The Labor party is the oldest political party in Australian history. It was formed with reference to early trade unions and has maintained close relationships with trade unions since. Its platform has generally been progressive, whether social, political or economic, which has not always been to the liking of the typically conservative Australian electorate. Given the core allegiance to the working man, it was simple to oppose it with the aspirations of the upwardly mobile, business-orientated class. In fact, the recognition of the existence of class in Australia by Labor has been a focus of hot contention by its detractors. In terms of electoral success, Labor has been fitful in government, often more effective as an opposition because of its relative lack of long-term government experience - the longest period of government Labor enjoyed was that between 1983-1996 - and often its party structure has made the pursuit of federal election more challenging for would-be Labor PM's than their Liberal counterparts.
Labor is branch-driven; it also has intake from the trade union movement, sometimes to its political detriment. The state organizations are not as influential on the Federal Caucus as they used to be, which now is the central Federal body governing party matters, particularly the parliamentary branch. The Caucus determines the parliamentary leader and is often factional-driven. This structure puts more limitations on the freedom of the leader but also provides stronger party direction since no one leader is dominating it. When this structure works, it works well, when it doesn't, the party is usually in Opposition. However that is preferable to the greater "boom and bust" cycles of the conservative parties, which is one reason why Labor is old and relatively stable. It's only had one major schism, during the 1950's when Menzies engineered an ideological crisis; conversely such crises destroy conservative parties.
The ALP is divided into two organisational factions.
- Socialist Left (Labor Left): the left-leaning faction of the Labor Party is traditionally the minority faction which advocates a more interventionalist economic policy and more progressive social policy championing such as issue as women's and gay rights as well as a more independent less US based foreign policy. Since this faction is the minority faction, Labor leaders are rarely from the Left factions with a few exceptions, eg. Julia Gillard who led the party with the support of the Labor Right.
- Labor Unity (Labor Right): is the moderate leaning faction of the Labor Party. The majorty faction which advocates a more economically liberal and socially conservative policies than the Labor Left faction as well as a more US centred foreign policy. The Right Faction has championed most of the free market Labor reform such as the removal of the Australia's protectionist tariffs, floating the exchange rate and banking deregulation. Due to this faction being the majority faction, most Labor leaders have been from the Right faction such as Kevin Rudd, Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and the incumbant leader Bill Shorten
As the leader of the Labor Party is normally from the Labor Unity (Labor Right) faction (currently Bill Shorten) as a compromise the ALP deputy leader is usually a member from the Left (Currently Tanya Plibersek). This situtation is usually reversed in the Senate with a Left faction Senate Leader (Penny Wong) and a Right faction deputy.
Party elder and Labor Senator John Faulkner has even described the faction system as being based on patronage rather than ideology, suggesting that the factions are merely power based divisions rather than real policy differences.
It has become politically incorrect to refer to a socialist agenda, but Labor has always had a pluralist, socially-oriented approach to economic and political ideology. This is not to disguise the will to power, only to recognise there should be a broader spectrum of opinion and opportunity. Thus Labor ideology risks being seen as a less direct political force than its conservative counterparts. Labor has always argued that a social agenda is safer for the stability of society rather than the Liberal assumption of trickle-down improvement. Increasingly though, the desire to win government has forced Labor politicians to match conservative agendas; this is not entirely unreasonable considering the conservatives hijacked the economic agenda of the 1980's to start with, and continued to (unreasonably) claim the economic high ground during the late 90's through 2000's.
Labor won government in 2007, and had a hefty task to redress many of the shortcomings of a decade of Liberal rule, not least the future challenges of economic change. After a coup ousting Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard became PM, taking the ALP into a second term in 2010, albeit as a minority government. The Liberal reaction, after failing to convince the key independents to form government, was to claim the PM was "unelected".
Many former ALP supporters have defected to the more left-leaning Greens; of particular concern is the lock-step between the major parties on asylum seekers.
If people want to make a truly meaningful social and political change in this country that they should instead become a volunteer