and actively de-skilling the rest of the population – or in this case, the party membership.

Here it is worth looking at the ideas of sociologist Gemmill and Oakley (for more information on this check out my review of their article). For Gemmill and Oakley, the growth in the focus on the leader is what they call the resurgence of the ‘great leader myth’. This is the idea that society and our organisations needs great leaders, who have particular and prescribed traits, to survive. Leaders “are unquestionabl(y) necessary for the functioning of an organisation.”

In doing so however, they argue:

“The social myth around leaders serves to program life out of people (non-leaders) who, with the social lobotimization, appear as cheerful robots (Mill, 1956). It is our contention that the myth making around the concept of leadership is, as Bennis arrests, and unconscious conspiracy, or social hoax, aimed at maintaining the status quo (Bennis, 1989).”

“Leadership theories espousing “traits” or “great person” explanations reinforce and reflect the widespread tendency of people to deskill themselves and idealise leaders by implying that only a select few are good enough to exercise initiative.”

The other way to describe that is to argue that through focusing our energy on selecting leaders, we are actively placing power into the hands of few, and in turn de-skilling and de-powering the rest of the population. If we see leaders as essential to the success of an organisation or a society, and then argue that only a certain few can access the role of a leader, then we are  actively stopping the masses from gaining access to any form of power and influence.

So what does that mean for a political party and a membership vote? Lets be clear here in that I don’t know enough about the ALP’s processes to lay judgement on how empowered ALP members are in defining the shape of their party. So I will talk in broader terms.

The issue is that if voting for the leadership is seen as the most empowering aspect of a party membership – a sense I get from many involved in the ALP at the moment – that actually has the capacity to de-skill and remove members from any real power in shaping the direction of a party.

If the focus of political party activism turns towards leadership campaigns, party members could actually remove more power from themselves and place it into the hands of party leaders. For example, if policy debates start to be solved through leadership campaigns instead of through other processes, party members could lose their rights to be involved in policy processes – instead putting that power it into the hands of one person. The only difference will be that this person will be voted on by more people – but what difference does that make if contenders have no real differences in policies (as it seems is the case with Shorten and Albanese)?

And this is where party members of all persuasions need to be careful. Because empowerment doesn’t come just from electing the person who exercises power, it comes from having that power spread out to the membership. Empowerment is not about choosing the person who decides the policies for you, but rather having an actual say over those policies yourselves (and this is where this can be played out into broader society).

Voting for a party’s leadership has the potential to be extremely empowering. But a really engaged and empowered membership of a political party, just like one of a society, is not just one that votes for a leader, but also one that actively has a role in shaping the party and the policies it develops.


About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.


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