The oldest continuing political party in Australia, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) emerged from a working-class movement at the end of the 19th century, but by the end of the 20th had become a 'catch all' party offering a program of moderate social democratic reform, tempered by a carefully calculated electoral pragmatism. Its main objective has been to win government and use state agencies to enhance the rights of ordinary people as workers and citizens. Over the long term, its policies have tended to emphasise political democracy, economic equity and social justice, with occasional genuflexions to more astringent ideologies. In recent years it has been in government at State and Commonwealth levels for sustained periods but for most of the 20th century it was less successful. Despite occasional internal splits and recurring electoral failure, the ALP, along with its affiliated trade unions and associated social movements, has had a significant place in Melbourne's political culture since the end of the 19th century.
Balancing an uneasy alliance of trade unionists and progressive social reformers during the 1890s, the party's founders struggled to separate working-class voters from their attachment to a protectionist social liberalism. This was reflected in Labor's early iterations as the Progressive Political League between 1891 and 1894, the United Labor and Liberal Party of Victoria from June 1894, the United Labor Party from 1896 and, finally from 1901, the Political Labor Council of Victoria, which became a State branch of the newly formed Australian Labor Party. At the same time, socialists had a significant influence both within the party and in competition with it. In 1906 a diverse and disputatious Left coalesced around the Victorian Socialist Party where an overlapping membership with the ALP provided both a stimulating intellectual tension and a fertile training ground for young activists like John Curtin, some of whom later became Labor leaders. Over the course of the ALP's history, five federal parliamentary leaders either came from Melbourne or had significant power bases there. They were Frank Tudor, Jim Scullin, Arthur Calwell, Bob Hawke and Simon Crean.
For the first quarter of the 20th century Victorian Labor was at the centre of Australian politics, and until 1927 both the State and Commonwealth parliaments met in Melbourne. This required the party to address issues ranging from municipal minutiae to State policies on issues such as health, education and economic development all the way up to the political architecture of nation-building in the Commonwealth Parliament. The results were uneven. Local activism, while building a solid democratic base in the branches, occasionally spawned corrupt political machines in places like Richmond. However, the ALP's electoral isolation in working-class suburbs such as Port Melbourne, Brunswick and Collingwood kept it out of office in Victoria for all but four and a half months until 1927. In the Commonwealth Parliament, meanwhile, federal Labor was in office at different times for more than six years by the end of 1916. Accordingly, Labor in Melbourne tended to be preoccupied with wider, national concerns.
In 1916 one of these issues, military conscription for overseas service, provoked the first major split in the ALP when Labor Prime Minister Hughes led his supporters out of the party. Again, much of the action centred on Melbourne, where the trade union organisation opposed to conscription was based. Many associated peace groups were also located in the city. The split demonstrated how a mass party based on trade union and branch membership was, at best, an unstable alliance of organisations, interests and individuals. That instability was a recurring problem for the ALP, which split at both State and federal level over economic policy in the early 1930s when union calls for unemployment relief clashed with the political demands of national honour over debt repayments. In the mid-1950s a factional dispute over Catholic influence in the party provoked a bitter sectarian split. Those splits also emphasised the chronic tension between Labor's industrial and political wings, intensified by the presence of the Australian Council of Trade Unions' head office in Melbourne since 1927, with trade unions often taking a more radical position than the Labor parliamentarians, particularly when the party was in government.
In Melbourne, which has a distinctive urban culture that privileges civic engagement, the Labor Party has often been associated with broader social movements in campaigns against capital punishment in the 1960s, the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, and on civil liberties and environmental issues in recent times. This tendency to take up 'good causes' has not always been electorally advantageous.
Until the 1980s, ALP governments in Victoria were a rarity. The Elmslie Government was Labor's first, but it only lasted a few days from 9 to 22 December 1913. The Prendergast ministry remained in office with Country Party support from 18 July to 18 November 1924. The second Hogan Government (1927-28 and 1929-32) split over economic policy in early 1932. Between April 1935 and September 1943, the ALP supported the Dunstan Country Party Government. Of the four ministries led by John Cain (September 1943; 1945-47; 1952-55 and March-June 1955) one, in 1947, was defeated on the federal issue of bank nationalisation and another, in March 1955, by intense sectarian divisions focused on a Catholic faction directed by B.A. Santamaria and supported by Archbishop Mannix. Victorian Labor remained more bitterly divided than any other ALP State branch until Cain's son, John, led them back to office in 1982. Despite their many achievements, the Cain and Kirner governments of 1982-92 were eventually overcome by the combination of economic recession and internal dissension within the Victorian labour movement. Chastened by this experience, the minority Bracks Government, elected in 1999, exemplified pragmatic caution in its first term, preferring electoral survival over reformist zeal. Re-elected in 2002 with, for the first time, a stable majority in both houses, it introduced historic reforms of the Legislative Council but on most other issues continued a cautious stewardship.
The Victorian Branch, which claims about 15 000 members and has its Head Office at 360 King Street, West Melbourne, is part of the national ALP's federal structure. The Branch's supreme governing and policy-making body, the State Conference meets in spring and autumn, and elects delegates to the ALP's biennial National Conference. Reflecting the party's origins in the trade union movement, 50% of delegates to the State Conference are nominated by affiliated unions, with the remaining 50% elected by local branch members. Between conferences, an Administrative Committee manages the party's affairs and maintains relations with the State Parliamentary Labor Party. An informal, boisterous and occasionally unstable factional system, based on ideology, tribal loyalty and private ambition, permeates this official structure and provides a forum for intra-party power struggles which often disproportionately consume members' energies. Between the early 1970s and late 1990s, however, three main factions, the right-wing Labor Unity, the Socialist Left and the centrist Independents maintained a degree of negotiated internal stability that enhanced the party's electoral prospects.
As a party that was based in the trade union movement but is now often embarrassed by that association, the ALP is less clear about what it stands for as it struggles to find a 'third way' between the remnants of social democracy and a currently dominant neo-liberalism. In common with all major parties, it faces a rising tide of querulous electoral scepticism as the public policy initiative shifts away from formal political institutions towards business interests, pressure groups and social movements.