So many commentators treat electoral politics as somehow reflecting the mood of ‘the nation’ as if it had a collective psyche. A few years ago ‘Australia’ was relaxed and comfortable, aspirational, sick of out-of-touch inner-city elites. Now ‘Australia’ is ready for change. The Coalition lost ‘the Australian people’ by going too far with Work Choices and ignoring the mood of the nation on climate change.
What actually happened was that a net six per cent of voters switched from the Coalition to Labor since 2004. The great Australian mood swing involved just over one in twenty.
The parties’ electoral strategists don’t see politics like the above commentators. They see things much more concretely. It’s that six per cent margin that counted.
So when Rudd claims a mandate against the left of his own party, against the unions, against the public service, he’s being dishonest. Rudd surfed the centripetal force of modern electioneering to get where he is. It was chasing that six per cent that put him there.
The fun bit of Saturday was when the Coalition got hammered. The sweetest moments were Howard (probably) losing Bennelong and Mal Brough’s much-deserved wipeout. There is something in the view that the ‘mood of the country’ has shifted – but it’s a consequence of the change in government, not a cause. It’s a morale boost for everyone left of the Liberals, and it changes the media playing field, precisely because it’s the journos who believe all that crap about the ‘mood of the country’.
But the less fun bit was watching Rudd’s ALP fill the vacuum. I say ‘Rudd’s ALP’ advisedly, because it’s not really the Labor Party of many of its members. ALP eminence and long time past president Barry Jones explained himself last year that the members and volunteers tend to be well to the left of the parliamentary party, but their energy is sucked away to the benefit of a party of the Centre Right.
The worst thing about the election – from the point of view of the Labor faithful themselves, surely, once the euphoria fades - is that it validates the strategy of the nomenklatura: what the US Democrats call ‘triangulation’, what Jones calls ‘small target’, and what Kim Beazley described as ‘under the radar’. It’s the recognition – entirely realistic – that it’s the six per cent, who once voted for the Coalition but could be turned, that count. The basic idea is that “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them”, so the best thing for the opposition to do is, in Jones’s words:
insist that they are above or between Left and Right in the political spectrum, emphasise immediate self-interest, avoid any public commitment to ethical or ideological causes, and never show courage in tackling unpopular issues. Pragmatism is everything. ["Where are we coming from? Where are we going?" in Coming to the Party, 2006: p. 17]
It’s a strategy that rules out any departure from the status quo, no matter who is in power. (At least, no departure for political reasons: there has been plenty of change in Australian society, but little of it has depended on one party or other being in government.) But it’s an eminently rational strategy given the environment, and it’s hardly surprising that natural selection hones parties into machines for pursuing it.
Where does that leave the left? There’s a large number of us, really, inside and out of the ALP, and certainly more than six per cent of the electorate. On many issues we are well in the majority. It’s easy to diagnose the environment that generates the strategy that locks in the status quo. But that brings us no closer to strategies of our own.
My ultra-leftist devil, who is always talking about structure, thinks working with the Greens is a fool’s game. He sees the ALP volunteers as mugs, wasting their energy to support the state. And a Green is just another kind of ALP volunteer, since the preferences flow with the same effect. As a commenter at Leftwrites put it, you can see the Greens as a pressure valve for Labor, enabling it to move to the right because those who defect maintain the Pure Soul illusion of opposition without threatening the ALP’s two-party-preferred vote.
But my social democratic angel, who is always talking about agency, is more optimistic. The Greens are not the only way to change the political environment. But they could be part of it, if they redouble efforts to join with the traditional Labor base in the unions and public service.
In the coming months the ALP is not going to sustain the left’s euphoria. Rudd means what he says about taking on the unions and the left. He stated outright before the election that fighting inflation was going to be the government’s first priority. Yesterday he promised an elevation in the importance of Treasury advice. He has been throwing around the term ‘razor gang’, and not as a bugbear.
The Greens directly attacked Labor on industrial relations and public services during the election, and some tried to make it the centre of the Green message. I think there’s potential for the Greens to start seriously threatening the ALP base in the urban centres if it’s prepared to follow this up. Go for the most politically conscious section of the union movement. Ask loudly why Labor won’t overturn the most egregiously offensive elements of Work Choices (the ABCC building industry police force) or the most industrially important (the ban on pattern bargaining). And why is it talking ’razor gang’?
The Greens seem worth getting involved with if they’re serious about this, because they’re the only force presently putting any fear into the ALP leadership. The fall in the ALP primary vote genuinely does worry them. They needed Greens preferences to win in more than 20 electorates this time around. As Lindsay Tanner – soon to be Finance Minister – put it in Jones’s book:
The end result has been a downward shift in the Labor primary vote, from the high forties to the high thirties. As Labor has become more entangled in the contradictions between its major support bases, more of its tertiary-educated supporters have shifted their allegiance to the Greens.
While this loss of support to the Greens only threatens a handful of Labor seats, including mine, and it is reasonable to assume that any Green MPs would probably vote for a Labor government, the threat is very serious. The Australian electoral system rewards parties that poll more than one-third of the primary vote, and punishes those that fall below it. We cannot afford for our primary vote to fall much further, and we cannot afford any more hollowing out of our activist and membership base. ["Let's Start the Attacks", in Jones, 2006: pp. 209-10]
If the Greens want to really hit the ALP leadership, they should go for its union base. The Green Party is hardly now seen as a working class party, but if it keeps making the effort, there is a chance it could be.