Australia: Yarra Council – One in five people vote socialist across city

Socialists increase vote and retain Stephen Jolly’s seat

October 27 saw elections take place across Victorian councils. The Socialist Party stood five candidates in the City of Yarra municipality which is located in the inner north of Melbourne.

The press widely reported these elections being some of the ‘dirtiest’ in recent times. In many electorates reports of stolen ballots, scuffles between candidates, and misrepresentations of party affiliations were the dominant focus.

In contrast, the Yarra Council election was much more political. It was one of the few places where there were genuine differences between the candidates: the choice in Yarra was between the Socialist Party and the establishment forces of the Labor Party, Greens and right-wing independents.

The Socialist Party had two sitting Councillors going into the election. Stephen Jolly was first elected in 2004 with 12.34% and was re-elected in 2008 after topping the polls with 29.18%. Anthony Main was elected in early 2011 after a Labor Councillor resigned. Main polled 5.55% and was elected on preferences.

The Council has 9 seats divided into 3 separate wards (3 seats in each ward). To be elected candidates need to win 25% plus 1 vote. Preferences are allocated until 3 candidates in each ward reach this target. The goal of the Socialist Party in this election was to retain Stephen Jolly’s seat in the Langridge ward and to increase our vote and deepen our support base in the other two wards, Nicholls and Melba.

It was clear on election day that many people voted for Labor or the Greens on the basis of state or federal issues. As the Socialist Party does not have the same national profile as these parties, we needed to actively win every vote we received.

We were also up against difficult objective conditions for socialists given the fact that the mining boom in Australia is giving people a false sense of security about the state of the economy and the system in general.

However, at a national level there is much disappointment in the federal Labor government. While the Greens are in de facto coalition with Labor they have been able to maintain an illusion of distance to some extent. Because of this they are still seen by many as a progressive alternative to the two major parties. However, there have also been some swings against the Greens in recent elections in various parts of Australia.

On Yarra Council the Greens and the Labor Party have also been in coalition from 2008 – 2012. They have shared the position of Mayor and have jointly voted for neo-liberal budgets. They have overseen year on year over inflation rate rises, cuts to some services and the attempted sell off of Council assets – although they claimed the opposite during the campaign!

In the lead up to the election the Greens were desperately trying to decouple themselves from Labor. To this end they had some success. Labor has been faring poorly in the polls nationally and the Greens recognised that if they were seen to be in partnership they too could lose support.

While in coalition locally, federally and in some states, in the inner suburbs of Melbourne the Greens are the major electoral challenger to Labor. The area of Yarra is part of the federal seat of Melbourne – the only lower house seat that Labor has lost to the Greens. The difference in Yarra compared to other inner city Councils is that it is also the only place that the Greens face a credible left-wing challenge in the Socialist Party.

Left-wing challenge to the Greens

It was clear from the election results that the work of the Socialist Party in the area is starting to become more widely recognised. For over 25 years now we have been involved in community campaigns in the area. Since 2004 we have also been the voice of opposition in the Council Chamber.

In this election, city wide, we managed to increase our vote from 12.16% in 2008 to 19.59% in 2012, with almost one in five people across the municipality voting socialist. This is by far the best result achieved by socialists anywhere in Australia in recent history.

Given that many people do not follow politics at a local level we see our vote as much more conscious than the votes for the other parties. While there is a layer who vote for the Socialist Party because we are anti-capitalist, most people who vote for us do so because they have been touched by our work or appreciate our local campaigning.

Our long term and consistent approach to community campaigning has meant that we have been successful in eating into the electoral support of the Labor Party and the Greens. Our highest votes were recorded at the booths where public housing tenants voted in big numbers, most of whom previously voted Labor.

At the Fitzroy Town Hall pre-poll booth near the Fitzroy estate we won 38.2%. At Collingwood College near the Collingwood estate we won 37.9% and at the Richmond estate, the biggest public housing estate in Victoria, and a stronghold of the Labor Party, we won an impressive 26% of the vote.

The Labor vote across Yarra went down by 1.88% while the Socialist Party vote increased by 7.43%. The Greens managed to increase their vote by 6.65% but this was largely due to the fact that they appealed to a more conservative constituency.

Many of the Greens candidates were extremely right-wing and would find themselves just as much at home in the Liberal Party. In fact one Greens candidate proudly described himself a Green with Liberal Party values while another was a former CEO.

Despite winning almost 20% of the vote the Socialist Party was rewarded with only 1 seat on the Council. In contrast the Labor Party won only 24.83% and was rewarded with 3 seats.

Langridge ward

Stephen Jolly, standing for the Socialist Party in the Langridge ward increased his vote to an impressive 34.24%. He topped the polls for the second time in a row. Stephen is by far the most popular Councillor at Yarra and is widely respected for his many years of struggle in the area.

Second elected in the Langridge ward was the lead Greens candidate, and the 2012 Labor Party Mayor scraped into the final spot on preferences. In the Langridge ward the Labor vote was reduced by 2.4%. With just a few hundred more votes it would have been possible for our second candidate, Mel Gregson, to be elected on preferences. Together Mel Gregson and Stephen Jolly won 37.06% of the vote – the highest of any party.

Melba ward

Our other sitting Councillor Anthony Main stood in the Melba ward this time around. The Socialist party has never had a Councillor on this area. It is also the area of Yarra where the Labor Party is strongest.

Anthony was asked by the party to change from Nicholls to the Melba ward given the huge amount of inappropriate development taking place in the area and the utter incompetence of the right-wing Labor, Greens and Independent Councillors. The Socialist Party Councillors have initiated and been involved in campaigns in this area, particularly in struggles between ordinary residents and big developers. In 2008 we polled a mere 2.13% in this ward.

This was always going to a difficult position to win but given the circumstances we did extremely well. Anthony polled 11.74% of the vote beating two sitting Councillors including a former Mayor. The first position was won by the Labor Party. Uniquely they managed to increase their vote, partly through the luck of appearing on the top of the ballot paper but largely because of the absence of the ‘ALP endorsed’ Independent that stood in 2008.

The Greens also managed to increase their vote – in this case by 15.14%. It seemed that the Greens won most of this increase from a conservative layer who voted for one or another of the right-wing Independents last time around.

The Labor Party won the first seat in Melba with the Greens winning the second. The third spot ended up being a close race between Anthony Main from the Socialist Party and Phillip Vlahogiannis, a right-wing Independent.

There was much speculation during the campaign about the motivations of Vlahogiannis. He claimed to stand against inappropriate development and against the overuse of parking waivers in new blocks of units, yet he decided to preference the Labor Party – the party who stand for exactly the opposite!

To make matters worse he was also photographed handing out Labor Party how-to-vote cards at a pre-polling booth. This suggests that he may be a Labor Party ‘stooge’ candidate, put there to edge out Labor’s opponents. Unfortunately these facts were ignored by the mainstream media and he managed to avoid any serious criticisms during the campaign.

He managed to win a significant vote amongst the large Greek community and received preferences from another right-wing Independent and from the Labor Party. This pushed him just in front of Anthony Main, winning him the last spot in the Melba ward.

Nicholls ward

The Nicholls ward was where we won our second Council seat via a count back in 2011, winning 5.55% in the last election. Due to the work that we have done in this area over the past two years, our candidates Chris Dite and David Elliott managed to almost double our vote to 10.81%.

Again a few hundred more votes at the expense of the Labor Party in this ward could have seen Chris Dite elected on preferences. In the end the Greens won the first position and right-wing Independent Jackie Fristacky won the second position. The Labor candidate scraped into the last spot on preferences and thanks to an advantageous position on the ballot paper, despite seeing Labor’s vote drop by 5.15% since 2008.

Mass campaign

While most of our vote came from a conscious layer of supporters our election campaign played a significant role in popularising our ideas and consolidating our support. Over the course of about 2 months we managed to letterbox over 90,000 leaflets and knock on the doors of almost 15,000 homes. We did regular street stalls and put up thousands of posters across the municipality.

All up more than 150 people helped during the campaign. Alongside our polling both volunteers, letterboxers and door knockers, dozens of musicians, comedians, DJs, film makers and artists helped with fundraising and publicity for the campaign.

Our long term work and active campaigning in Yarra has meant the term socialism has been rebranded in the area. Rather than socialist ideas being seen as a relic of the past, Socialist Party members are seen as the best fighters against big developer greed, for more council services and as the best representatives of ordinary people residents and public housing tenants.

In 2002 three Socialist Party candidates won 3.5% across Yarra. In 2004 our three candidates won 4.5% and in 2008 we won 12.1%. Our vote this year of nearly 20% clearly shows that people are not afraid of socialist ideas if they are explained clearly and made relevant to people’s everyday lives.

The Socialist Party will continue to play a role in all the major struggles in Yarra and continue to win support for socialist ideas amongst a growing layer of people. While campaigning Councillors can play a useful auxiliary role, as we have shown in Yarra, real change happens when people organise and mobilise in their workplaces, in their communities and on the streets.

The challenge ahead for the Socialist Party is expand this work, side by side with building our organisation so that we can spread these examples beyond Yarra. Stephen Jolly will continue to be the voice of opposition to the establishment parties inside the Council Chamber and we will continue to campaign on the ground.

This election demonstrated that a small party like ours is able to win significant support on the basis of socialist ideas and action. This shows the potential a new mass workers party would have, with the support of left-wing unions, community groups and other activists, to replicate this success on a much wider scale.

More and more people are becoming fed up with the rightward drift of the Labor Party and the inaction of the Greens. As the mining boom winds down and economic conditions begin to worsen a growing number of workers and young people are recognising the need for an alternative way of running society. We consider our work in Yarra an important contribution towards building the political alternative that is necessary.

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November 2012