Labor’s disastrous result in Western Australia’s Senate election re-run will sound an alarm in party headquarters.
To achieve just under 22 per cent of the vote when the Abbott government is only treading water in opinion polls is an indictment of the modern ALP.
Its campaign was handicapped from the start.
The preselection of Joe Bullock, a union heavyweight, for the top spot on Labor’s senate ticket over sitting senator Louise Pratt was a symptom of union-dominated factionalism at its worst.
It also denied Labor a lead candidate with a relatively strong public profile.
The party was so concerned that federal leader Bill Shorten named popular Perth MP Alannah MacTiernan as shadow parliamentary secretary for WA, and included her in his media appearances.
Not only did a sitting senator get rolled by her own party, it was revealed in the final week of the campaign that Bullock had also publicly derided Pratt.
Many Labor figures are seizing on the five-point swing away from Labor as the wake-up call the party needs.
MacTiernan puts it down to the concentration of power in too few hands.
“We are not focused, in many instances, on selecting the best candidate.”
Former state Labor leader Geoff Gallop also points to the problem of vested interests within the party.
“Twenty-one per cent of the vote is absolutely appalling,” he says.
He believes Labor has a number of choices: “Is it a reforming party focused on accountability or is it a party that’s just sitting there, controlled by a couple of vested interests, not producing good candidates, not producing policies attractive to people or does it really want to take politics seriously?”
The main beneficiaries of Labor’s woes have been the Australian Greens, who comfortably secured the seat of Scott Ludlam – one of their best performers – with a 6.4 per cent swing.
Large numbers of Left-leaning Labor voters appear to have opted for the Greens, potentially boding ill for metropolitan Labor-held seats elsewhere the country.
It now falls to Shorten to set out a path for the party’s future, something the former Australian Workers Union national secretary and Right faction powerbroker has been thinking about for a while.
He argues Labor doesn’t have an image or message problem. Rather it needs to change “ourselves”.
The first step will be to convince state branches to drop the requirement that membership applicants be members of a relevant union.
Doing so is likely to encourage people from a broader range of backgrounds, diluting the power of factions based around trade unions.
The second step is to empower new members to have a say on everything from their local candidate – through plebiscites – to the federal leader and the policies he or she stands for.
NSW Labor members will get a taste of this ahead of the March 2015 state election when primaries are used to select candidates and generate a corps of community supporters.
But Shorten can’t afford to throw the baby out with bathwater.
He will need to reinforce those aspects of the union movement that are principled and popular: standing up for the pay and conditions of workers, collective action and a fair and just social safety net.
Such messages are likely to get lost as the government steps up its attack on union corruption.
The opposition leader has some big challenges ahead.