Pauline Brown, writes:
The paper by Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin, Victorian Labor, Progress and Integrity, puts forward questions about how we honour the reasons people join the Party, how we make membership more meaningful and how we recruit and keep more members.
To my dismay, the proposition that branches be reorganised and based on State electorates seems to be gaining traction. I say to my dismay as such branches would fly in the face of enabling members to have more meaningful involvement.
It would result in branches of 100s of members as with 88 state electorates and16,400 members, the average would be 180 to 200 in a branch. Some branches would obviously have more than 200.
If the decision is progressed and branches are based on state electorates, it is impossible to see how this would make membership more meaningful. In fact, it would make membership less meaningful than it is in the current branch structure. It is not possible for each member to participate in a meeting of 200 members.
C.Allen discusses the optimal size of groups and concludes that this is 25 to 75 and that beyond 75 groups become dysfunctional. These figures are relevant for groups he describes as Enterprise Groups:
“An enterprise is a systemic activity, a mutual undertaking with a common objective or focus of interest. This is the optimal size for guilds, associations, business enterprises, ‘unconferences’ and social networks — you get diversity and the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and critical mass for action, but the group is still self-manageable.”
This definition seems to be an appropriate description of a local Labor Party Branch.
In addition to the number of members in a State Electorate being too large for an effective branch, the geographical considerations for regional and rural electorates make this structure unworkable. Even taking into account the use of internet facilities such as Zoom meetings, meaningful branch membership should allow for in person attendance to a great extent.
My own electorate of Macedon for example covers 3,465 sq kms and is not the largest. It ranges from Sutton Grange in the North to Toolern Vale in the South a distance of approximately 90 kms and Shepherds Flat in the West to Darraweit Gym in the East a distance of approximately 91kms. Where could meetings be held to allow all members to attend regularly if they wish to do so? The mid-point for all members would require travelling approximately 45 kms.
The New Zealand Labour Party branch model
The NZ Labour Party provides a model of membership which I believe would be a great step forward for the Victorian Labor Party: Members can choose to be involved through local branches or policy areas or common issues.
This would mean a choice between (1) local branches, (2) policy areas such as Labor for Refugees, LEAN, Labor for Housing and others or (3) common issues such as Rainbow Labor. So full membership is based on different types of communities – place, action or interest. Then there is an option to be an Affiliate Member which allows members of unions for example to commit to a formal link with the Labor Party. Finally, there is an option for people to become a recognised Supporter such as those involved in the Community Action Network.
There is no doubt that we need to have fewer branches as the current structure enables branch stacking. I suggest that increasing the minimum size to 25 would be a step towards making membership of a local branch meaningful as well as making branch stacking more problematic.
One of the problems with the existing structure is that members are moved into different branches when electorate boundaries change. This has a very demoralising effect on a number of members who are part of a community of Labor Party members. When this occurs, it is essential to ask the members which branch they want to belong to if we are to respect their membership of the Party.
We should allow members to remain in the branch of their choice even if their address has been moved into a different electorate.
Finally, if we are to value the members let’s drop the expression “rank and file members” and call ourselves Party members.