Australia: Socialist Party councillor re-elected in Yarra, Melbourne

Socialism is alive and well in Yarra.

The suburbs of Yarra in Melbourne’s inner north are abuzz after the massive socialist vote last Saturday 29 November at the Council election. After squeezing into the third elected position of the Langridge Ward in 2004, the Socialist Party’s Stephen Jolly was re-elected in 2008 with a huge increase.

Jolly received 29.2% of the vote beating both the Labour Party and the Green candidates. With a total of 3,185 votes, Jolly won more votes than any other candidate in Yarra! This has happened in an area that had been a heartland for the Labour Party throughout the 20th Century, and in this decade saw the first election of a Green Councillor and the first Green Mayor in Australia.

The Age reported this week “Socialism is alive and well in Yarra, with the nation’s only socialist councillor Stephen Jolly returned with strong support.” The Yarra Leader quoted Stephen saying: “One message is clear: the term ’socialism’ and ‘Socialist Party’ in this historically influential part of Australia has been rebranded to be identified with fighters for public housing tenants, against dodgy developers, for childcare and kindergartens, for real action on the environment.”

A vote for change

In the previous election in 2004 all sitting Councillors were easily re-elected. This time three Councillors (2 Greens and 1 Independent) lost their seats with big swings away from them. A second Independent saw a drop in her vote from 25% to 22% and the lead Labour candidate in Langridge Ward went from 28% in 2004 to only 15.4% on Saturday!

The Greens lead candidate in Langridge went from 40% in 2004 to 26% on Saturday. These figures indicate that there was a vote for change and a vote of opposition to the majority on Council over the past four years. The swing to the Socialist Party reflects an endorsement of our policies on Council.

For every three new votes SP got, approximately two came from Labour and one from the Greens – we are therefore building up support amongst working class voters plus a layer of disappointed Green voters.

In the Langridge Ward this time the total Green vote was 36%, which is lower than the 40% they achieved at the last election. This is in contrast to the two other wards in Yarra where their vote increased. This shows that a layer of people who usually vote for the Greens in Langridge have now moved over to support the Socialist Party.

As one voter said, referring to the Socialist Party’s campaigning around the environment, “I’m voting for the Socialist Party because they’re greener than the Greens”.

Eating in to the Labour vote

However, the bulk of the increase in the Socialist Party vote came from people who usually vote Labour. In 2004 the Labour Party won 35.7% of the vote. This time their vote dropped to 28.5%. A lot of this support has now shifted to the Socialist Party.

This shift to the Left is seen also in the broader figures. In 2002, three SP candidates won 3.5% across Yarra, by 2004 our three candidates won 4.5% and now in this election our three candidates won 12.1%. Inside the Langridge Ward, this swing is more pronounced.

The vote for the Socialist Party in Langridge Ward increased more than 170 per cent since the last election in 2004! Then, the Socialist Party stood 3 candidates gaining a combined total vote of 14.4 per cent.

There are several reasons for the good vote that the Socialist Party achieved in the Langridge ward. The first is that Stephen Jolly has been by far the hardest working Councillor in the area. Not only has Jolly been extremely active and responsive to residents concerns, but he is also seen as an anti-establishment councillor and a class fighter.

Jolly has played a key role in many community struggles, not only in the past 4 years but since the early 1990s in the area. He has worked extensively with public housing tenants on the Fitzroy and Collingwood housing estates and it was here that SP received big votes.

Economic downturn

The Socialist Party not only concentrated on local issues during the campaign but they linked local concerns to the broader economic situation. One SP leaflet said:

“With an economic downturn fast approaching it matters who you elect as your local councillor. While the Federal Government has promised some money to Councils for major infrastructure projects, this will go side by side with slashing local services in order to save a few dollars.”

“We believe that ordinary people should not be made to pay for the economic crisis. Our record is one of campaigning against cuts in our area and consistently standing on the side of residents.”

“We campaign for a Council that stands against any cuts and does everything possible to protect local residents and staff. Residents need campaigning councillors that will stand up against State and Federal Governments. If you agree, we urge you to vote for the Socialist Party on November 29.”

It is clear that a significant layer of residents saw the Socialist Party as the best placed to represent them in a time of economic downturn. To a certain extent Labour, in power at a federal and state level, were seen as part of the problem. At the same time the Greens have had councillors in Yarra since 2001 but have failed to deliver anything of substance.

Other socialist candidates

The Socialist Party stood two other candidates in the other wards of Yarra. Anthony Main stood in the Nicholls ward and Denise Dudley stood in the Melba ward. With only a limited amount of resources, the party was unable to run extensive campaigns in these areas. The areas were only letterboxed once and only a fraction of the polling stations were staffed on the day.

Nevertheless these candidates still received some credible results. Anthony Main won 5.5% of the vote (562 votes) and Denise Dudley won 2.1% of the vote (246 votes). This is a good base to build on and it is hoped that by the next election we will be in a position to run thorough campaigns across all three wards in Yarra.

In other areas of Victoria the Socialist Alliance (SA) stood several candidates in the elections and also received some good results. In Maribyrnong their candidates received 18.9% and 12.4% of the vote respectively. In one of the wards they beat the Greens’ candidate.

In Geelong their two candidates won 11.8% and 10.8% of the vote and in Moreland the three SA candidate combined won 9 per cent. In Queenscliff their candidate won 3.2% of the vote.

Members of SA have suggested that the increase in their vote can be attributed to more of a focus on local issues, coupled with some disillusionment in the Greens.

The Greens

On a broader national scale the Greens are still seen as an alternative to the major parties. But in Yarra the Socialist Party has helped to expose their weaknesses and this is why some of their vote has leaked to SP.

Professional campaign

The Socialist Party’s election campaign in Langridge Ward was the by far the most professional and best organised campaign ever run by the organisation. Almost 75,000 leaflets were letterboxed throughout Yarra and 10,000 homes were systematically door knocked.

This was on top of weekly street stalls that the party has run in the area over the past four years and the extensive door knocking done by Stephen Jolly in his capacity as Councillor. The candidates also performed very well in the handful of debates that were held.

The challenge for the Socialist Party in the period ahead is to build the party and our resources so that we will be able to run proper campaigns in all of the wards of Yarra in 2012.

While this victory for the socialist movement is modest, it shows what is possible with the right approach. What the Socialist Party has shown the broader labour movement is the potential enthusiastic electoral support from voters, even middle class voters, for policies focusing on workers rights, public housing, more child care and better planning.

If the Socialist Party can do this with a tiny budget and small party, imagine what a new mass workers’ party could do if it had the resources that are currently pumped into the Labour Party by trade unions.

Over the next four years the SP will continue to represent and fight for the interests of local residents and use the position as a platform for resistance to the cuts and attacks on ordinary people that are coming in the next period. We will also use the position to continue advocating for a new mass workers party in Australia.

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December 2008